The sounds of French words

Ha! It’s funny that I’ve used the word ‘sounds’ in the title above. In French, the word is ‘son’ and it is pronounced with a nasalised ‘o’ instead of pronouncing the ‘n’ at the end — a bit like ‘song’ in English (but not exactly: we don’t have an equivalent in English). Phonetically, it would be ‘sɔ̃’, rhyming with the French words for ‘bridge’ (pont) and ‘probe’ (sonde). To me, it sounds very similar to some other words in French which French people say are completely different. For example, the following sentence in English:

I smell the blood without feeling a hundred percent.

…would be written like this in French:

Je sens le sang sans me sentir à cent pour cent.

It might not mean a lot when pronounced in English, but that all changes in French. Here is a very rough way of writing in English how it sounds in French (keeping in mind that ‘ong’ is really a nasalised ‘o’):

Zhe song le song song ma sontear a song pour song.

It’s probably best if you get a French person to say this sentence for you. If you want the linguistic translation, it’s probably something more like: ‘ʒœsã lœsã sã mœsãtiːʁ sãopuːʁ sã’.

What I’m getting at is that a whole sentence in French can have more than one word that sounds the same, making it much harder to guess the meaning unless it’s in context. Is it any wonder I struggle with this language! I know we have ‘two’, ‘to’ and ‘too’ in English, but that seems like peanuts when compared with all the words in French that are pronounced the same way, even if written differently. And that’s not even including the French word for ‘sound’ — and any other words that sound the same when spoken — into the equation. Am I the only one?

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I'm a technical author, journalist and writer from Australia who has been living in Europe since 2000 and exploring the world from there. My passions are writing, snow sports and travel.

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17 comments on “The sounds of French words
  1. Ruby says:

    You’re so right! I’m with you. And when you don’t understand the words that give context, you have no hope!

  2. Dave says:

    And don’t get me started on vers (towards), vert (green), verre (glass), ver de terre (earthworm) and faire (to do)! Not a chance!

  3. Dave says:

    And my son (who understands French much better than I do) has just added vers (a verse) and fer (iron)…any others?

    BTW, I like all the tessellating icons down the side!

  4. April says:

    I know they’re pronounced differently by French people, but I still struggle with hearing that difference between the words ‘par’ (by) and ‘pas’ (not) – it can totally alter the meaning of the sentence, even when in context. Nasty.
    The icons are called Gravatars and you can get your own by visiting http://www.gravatar.com (that’s how I got my cow logo as a gravatar).

  5. shakesrear says:

    That reminds me of when I first moved to France. I was walking through town with some real estate men to look at an apartment. We passed by the fish stand and I said “Je sens le poisson.” There was a stifled laugh. My now-husband told me that I meant to say “Ca sent le poisson”, because otherwise, I would be saying “I smell like fish” instead of “I smell fish”.

    And April, I had the same problem early on. My boyfriend was trying to tell me to exit a roundabout “par la! par la!” and I thought he was saying “pas la!”, so of course I didn’t take the right exit.

  6. April says:

    Haha! Great roundabout AND fish story.
    That reminds me of my difficulties with poisson and poison are also quite confusing for me. If you don’t hiss the double-‘s’ in poisson (fish), it sounds like you’re saying poison (same word in English). Not good to get them mixed up.

  7. mimick says:

    Do you know this one ?

    “Si six scies scient six cyprès, six cent six scies scient quoi ?”

    Even french people are often confused by this sentence.

    The translation is :
    “If six saw saw six cypress, what does six hundred and six saw saw?”

    The answer is of course “six cent six cyprès”.

  8. April says:

    mimick, that’s a mouthful! I tried saying it slowly and it’s just as hard. One in English for you that’s quite similar: “She sells sea shells by the sea shore” but I think the French one is much harder.

  9. Bonjour –

    I know I’m late to the party, but I just stumbled across your site and have been enjoying reading a number of posts. I noticed some French mistakes in this one – I hope you don’t mind corrections.

    ‘bridge’ (ponte) > pont

    ‘egg-laying’ (sonde) > ponte. “Sonde” has numerous meanings, but none related to eggs: probe, catheter, lead line…

    >>Je sent le sang sans me sentir à cent pour cent.

    Je sens…

    >>ʒœsõ lœsõ sõ mœsõtiːʁ sõopuːʁ sõ

    You have the wrong nasal vowel – it’s actually ã for all of these, not õ (which is however the sound in the French word “son”).

    Again, sorry to jump in with a bunch of corrections, but I thought you’d like to know.

    Bonne continuation !

    Laura K. Lawless
    French Language Guide
    http://french.about.com

  10. April says:

    HI Laura,

    Wow, thanks so much for spending the time to check my post. Having a French partner clearly doesn’t help when he’s telling me the wrong word for egg laying, although I did ask him to produce the two different nasalised sounds and I really can’t hear the difference, despite his protests that they are. I’m not sure I can ever tune in to those two vowels. Who knows where this will lead me when attempting to converse in French. This is why I say “merci bien” instead of “merci beaucoup” (with the “coup” often coming out like the pronunciation of “rear end”).

  11. My husband has trouble with nasal vowels too. It’s hard to describe them, but I’ll give it a go anyway: the “on” sound is like if you said “own” but stopped just before fully pronouncing the n. And the “an” / “en” sound is sort of like if you said “lawn” without the l or n. But then it also depends on your English dialect – I’m American, so I’m obviously basing the above on my pronunciation.

    I have lots of sound files if you’d like to try working on them some more: http://french.about.com/od/pronunciation/a/vowels-nasal.htm

    It’s interesting that in the ou vs u distinction, you tend to pronounce the latter (cul, as you said above), since that is the sound that does not exist in English. “Coup” is pronounced like “coo” in English, whereas “cul” has no phonetic equivalent. I find it much harder to pronounce the latter; I have to really concentrate. Again, I have sound files that might help: http://french.about.com/od/pronunciation/a/ouu.htm

    Laura K. Lawless
    French Language Guide
    http://french.about.com

  12. April says:

    Laura, your comment was marked as spam because there were so many links in it. I’ve over-ridden it even though it does seem a bit like an infomercial.

  13. I was just trying to help. It’s pretty hard to explain pronunciation; the only way to really know how something is pronounced is to listen.

  14. April says:

    I agree Laura, and that’s why I’ve left your comment on as I’m sure many people who visit this page will indeed carry onto your information. For me personally, I think my Australian accent is too far removed from an American accent, and I can listen away to my French partner and friends, who, no matter how many times they pronounce the difference with the first sound you mention, it’s very hard to hear. I think this is why half the kids (English-speaking AND French-speaking) have a speech therapist! I can hear the difference in the second one, but pronouncing it is always a challenge (or comedy).

  15. Daisy says:

    Hi all,
    Again I am late to this post but find it interesting. If you listen to French people from the South West, their pronunciation of the an/en sound makes it much more distinguishable from the on sound. On makes my nostrils move and the back of my mouth close, whereas an/en is more open in the throat. In fact merci bien in the accent of the sud ouest can almost sound Spanish! However, I completely get you about the coup/cul mix up!

    • Wendy says:

      Oh, that accent is impossible! Just when you’ve tuned in to the vowels sounds in French, someone from down south comes along and makes every sentence one big confusing mess of sounds! Total confusion.

About me

Wendy Hollands writer in Annecy, France

I'm an experienced professional writer based in the French Alps. I enjoy learning French language nuances, winter sports and travel. Read more...

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