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French Language Lessons: Guide to Transliterations

David Ronis

For many native English-speakers, pronouncing French is problematic at best. There are a number of sounds not found in English that are difficult for us to wrap our minds, not to mention their tongues, around. Also, French spelling is complicated (well, actually, no more complicated than, say, English!).

In the Slow Travel French Language Lessons, we have devised this particular system of transliteration in order to simplify pronunciation for people who have little or no experience with French language. Simple transliterations are given for each word or expression with the understanding that they represent an approximation of the French sounds and might not yield a true, idiomatic pronunciation. That being the case, care has been taken to come up with equivalents that are as close as possible yet rendered in a consistent, "user-friendly" manner. Also, sound files for each lesson have been provided.

We feel that the best approach for learning to pronounce the words and phrases in the lessons is to use the transliterations in conjunction with the sound files. First try pronouncing on your own using the transliteration - then listen to the sound file and try again. Hopefully, with a little practice, you should have no problem being understood by native French speakers.

In this system of transliteration, a number of conventions have been employed. Hyphens appear in between syllables of one word, or a hyphenated word. Some accented syllables are capitalized (see Accented Syllables and Words below). Nasals are not directly addressed, however the vowels provided where a nasal sound would ordinarily appear are, in most cases, very close. Liaisons are indicated by red, italicized initial consonants of elided-to syllables.

Transliteration Symbols and Explanations

Vowels

By some accounts there are 15 distinct vowel sounds in French. For our purposes, we have slightly streamlined this to include 10:

  • ah as in father
  • eh* as in met
  • ay* as in stay
  • ee as in greet
  • oh as in load
  • oo as in food
  • uh as in the second syllable of "ever", British English pronunciation
  • ew as in few (with a hint of a y sound preceding the vowel)
  • a as in cat
  • wah is used for the vowel combination "oi"

* eh is used for the written "è" and "ê", ay for written "é".

Consonants

  • b as in boy
  • d as in dog
  • f as in fact
  • g as in good ("soft g", as in "gin" is not used in French)
  • k as in kite (c is not used in these transliterations)
  • l as in lemon
  • m as in morning
  • n as in noon
  • p as in paper
  • r as in root
  • s as in soda
  • t as in tax
  • v as in veto
  • w as in water
  • x as in express
  • y as in yoga
  • z as in zebra
  • sh as in shampoo
  • zh as in Zsa Zsa Gabor

Silent Final Consonants

Many final consonants in French are not pronounced. There are, of course, many exceptions. For our purposes, when what looks like a final consonant is not rendered in the transliteration, assume that it is silent. (There are cases, however, where normally un-pronounced final consonants are pronounced. See Liaison, below.)

Mute e at Ends of Words

Many French words end with a final "e" which usually indicates that the previous consonant should be pronounced. Things get more complicated, however, when a mute e follows two consecutive consonants (e.g. the word for table, "table"). In this example, both the b and l are pronounced, however it is impossible to do so without adding the "shadow vowel", uh. We will use (uh), to indicate case such as these.

Liaison

Although many final consonants in French are silent, in some cases they become "un-silent" and are elided to the next word. This is called "liaison". Here is an example: in the expression à tout à l'heure (roughly translated as "see you later"), the final "t" of tout is elided to the next word, in this case, "à" (transliteration: ah too tah luhr). The general feeling is that eliding consonants makes for a smoother flow, and thus a more elegant pronunciation.

The rules for liaison are complicated and even controversial. Many French people disagree about when liaison should be used. That said, in the commonly used phrases found in these lessons, most liaisons are not disputed. For our purposes, they will be indicated by red, italicized initial consonants tacked onto the beginning of the next word.

Accented syllables and words

As a general rule (again, with many variations and exceptions!), French words tend to be accented on the last syllable or the last syllable of a group of words. They also tend to be lighter accents than we're used to in English. In rare instances where this is not the case, or for clarification, an accented syllable will be indicated by ALL CAPS.

These are just the beginning tools for learning to pronounce French words. For those wishing further refinement, we are writing a Detailed Pronunciation Guide.


David Ronis is a classical singer, actor and translator living in New York City. www.davidronis.com

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