Different Ways to Pronounce the ‘O’ Sound in French

The sound of the letter ‘O’ can vary considerably in French.Some of this is easy to learn in terms of rules but a little memory work will also be required.

The vowel ‘O’ in French can be pronounced in many different ways.Some of these are what might be termed ‘custom and practice’ and not necessarily governed by strict grammatical rules.  So, some words may differ in their pronunciation across France including the use of the ‘O’ sound. There isn’t really much alternative but to listen and follow regional variations.However, there are certain grammatical indications that can give clues about how the letter ‘O’ is pronounced in different circumstances.


The Sound ‘O’

In most circumstances, pronunciation of the ‘O’ sound isusuallyroutine – particularly when it is followed by a consonant.

  • Pont
  • Longueur
  • Objet
  • Combat

These are some of the examples where the ‘O’ sound is short, open and pronounced ‘oh’. The sound is almost identical in the English words such as ‘Pot’ and Shot.’

Sometimes the ‘O’ sound is closed, as in the English word ‘cold’. It’s a harder sound something like ‘owh’. Words like that in French include ‘Trop’ and ‘Mots’. The harder sound usually arises when the ‘O’ is the last vowel in the word. Once again, this should be routine.

When the vowel ‘O’ is followed by another vowel, things can become a little more challenging and different.

For example:

  • Poêle (a pot or stove)
  • Œil (eye)
  • Manœuvre
  • Coupon
  • Ouverture (Opening)
  • Couteaux (knives).

In all cases the sound ‘O’ is modified by the vowel following it.In the case of the first word above i.e. Poêle, the ‘O’ and ‘E’here is transformed to‘W’ or ‘wa” sound. This is often cited as being applicable to all OE combinations but some care is required due to regional variations though and you may hear it said as another long sound “ooh”.

In the case of ‘Coupon’‘Ouverture’ and ‘Couteaux’ the ‘O’ sound is largely long and stretched as in ‘ooh’ as in English word ‘Moose’.

The middle two words i.e. Œil (eye)&Manœuvreare relatively unusual in modern French and the OE here is called a ‘ligature’.  These are a hangover from ancient Greek, Latin and Mediaeval French.

Unfortunately, the pronunciation of this isn’t consistent. So, for example, the ‘oe’ ligature sound in the word ‘Œil’ (eye) is similar to the English ‘oi’ sound as in ‘Oil’. By contrast the same ligature in the word ‘œuf’ (egg) is an ‘erh’ sound closer to the way the French would pronounce the letter ‘E’ in a recitation of the alphabet.

Fortunately, there are now very few words in French that use such ligatures. They can be easily memorised. As an aside, ‘a-e’ligatures are also seen in English words such as ‘Encyclopaedia’ when spelled in academic circles – but this is now very rare.


Special Features
  • French uses ‘accents’ to help people understand how a letter should be pronounced in a given word, where some ambiguity might otherwise exist.
  • The circumflex or ‘^’ symbol can be used to indicate that at one time a letter (usually an ‘S’) followed but has since vanished. It can though also modify the pronunciation of the ‘ô’ sound.
  • This can change say the sound from a long open ‘oh’ to a short clipped and closed sound as in “hôtel” a shorter closed ‘ow’ sound.
  • No other special characters apply to ‘O’ in itself BUT do keep in mind that the ‘O’ sound can also vary depending upon the accents of the letter following it.

Although this may all seem complicated, but in reality, a little practice and it will all become routine!




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