Phonetic transcription of French

3 December 2000
[ le lire en Français ]

Here is how the pronunciation of the French language can be transcribed.

See my companion page on the International Phonetic Alphabet for a general view on transcribing world languages.

Basic sounds


Front vowels

Here are four vowels that the lips and the back of the mouth let through very freely and without any nasal resonance. But the first one is very closed with the tongue against the roof of the mouth. The next ones are progressively more open. The fourth one is the clearest and the most open of all the vowels.

i lowercase in black  dots 2 and 4 in braille  Examples: il, vie, minuit (twice), séisme, île, huître, maïs, héroïsme, ambiguïté (2), cycle, dépaysé, ennuyer
e lowercase  dots 15  dé, jouer, assez, les, aiguë, née (2), foetus, ADN
epsilon lowercase  dots 345 
a lowercase  dot 1 

back vowels

u lowercase  dots 136 
o lowercase  dots 135 
c turned (o open on the left)  dots 126 
script a  dots 16 

rounded front vowels

y lowercase  dots 13456 
o slashed  dots 1256 
o-e ligature  dots 246 

centre vowel

e turned  dots 26  Schwa (the mouth is relaxed and depends on the surrounding sounds)

nasal vowels

epsilon tilde  dots 256-345 
o-e ligature tilde  dots 256-246 
script a tilde  dots 256-16 
open o tilde  dots 256-126 


j lowercase  dots 245  ennuyer
w lowercase  dots 2456  oui
u prolonged like h turned  dots 23456 


Some consonants are written with the usual lowercase roman letters p b t d k g ,   f v s z ,   m n l r x h ,   in black and in braille.

Some other need new symbols:

stretched s  dots 156 
yogh  dots 2346 
n hooked left leg  dots 123456 
n hooked right leg  dots 1246 
small cap r  dots 35-1235 

Local shades

We usually show a standard pronunciation, but French is actually pronounced in slightly different ways according to the location, the person and the circumstances. Sounds can get more or less voiced, open, mixed, and can appear or disappear. There are notations for intermediate cases.

ts, lj, th, ...

small superscript sounds

In black, some sounds may be written in a small superscript way.

Within the IPA notation it means that the previous sound is slightly modified and gets a nuance of the superscript sound. The superscript j above for palatalized consonants is an example. There is also a braille notation of the superscript h (aspirated consonants) and the superscript w (labialized consonants). For other less common superscripts, the general braille notation is: the basic sound immediately followed by -2 immediately followed by the superscript sound, as in the following example:

    stretched ssuperscript s dots 156-2-234

But in many books, (Larousse's "Grammar of modern French" and most English dictionaries) it means something else, namely that in some cases the superscript sound is pronounced normally and in other cases it isn't pronounced at all. So it is not about a special shade of it. It is about two different pronunciations that could have been written as two normal transcriptions.

The book this web page is based on doesn't speak of this second use, but I think it's alright to use the same notation in braille too.

Rhythm and melody

Notation of stress, length, breaks, and tones They are used in the same order in black and in braille.

long apostrophe dots 45     long comma dot 4     primary and secondary stress (immediately before a syllable)
triangular colon dots 25     upper triangle dot 3     long and half-long (immediately after a sound symbol)


left square bracket dots 56-2356     right square bracket dots 56-2356     phonetic transcription start and end (the two same symbols in braille) (immediately around most phonetic transcriptions and isolated symbols).

Note: This has changed since 1932. Both brackets are now dots 45-2356 .

It's not always necessary to use these phonetic starts and ends, for example in tables or when speaking of a single symbol.

Many symbols (most modifiers and some sounds like dots 26) are difficult to read at the proper level when they are surrounded by spaces in braille. They need to be followed or preceded by the fully-dotted character dots 123456, like dots 26dots 123456, or further described with a comment like (dots 2-6) -- or in French (pts 2-6). Or whatever expression is usual in these cases to help identify the dots.

In addition, the fully-dotted character dots 123456 is also useful with the modifier symbols to show where the modified letter or group of letters is normally put. For example with the nasal dots 256dots 123456 and long dots 123456dots 25 symbols.

The spacing in black and in braille can be the same.

Sometimes a normal punctuation mark appears inside a phonetic transcription (bracket, period, suspension points, dash, etc.). It must be preceded with dot 6 (change of code) in braille to point out that it isn't a phonetic symbol. The comma dot 2 and the exclamation mark dots 235 don't need it however if they are normally followed by a space.

To be continued...

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