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French pronunciation (ctd): the French (open) eu and (close) eux vowels

French has two vowels both written with the letter combination eu. We'll refer to these vowels as eu and eux, because the second is often spelt eux when it occurs on the very end of a word.

In a handful of words (including soeur, "sister"), these vowels are written oeu.

As with the e vowels and o vowels, there is actually some variation as to when speakers choose to use the open/close vowels. However, there are also cases where one or the other is necessary.

The (close) eux vowel

The eux vowel is pronounced with the tongue in a similar position to the close e vowel, but with the lips rounded. It commonly occurs at the very end of a word, and is sometimes (though not always) written eux in that case. Some common examples:

eux "them"
feu "fire"
peu "little"
ceux "those"
deux "two"
veux "(I) want"
yeux "eyes"
vieux "old"

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The (open) eu vowel

The open eu vowel is pronounced with the tongue in a similar position to the open e vowel (that occurs, for example, in the word sept). But as with eux, the lips are rounded.

This open variety of the vowel tends to occur in syllables that end in a consonant, as in the following examples. Notice how peu and ceux both end in the close eux vowel (because this vowel is the final sound of these words— remember the final -x isn't pronounced as such), whereas in the other words (which end in at least one pronounced consonant), the pronunciation has the open eu vowel.

peu "little"
peuple "people"
ceux "those"
seul "only, alone"
eux "them"
heure "hour, time"

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On the next page, we look at French nasalised vowels: vowels where the speaker makes the air flow out through both the nose and the mouth.