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French pronunciation (ctd): the French u and ou vowels

French has two "u vowels", written respectively with a single letter u and with the combination ou. From now on, we'll refer to them as the u and ou vowels.

The French u vowel

The French vowel written with a single letter u is similar to the English vowel that occurs in many British speakers in words such as do, shoes (and notably in Scottish English and in the speech of younger speakers from the south of England). It is produced with the tongue and mouth in a similar position to the French i vowel (and similar to the English ee vowel in cheese), but with the lips rounded.

Mistakes to avoid when pronouncing this vowel:

Note from some of the following examples that the u vowel is sometimes followed by an e in the spelling, but that this e doesn't affect the pronunciation (unless it is written with an accent). Notice again how -s and -t on the ends of words generally aren't pronounced in French.

tu "you"
vue "view, vision"
fut "was"
jus "juice"

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The French ou vowel

The French ou vowel is produced with the tongue raised towards the back of the mouth, in a higher position to the close o sound, and with the lips rounded. In other words, it is similar to a vowel that some English speakers— particularly older southern British speakers— have in words like zoo, food.

tout "all, everything"
vous "you (all)"
fou "mad"
joue "(I) play, (he/she) plays"

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Distinguishing between u and ou

The French u and ou vowels are essentially distinguished by the position of the tongue: in u, the tongue is held far forward in the mouth, with the highest part of the tongue close to the alveolar ridge (see the introduction). In ou, on the other hand, the tongue is pulled towards the back of the mouth.

It is important to try and make the difference between these vowels, because there are a number of pairs of French words that are distinguished by these two vowels. Listen again to the example words below, which this time are presented in pairs. Notice how the pronunciation of each pair of words differs only in whether the vowel is u or ou:

tu, tout
vue, vous
fut, fou
jus, joue

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On the next page, we look at the French eu vowels.