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Pronunciation Tip: 'u' vs. 'ou'

I just remembered something I learned a while ago that you may find useful.

English speakers often have trouble with the French 'u' vowel (as in 'tu', 'mal entendu' etc.), as it is not a sound that appears in English. While you can fudge your way through saying 'ou' (basically the vowel sound in 'blue' as said in a comedy French accent) instead of 'u' in many situations, there are cases where this is not an option. For example, 'au-dessus' ("above") means the opposite of 'au-dessous' ("below"). Confusing 'u' and 'ou' is thus particularly inadvisable for construction workers, bank managers and those seeking a haircut.

So how can you articulate that 'u'? Well, here's an effective way to simulate it at least.

First, purse your lips as if you are about to say 'ooo'. Then, holding your mouth in the same shape, say a short, sharp 'eee'. If done correctly, the result is a sort of nasal 'u'. This is basically the sound you are looking for.

February 21, 2014



I'm French and I still think your explanation is cool! :)

History bonus:

The French "u" sound came from a switch of pronunciation of the latin U letter. This happened specifically to French, and not to other romance language that I know of (I mean, I know Italian does not have the French "u" sound and I think Spanish does not have it either, I think French is the only one). But since the French people had changed the phonetic sound of the U letter, they needed to find another way to represent the typical [u] sound. So they combined, and thus was born the "ou".

If we were Russians, we would have just switched the alphabet around and figured out new letters for the sound we make. But we stuck to the latin alphabet, and then we started to pair letter up to represent sounds! :) Same thing happened for the /ʃ/ sound (ch-). It was during a period of French evolution, when the words in latin beginning by CA (making the sound KA) started to be pronounced CHA. Calor became Chaleur. Cantare became Chanter. Latin did not have this sound as well. French needed to find a way of representing it -- they paired up "c" and "h". It's kind of arbitrary. In Italian, "sc" or "sci" in front of hard vowels represent this same sound.

That we still have words starting by "ca" is a testament to the date of apparition of those words. "Carnaval", for instance, appeared later on. (This is also the reason why you say "carnavals" au pluriel but "chevaux" -- there was a phase were stuff ending in "al" just got to the point of "chevals" but for writing purpose was like, "chevax" and then morphed and blah we had a "aux" fini for "al" words and then "carnaval" came after and did not know this morphing and just got a "s" au pluriel)

I have to say, on this course where we learnt about phonetic evolutions of the French language, I was thinking: Wow, all this French exceptions become now clear! All the specificity. It was fascinating.


Nice!! Linguistic/ historic/ etymological ...love knowing this stuff! Thanks!


Germans have no problem with this sound: It's the same as ü (u umlaut). ;)


Yes, I think that's pretty interesting. I wanted to learn more about the history of this umlaut, because in the Bavarian dialect, this ü sound does not really exist, I think. I think it's very intriguing. Is it some extern influence? Is it a class thing? Hmmmm...

I'm also curious -- why d'you have a level 2 german?


Well, I'm not 100% sure since I'm from Berlin and the Baverian dialect sounds so very different from Hochdeutsch... But I never noticed them not using the ü.

As for my level 2... Haha, I always forget that I startet the German from English course. Thanks for reminding me. Now I reset the course and took the placement test and now it looks much better with level 11. ;)


Oh, I mean they do use the "ü", but I've heard traditionally/historically, not. They don't really have those "ch" that you whistle out like in "München", I think, or not too much (still, traditionally, means without the heavy regularization of Hochdeutsch, I guess). München ist said "Minga". It's actually much easier to pronounce, as you just have to sound a bit drunk to get the correct intonation :D


Awesome post! I would like to add that the French "u" can actually be found in Lombardy (northern Italy) local dialects (es. luna pronounced [lyna]).

Moreover I definitely agree with you, understanding phonetic evolution is not only pure erudition but it can be extremely useful for concrete purposes in order to really master a language. Studying grammar with attention makes you understand that there are no exceptions to the rules, just different rules :)


This is really interesting. I knew a part of it, but I'm always keen on learning more on the etymology of words. It's fascinating and helps so much understand why certain words are written a certain way.

Here's another one : anywhere you see a circumflex accent in French (like this ê), it's because the word used to be written with an s following the accented vowel, like fenestre or connaistre.

I heard monks, who copied books and texts before Gutenberg's invention of the movable type printer, were paid by the letter before French was universalized with rules. So as long as it sounded the same, it was right. But later I heard it was just an urban legend, go figure where's the truth.


Yep, this also makes the irregularities more obvious (fenêtre, défenestrer; hôpital, hospitalier; forêt, forestier; goût, gustatif, etc.) as well as the close relationships between languages (pasta! hospital! host! castle and château; pastry and pâtisserie; haste and hâte; coast and côte; roast and rôti, and wasted/gâté (when we also know that "g" is the French way of the English "w", as seen in William/Guillaume))

As my Russian teacher told us -- we see the roots of a word and its connections to other languages by the consonnants, vowels are known to change more.

More interesting stuff:

We do not have a concept of what part of a word to emphasize in French (tonic accents and whatnot) because, for us, it's on the last sound. It could be on another sound and it would make no difference. This comes from the fact that, from latin, we cut everything that came after the tonic/accentuated syllable. Mare? became Mer. Muro? became Mur. Papa, as in the pope, became Pape.

From these few examples we can see how close to latin the Italian language stuck :)

One last one -- latin vowels could either be short or long. This, with the idea of language economy, got changed with "diphtongaisons" instead. Pede would be piedi. This happened to all romance languages. Also, the "o" changed to become "uo" in the beginning of the 4th century, and then French took it a step further by making "eu" or "oe" out of it! This is very aptly shown in the word "feu" (from the latin "focus"), that became "fuoco" in italian, and "feu" (remember, we cut it right after the tonic accent!) in French. Same for "coeur" (latin: cor, italian: cuore). Same for "oeuf" (latin: ovum, italian: uovo).

Then other diphtongaison stuff happened specifically to French language and we came to "oi" and "eu" from "u" and stuff. Also, the "l" in front of a consonnant was vocalized to the diphtongue "ou", talpa became taupe, colpu became coup, bellos became beaux.... And THIS is how we explain the alternances between bel/beau (un bel homme, un beau mec!) and col/cou! Apparently, this kind of alternances were more frequent in the Middle-Age, too.

aaaand now I'm done (for now)! XD Have fun, guys, French is a wonderful and fascinating languages, there's always more stuff to discover :)


Great ! I enjoy reading you a lot !

I also noticed how close Italian stayed to Latin compared to French and Spanish. Knowing Italian, I could guess most of the Latin I've found.

Do you know if there's any link between bellos (beautiful) and bellum (war) ? Seems too close to be a coincidence, but how many words are close and have nothing to do with one another ?


Huh! Our "guerre" comes from the Francs (werra, and with this we can see how close we are to the English "war") so I never even knew the latin word bellum -- but it makes sense with the word "belliqueux"! Obviously, I cannot say if there is a link between those two words, being no latin expert.

I can say though, that it makes sense that our word "guerre" evolved from the Francs rather than the latin. Because, if latin composes the biggest root chunk of the French language, it did get bases in two other languages: le gaulois, celtic in origins (linguistics call it the "substrat du français", means the gaulois people got invaded, learnt latin (popular latin), influenced it with their own language and stopped to talk their own language) and the franc language, germanic in origins (called "superstrat du français", meaning these people actually CONQUERED us, but still learnt or language and influenced it before abandoning their own). And from this approach to it, it is not surprising that from the gaulois, we kept (not too many) words related to the lower classes of societies and labour, animals and farm work and vegetation (balai comes from there; "cheval" also comes from the gaulois caballus that meant bad horse, vs the latin equus) whereas the Francs gave us many words related to war (as well as social organization, everyday life and agriculture.

This is one of the pages we got as resource during my HLF class: http://www.axl.cefan.ulaval.ca/francophonie/HIST_FR_s2_Periode-romane.htm

It digs into many interesting things, but can get boring at points. Also, they really should design a more serious interface -_-'

PS: Yeah, I wish I could learn Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian to be able to push the comparisons, sometimes! Also, latin and greek would be useful... So much stuff to learn!

PPS: I think the accents circonflexes actually come from the monks trying to save space, 'cuz paper was scarce and all. Like for this "aux" I mentioned. We prononced "cheval" with a big "allllll" and like it would be pronounced "chevolll We also pronounced the final s, So "chevals" would be pronounced sort of like, "che-vohhhlssss". Chevaus it sounded like, chevaus it became. And then the scribes, to save some space, developed a code that -us- would become -x-. Then the plural of cheval was chevax. Until for some mysterious reason, they brought back the "u" and we had un cheval, des chevaux. It was only with time that the graph "aux" gave the sound [o], however. Before, the letters were pronounced different. Kind of like an english "owx" would sound, I guess. So yeah, that is what I meant before, with the "al, aux" thing. If a word in "-al" does not get its plural in "-aux", it's because it came ater this crazy teleroman episode with the scribes and their weirdness. This is also what would push me to think that the monks tried to save space with writing forêt instead of forest. (I think I read somewhere that the ^ was s'posed to be a little s in the beginning?)


A little remark: the reason why l became u is because the sequence [a+l] followed by a consonant gave au. The pronounciation [o] for au didn't appear before the XVI century, so the whole transformation is: [al] + consonant > [ał] (= a + velar l) > [au] > [o]. The -ux plural is due to the fact that, as time went by, scribes didn't understand anymore that x stood for us. One funny thing is that in in some manuscripts you can find forms like chevaULX, which represent the ancient l three times! In the modern graphy we represent it "only" two times :)


I'm from south Louisiana and lots of surnames here end in eaux but are pronounced as "Oh" (Breaux, Meaux, Boudreaux, Quebodeaux, Marceaux, Thibodeaux etc). When they were doing a census years and years ago, there were tons of variations of the same surnames so a judge "standardized" them by making them all end in "eaux".


As a Chinese, I was gloating ah ha we pronounce the beautiful jade exactly by "u", but wait a minite! It seems that Chinese doesn't count as a romance language.


Very interesting dudly, très intéressant merci :-)


Well, another romance language has it, Occitan. It was spoken and is still spoken nowadays in the southern half of France, it's my native language. In Occitan "u" is always pronounced like in french; whereas "o" is pronounced like a french "ou".


Wow that sound just literally came out of my mouth. Merci beaucoup!


What just happened?! That was perfect! o.o


yes in french diction class we are taught that the french "u" is simply "u" lips with an "i" tongue. so hold i or in english e, and close the lips to form u while keeping the tongue position


Awesome, thank you much!


So, 'ue' as in "rue"... is that equivalent to the 'u' in "entendu" in French, or something different? "Rue" is a word I simply can't say right according to my French friends, and I also can't seem to say 'beaucoup' without saying 'beautiful ass' as well.

Any advice is much appreciated.


haha XD

Rue is pronounced like "ru", c'est un "e" muet. So yeah, like in "entendu". And if people hear "beau cul" instead of "beaucoup", it's the reverse thing, you should not be pronouncing a french "u" on this! Should be pronounced like Boh-Coo in English, I think. Should rhyme with a cow going like Mooooo.

(the word in art to talk about a beautiful ass is "callipyge", like la Vénus Callipyge. If you want to impress someone with fancy words when they think you talk about their arse! :D and the word for ugly ass is "stéatopyge" ~ )


I found callipyge for ugly ass, stéatopyge rather means big ass.


Callipyge for ugly ass? Where? "Calli" comes from the greek prefix "Kali" -- still used very obviously in Greek with Kalimera (Bonjour), Kalispera (Bonsoir), Kali orexi (however you spell it, means Bon appétit)

In French, we still have stuff like "callipyge" (belles fesses) and "calligraphie" (belle écriture, littéralement)

(sorry, the fact that Duolingo shows only 5 notifications at a time apparently makes me miss some stuff!)

edit: right on the second account though, antidote tells me that stéatopygie is "Présence d’une épaisse couche graisseuse au-dessus des fesses."


Yes, you're right, it's rather cacopyge. My fingers slipped, sorry.


It's the same as "ew" in English if I'm not mistaken. As in "ewwwww, gross" or "there's dew on window", or few, lieu (which is a French word!). Also it's the same as the German u mit umlaut.


I think that may depend on your accent. For me, it's definitely not the same as 'ew' in any of those examples.


Excellent. Also, check out Gabriel Wyner's YouTube video. It's helpful for all the sounds http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hI2Pso1dDjM


I think you're getting the meaning of au-dessus and au-dessous backwards.


Oops! Thanks for that - an ironic blip in the editing process there. I've changed it now.


good point…realise need to use mouth and lips a great deal more in speaking..no wonder sounds are flat….. thank you


Practicing this right now (and looking rather comical.) Thanks for the tip.


wow thanks that helps me heaps!


Merci! That really helps. As a beginner in French, I am looking for precisely this kind of instructions.


I've known french since I was 3 and i've never thought about it that way

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