A difficulty that often arises for learners of French is that many French words end in a written consonant that is not actually pronounced. For example, the French words beau and chaud rhyme, even though the second of these ends in a written consonant d while the first doesn’t. But at the same time, the situation is not unfortunately as simple as saying that final consonants are never pronounced. In this article, I give some tips for deciding when a final consonant is pronounced on a French word.
Very General Rule of Thumb
Before going into a little more detail, it’s worth mentioning a general rule of thumb. Very roughly, French makes a distinction between what I will call tongue tip consonants and other consonants. The rough pattern is that:
- Except for l, final tongue tip consonants are not generally pronounced, except in liaison (see below);
- Final l and other consonants are more likely to be pronounced.
By tongue tip consonants, I mean consonants ordinarily pronounced with the front part of the tongue: d, t, s, z, n. (Technically, linguists refer to this type of consonant as a coronal and the part of the tongue making contact isn’t always what is strictly termed the “tip”. But we can use “tongue tip consonant” as an informal, non-technical description.) Try pronouncing one of these consonants and you’ll feel the front of your tongue contact the front part of your mouth.
So as a rough rule of thumb, these tongue tip consonants are usually not pronounced on the end of a word: for example, in chaud, chat, bas, nez, bon, the final consonant is not pronounced. In the case of a final n, this actually signals the nasalization of the preceding vowel, an issue we will mention in passing but won’t go into in detail in this article.
The consonant l is a slight exception: although a tongue tip consonant, it is usually pronounced on the end of a word, with occasional exceptions ending in -il (e.g. gentil, outil).
The tongue tip consonants, which we have said are not generally pronounced, do sometimes become pronounced in a process called liaison. This is a complex topic, but the basic idea is that the consonant becomes pronounced before another word beginning with a vowel if that following word is “closely linked” with it grammatically. A typical case of two closely linked words would be an adjective and corresponding noun. So while the n of bon is not pronounced when the word is said in isolation (though it does mark that the o vowel is nasalized), it is pronounced in bon enfant or bon ami. Similarly, the final d of grand is not normally pronounced, but may be pronounced in grand auteur. (Much more rarely, p and r can also participate in liaison, but it is primarily a feature of the tongue tip consonants.)
A slight complication is that the pronunciation of a liaison consonant may actually differ from how you would expect from the written letter. When s is pronounced in liaison (as commonly occurs between a plural adjective and noun), it actually represents a “z” sound, as does a written x. So bons amis is pronounced closer to “bo’ z ami“, with the s on the end of bons pronounced, as a “z” (i.e. liaison with the following vowel), but the s of amis not pronounced (there’s no following vowel, so no reason for liaison). In liaison, d is actually pronounced as a “t”. So grand auteur, if the d is pronounced, would be pronounced “gran-t-auteur”.
A Few More Details and Exceptions
What we have described so far is a rough rule of thumb and it will come as no surprise that there are plenty of exceptions and details to be aware of. It is impossible to go into all of these here, but below are some more detailed rules and patterns that it is worth gradually getting to grips with with certain letters. Firstly some more details regarding the tongue tip consonants:
d: pronounced on the end of sud and one or two names. The letter d occurs silently on the end of many verb forms (e.g. il prend) However, the d is pronounced on the end of a verb form when followed by a pronoun beginning with a vowel (i.e. in inverted forms such as prend-il, vend-on etc). On the end of an adjective such as grand, -d can be pronounced before a noun beginning with a vowel as shown above, although in reality this is rare in everyday speech.
n (sometimes written m): these special consonants usually mark the nasalization of the previous vowel, and are not pronounced as such; but on the end of “learned” words or loanwords, they are liable to be pronounced, e.g. maximum, spécimen;
s: a few common words where the final -s is pronounced include fils (“son”) and mars (“March”/”Mars”). Note that the final -s is pronounced on maïs (“corn”) but not on mais (“but”).
t: this letter occurs on the ends of many adjectives and verb forms, and is not generally pronounced in such cases. But like d, it must be pronounced on the end of a verb when followed by a pronoun beginning with a vowel (i.e. in inverted forms such as fait-il, dit-on etc).
Finally, here are some details regarding various other written consonants when they occur on the end of a French word:
c: practically never pronounced after n on the end of a word (exception: donc), but pronounced on the end of some common short words, notably avec, sac, sec, choc, lac, parc;
f: though usually pronounced, it is not pronounced on the end of clef (commonly written clé nowadays), cerf, nerf, and in the plurals oeufs and boeufs (whereas in the singular oeuf and boeuf, the final -f is pronounced as expected);
p: for the purposes of everyday speech, you can generally assume that -p is never pronounced on the end of a word. A notable exception that intermediate students may come across is handicap. Very occasionally, essentially in very formal speech, it may be pronounced in liaison on the end of trop and beaucoup.
r: usually pronounced when the preceding vowel is not e (car, fleur, tour etc); not pronounced in many cases when it follows an e, notably on the end of an -er verb or on the end of the -er or -ier suffix on a large number of “longer” adjectives and nouns (including job titles such as pompier etc); there are a few common short words ending in -er where it is pronounced, including amer, cher, fer (“iron”), fier (“proud”), hiver, mer.
x: this letter is pronounced, as “ks”, on the end of a handful of “learned” words such as index. Otherwise, it usually occurs as a silent letter-effectively a variant of s-on the end of various common adjectives and nouns. On the end of a plural adjective followed by a noun or adjective beginning with a vowel, along with a few other cases, it is pronounced in the process of liaison described above. As mentioned above, it is then pronounced as a “z” sound. So vieux amis would be pronounced closer to “vieu-z-ami”.
As we have seen, whether or not a final consonant is pronounced on a French word can be tricky but is not completely arbitrary. By learning some rules of thumb, we can gain a good degree of certainty in many common cases.