Combined letters in French - the complete guide
Recognize the combined letters in French at a glance, with this series of articles with examples and audio recordings.
Table of content
Combinations of vowels
There exists 5 types of vowel combinations in French:
- ai and ei form the same sound as in the English word (a bed).
- Pronounce au and eau as in the word (a boat).
- eu and œu should be pronounced as in (her).
- ou is the same sound as in the English word (a tool).
- Last, oi is approximately the same sound as in (a waffle).
Some consonants can form a combination, too. There are 3 types in French:
- ch and sch are the same sound as in the word (a tee-shirt)
- gn is the sound you hear in the word (an onion), for example.
- ph is pronounced the same as in English.
Nasal vowels in French
The following nasal sounds have no equivalent in English.
We call them ‘nasal’ because they are partly pronounced with the nose. They form three different sounds which can be spelled in different ways:
- Sound #1: on, om
- Sound #2: en, em, an, am
- Sound #3: in, im, un, um, yn, ym, ein, ain, aim
The role of u after c, g and q
The vowel u is sometimes used to harden the sound of a consonant. This is the case in the combinations cu, gu, qu. For example:
Combinations il & ille
At the end of some words, the letters il or ille form a
unique sound. The sound is similar to y in the word (a yard).
And when we want to form the same sound inside a word, we will use the group of letters ill.
But beware! The combinations ill and il are not systematically pronounced as a whole. In some words, the letters are pronounced separetely (also see chapter: breaking combined letters in French).
Here are some examples:
However, in the words cueille and myrtilles, the letters ille combine to form a unique sound.
Breaking combined letters in French
Most letter combinations are unconditional.
However, the French nasal vowels (on, an, un…), and the combinations il and ille are sometimes broken, according to their place in the word.
"Broken" IL and ILLE
On one hand, the combination il will only “work” at the end of a word (and only for some
Inside a word, we need to use ill to get the same sound.
Hear the difference:
"Broken" nasal vowels
On the other hand, nasal vowels will only “work” in two cases:
- when they are placed at the end of a word.
- before a consonant (other than n or m).
- when they come before a vowel.
- when they come before the consonants n or m.
However, the combined letters ai remain, because they are unconditionnal.
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Work on your French pronunciation with a collection of posts with examples and audio recordings.