Consonants

Consonnes

Consonants are sounds created by blocking or hindering the passage of air through the mouth in some way. Compare [p], for which you briefly close your lips before forcing the air through, to [a], for which your mouth remains open.

  Like vowels, consonants aren’t necessarily individual letters, but one or more letters that produce a single sound, such as "ch."

Characteristics of a consonant sound

  • Produced by vibrating the vocal cords
  • Pronounced with some obstruction of the throat, tongue, or lips
  • Cannot be a syllable on its own

 Too technical? Try this lesson instead: Consonants for beginners.

  French vs English consonants

  • Every French consonant except r is pronounced closer to the front of the mouth than its English equivalent.
  • The French tongue always remains tensed.
  • French consonants do not have an initial aspiration, but do have a slight aspiration at the end. For example, when saying "carrot," an English speaker is likely to pronounce the final t without re-opening his mouth at the end, so that sound is quite soft. But in French, the t at the end of "carotte" is followed by a slight aspiration, which results in a distinct t sound. See lessons on specific letters for more information.
  • At the end of words, French consonants are often silent.

Lessons on individual consonants

  B  C  D  F  G  H  J  K  L  M  N  P  Q  R  S  T  V  W  X  Y  Z

Categorizing consonants

There are three different ways to categorize French consonant sounds:

1. Voicing | Sonorité

Voiced | Sonore Vocal cords vibrate B, D, G, GN, J, L, M, N, NG, R, V, Z
Unvoiced | Sourde Vocal cords do not vibrate CH, F, K, P, S, T

  Many consonants have voiced/unvoiced equivalents, meaning that the sounds are pronounced in the same place in the mouth (see section 3, below); the only difference is whether the vocal cords vibrate.*

Voiced Unvoiced
B P
D T
G K
J CH
V F
Z S

These voiced/unvoiced pairs are important with regard to liaisons, enchaînement, and assimilation.

* Place your hand on your neck and make the sounds "b" and "p" (just the consonant sound, not the name of the letter). You should feel your vocal cords vibrate when you say "b" but not when you say "p." Do the same thing with other pairs and you’ll feel how similar they are, with just the vibration or lack thereof making the distinction.

2. Manner of articulation | Manière d’articulation

Plosive | Occlusive Passage of air is blocked to produce the sound B, D, G, K, P, T
Fricative Passage of air is hindered CH, F, J, R, S, V, Z
Liquid | Liquide Can follow other consonants to make new sounds L, R
Nasal | Nasale Passage of air is through both the nose and the mouth GN, M, N, NG

3. Place of articulation | Lieu d’articulation

Bilabial | Bilabiale Lips touching B, M, P
Labiodental | Labiodentale Upper teeth touching lower lip F, V
Dental | Dentale Tongue touching upper teeth D, L, N, T*
Alveolar | Alvéolaire Tongue behind the upper teeth S, Z
Palatal Back of the tongue near the palate CH, GN, J
Velar | Vélaire Back of the tongue against upper throat G, K, NG, R

*The equivalent English sounds are alveolar.

Summary table

Click for detailed lessons

Bilabial  Labiodental  Dental  Alveolar  Palatal  Velar
voiced?vu vu  vuvuvuvu
PlosiveB P   D T     G K
Fricative   V F    Z S J CH  
Liquid     L      R 
Nasal M    N    GN  NG 

 Related lessons

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French consonants
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2 Responses

  1. Gary Harryman 26 August 2014 / 14:25

    Sibilants, the “s” sound. The sound I cannot hear; makes plurals difficult.

    • lkl 26 August 2014 / 14:51

      Sibilants are a sub-category of fricative sounds. Not being able to hear them wouldn’t make a difference in French – even though “s” is added to many plurals, it’s not pronounced.