Open and Closed Vowels and Syllables

French pronunciation

The terms "open" and "closed" have two related meanings in regard to pronunciation.

  1. Open vowels and closed vowels
  2. Open syllables and closed syllables

Voyelles ouvertes et fermées

"Open vowels" are sounds produced with the tongue far from the roof of the mouth. They are also known as "low vowels" since the tongue is found at a low position in the mouth. "Closed vowels," aka "high vowels," are sounds produced with the tongue touching the roof of the mouth.

Here are the French vowel sounds ranked by openness. Click the links for detailed lessons and sound files:

  Very open Open Closed Very closed
Oral vowels [ɑ] [a] [ɔ] [ə] [œ] [ɛ] [o] [ø] [e] [u] [y] [i]
Nasal vowels [ɑ̃]   [ɔ̃]   [œ̃] [ɛ̃]            
Semi-vowels                   [w] [ɥ] [j]

Syllabes ouvertes et fermées

Open syllables end in a vowel sound, while closed syllables end in a consonant sound. Note the key word sound in this description: though the final letter of petit is a consonant, the final sound is a vowel: [i] not [t]. Therefore, petit ends in an open syllable. In contrast, avec ends in a closed syllable.

The French language prefers open syllables:

  • When a word like petit is followed by a word beginning with a vowel, a liaison allows the syllable to remain open.
  • When a word like avec is followed by a word beginning with a vowel, an enchaînement changes the closed syllable to open.

La loi de position

More of a guideline than a rule, the "law of position" states that open vowels are mainly found in closed syllables, while closed vowels are usually found in open syllables.

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French pronunciation

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