The French Semi-Consonants

What is a Semi-Consonant?

When you speak (or in our case sing) in French, there are 36 sounds to master:

  • 15 vowel-sounds
  • 18 consonant-sounds
  • 3 semi-consonant sounds (also sometimes called semi-vowels or glides)

In today’s post, we will focus on the semi-consonant-sound.

The Semi-Consonants

Semi-consonant [ɥ] 

Model word: nuit [nɥi] (night)

The corresponding sound for the [ɥ] is the phonetic [y] as in the word “lyne” in French

The Yod [j]

Model word: Dieu [djø] (God)

The corresponding sound for the [j] is the phonetic [i] as in the word “midi”. We often refer to this one specifically as a Yod. Think of saying the word “you” in English, that first glide is our [j].

Semi-consonant [w] 

Model word soir [swar] (evening)

The corresponding sound for the [w] is the phonetic [u] as in the word “tout”. Think of saying the word “we” in English, the first glide is our [w].

All of the French semi-consonants have these three things in common:

1. They are always before the vowel-sound of the syllable.

In French syllabification, each syllable can only have one vowel-sound per syllable, some vowel combinations make a vowel sound

Example:

  • aimer (to love) has two syllables ai/mer. The first “ai” makes one vowel sound and the last “er” make one vowel sound and they are seperated by the “m”
  • In the word “nuit” (night), there are two vowel sound and no consonant seperating them, also, there is not combination of “ui” which makes one vowel-sound, so there is no syllabification. The semi-consonant is created: [nɥi]

2.  They are introductory closures that open into or glide into the more open vowel sound, which in turn occupies the duration of the note-value.

You should never sing or elongate the semi-consonant, the glide should be made swiftly as you always aim for the vowel following the glide. If we look at the IPA for “nuit” [nɥi] the most important vowel to sing is the [i] which comes after the glide.

3.  They never, in themselves, constitute a syllable.  When they become vowel-sounds (and/or when they are assigned a note) they lose their qualities as semi-consonants, each being transformed into a particular vowel-sound.

Because we never elongate the semi-consonant, it cannot be a vowel-sound UNLESS they are assigned a note in the text:

In the example above, the first “curieux” has two notes, and clearly, you would have to use the glide to get to the [ø]. In the second example, the [j] loses its glide quality and becomes a vowel thanks to the composer who gave it a note value.

Be careful not to add a glide when it is not supposed to be there!

In the spoken French language, when a word ends in a vowel + mute “e” (a.k.a schwa), we do not pronounce the schwa.

For example “joie” (joy) is spoken without the last “e” [ʒwa], but many French composers gave a note value to the schwa, so that when you sing the word “joie” you would have to sing this otherwise mute “e” [ʒwaə].

Setting the mute “e” as accurately and elegantly as possible was always a goal for the French composers:

  • Setting the mute “e” on the weaker beat
  • Setting the mute “e'” on a lower pitch
  • Giving the mute “e” a shorter note value than the preceding syllable
  • Sometimes suggesting that we drop the mute “e” by setting it on a note tied to the preceding syllable.
  • The music determines whether or not we sing the mute “e”

So when you sing the aria “Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle” from Roméo et Juliette by Gounod, you will see the following:

Looking at these two excerpts from the aria, you notice a note value given to the schwas in the words “proie” and “joie”. The danger here is the temptation to insert a [j] between teh [wa] and the [ə].

The correct way to sing this is as follows:

Laisse-là ces oiseaux de proie, Tourterelle qui fais ta joie

[lɛsəˈla sɛz‿waˈzo də ˈproiə turtəˈrɛlə ki fɛ ta ˈʒwaə]

And not

[lɛsəˈla sɛz‿waˈzo də ˈprwajə turtəˈrɛlə ki fɛ ta ˈʒwajə]

Believe it or not, I hear the addition of a Yod quite often, and sometimes from established singers. It is probably not because they mean to do it; gliding cleanly between these vowels takes a lot of practice. Not to mention that if you glide between the vowel and the schwa, you will create a stress on the mute “e” which is not allowed…You have all seen the meme:

Be like the schwa…never stressed

Adding a glide between these vowels, creates confusion because it does not sound like the right word, and it is a dead give-away that you are not French. The transition between these vowels must be seemless. Happy gliding!

When Does a Nasal Vowel Lose its Nasalization?

The four French nasal vowel sounds

If you have taken any French diction course in your life, you know that in French there are 36 sounds to master and 15 of them are vowel sounds (and then you have 18 consonant sounds and 3 semi-consonant sounds). The most misunderstood of all French sounds is the “nasal” vowel sound. In the French language there are four:

  • [ɑ̃] which is based on the french “dark a” sound as in the word “âme” (which means soul)
  • [õ] which is based on a “closed o” sound like in the word “hôtel” (which means hotel)
  • [ɛ̃] which is based on an “open ɛ” sound like in the word “mais” (which means but)
  • [œ̃] which is based on the “o e” sound like in the word “chacun” (which means each)

When I say it is “based on”, I mean that the basic vowel takes up approximately 85 -90 percent of the nasal sound, depending on tessitura, and the rest is resonance which passes through the cavities that are found near the nose, in the yawn space, more or less in the center of your head, but not in your nose.

The reason a nasal vowel is called as such is because the consonants which follow the vowel in question are the nasal consonants n and m. In order to produce these consonants, you must pass through your nasal cavity. That being said, you should not pronounce the m or n in a nasal sound unless it is in a “liaison*”. The combination of a vowel plus the nasal consonant is why they are known as “nasal vowels” and not because they belong in your nose. The m or n that follows every nasalized vowel-letter is silent. A nasal vowel is just that, a vowel. It is not a vowel-plus-a-consonant, a sort of m or n, or the faint “ng” sound which is nonexistent in French.

While singing, if someone wishes to sound “as authentic as possible”, they tend to over-nasalize the French nasal sound which results in a much less resonant sound-actually it can cut your sound in half leaving you feeling stuck. Thinking of the appropriate basic vowel, and focusing your attention on it while letting the resonance take care of the rest, will be more conducive to proper singing and will sound much less stiff to the listener whereas exaggerated over nasalization sounds a bit comical.


Now that we have had a brief look at how a nasal vowel functions, when does the vowel loose it’s nasalization?

Rule: Any vowel-letter(s) followed by m or n is usually nasalized unless the m or n is followed by:

1. a vowel-letter or a vowel sound in the same word.

Example:

immense (which means immense) [imˈɑ̃sə]. The double “m” takes away the nasal.

or

2. an m, n, or h in the same word.

Example:

bonheur (happiness) [bɔˈnœr]. Although the word “bon” is most definetly nasalized, the word “bonheur” is not.

So whereas the vowel-sound of the word “sein” [sɛ̃] (meaning breast) is nasalized the name of the river flowing through Paris, the ‘Seine’ [sɛnə], is not, since the n is followed by a vowel-letter.

Denasalization usually does not occur between words or words in liaison: mon amour (my love) [mõn ͜ amur] As you can see, even if the n is pronouonced because it is in liaison, the o stays nasalized.

Exception:

In these following instances, the nasal vowel stays intact even if the m or n is followed by another m or n:

emmener (to bring) [ɑ̃məˈne]-this word has a double m, but the nasal remains.

ennui (boredom) [ɑ̃ˈnɥi]-this word has a double n, but the nasal remains.

And remember what I said about this rule does not apply in liaison? There is an exception to that too (as there are exceptions to most French diction rules):

When you wish someone “Happy Birthday” in French, you say: “Bon anniversaire!”. The correct way to pronounce this is [bɔn ͜ anivɛrˈsair(ə)], without nasalization on the o or the a, but I notice that the pronunciation of this saying confuses the orthography and it is often wrongly spelled: bonne anniversaire. This of course cannot be, because “bonne” is the feminin form of the adjective “bon” and “anniversaire” is a masulin noun. So, we speak it one way, but it is written another way.

So the next time you want to write a message on your French friend’s social media, you can write “Bon anniversaire!” and you will know why we pronounce it differently than how it looks!🎂

*liaison: A liaison may occur only between a normally silent final consonant and an following vowel-sound. Ex: les ͜ amoureux (the lovers) [lɛz͜͜ ͜ amurø]

What is a «tréma»?

The “tréma” and what it does

Technically, the trémaor diaeresis- is a diacritic sign made or two dots on top of a vowel. It used to be written like two accents (“), but is now written as two dots (¨).
If you know German, the tréma looks like the German umlaut and is known only as “tréma”, notaccent tréma”. The tréma can be found most often above E and I, it can appear over U and Y, but mainly in proper nouns for example: Louÿs. It is less common over O or A which would only occur in words borrowed from other languages. The tréma changes the pronunciation of French words. If you know your basic French phonetics/reading rules, you know that some letter combinations form a new sound, eg. “ai” = [ɛ], “oi” = [wa], etc. When the tréma is used, it means that you must distinctly pronounce the letter under it as well as the letter before and after it separately and you will also need to sound the last letter of the word if it follows the tréma. A tréma can also indicate that a vowel is silent as it applies to ancient spellings. For example in this famously mispronounced name of the French composer Saint-Saëns. The tréma over the E (ë)means that the letter is silent, so this name is pronounced [sɛ̃sɑ̃s] and yes, this is really how you pronounce it! The first syllable is the nasal [ɛ̃] sound as in the IN in the word matin (morning) and the second syllable is as the nasal sound [ɑ̃] as in the AN in the word maman (mother) and because it follows the tréma, the final S is pronounced!

Example of how it works:
The word “mais” (which means but) is pronounced [mɛ].
The word “maïs” (which means corn) is pronounced [ma’is] since you sound the A, the Ï and the S separately, and the stress falls on the second syllable.

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