A common point of confusion in French Lyric Diction is knowing when to pronounce the -ill(es), -il(s) as a Yod [j], and when do we pronounce this double “ll” combo as just one “l” [l]. There is a method to this madness, and it is not so complicated.
If the term”Yod” or “j-glide” is stumping you, you can check out one of my past blog posts on the subject of semi-consonants to catch up!
First, we should look at when we pronounce “i” as a Yod.
i or ï is pronounced as a [j] when preceded by a single consonant when it is in front of an a, e, o, or eu. Beware: not when it is in the middle of a word -ie- in some verbs and their derivatives or as the last sound of the word -ie.
Avant de quitter ces lieux, sol natal de mes aïeux (Before leaving this place, native soil of my ancestors), Valentin’s aria from Faust by Gounod
[aˈvɑ̃ də kiˈte sɛ ljø sɔl naˈtal də mɛz‿aˈjø]
In the example above, in the words “lieux” and “aïeux”, the i and ï are pronounced as a glide. Both of these vowels are in front of eu.
But we do not make a glide in the future tense conjugation of verbs like “oublier” (to forget) [ubliˈe]
J’oublierai (I shall forget) also does not have a glide; in fact, the e vanishes in pronunciation. I often hear [ʒubliəˈre], but the correct way to pronounce this word and other words like it is: [ʒubliˈre]
When -ie- is at the end of a word, it is simply [i] unless the composer gave a note value to the schwa, in which case it will be [iə], and we should not hear a glide between these vowels.
il, ill, ll : When do these letters make a Yod?
- il, ill, and ll make a glide when at the end of a word in the following combinations: -ail,-eil, -ueil, -oeil- and euil.
- il sounds as a glide in the middle of words in the following combinations: -aill-, -eill-, -euill-, -ouill-, -ueill- and oeill otherwise, it is pronounced as [ij].
Un deuil amer (bitter mourning) [œ̃dœj‿aˈmɛr]
but in the word fille, we add an [i] in front of the glide; otherwise, there would be no vowel in the word: jeune fille (young girl) [ʒœnə fijə]
List of Exceptions:
As anyone who has ever studied the French language or French diction knows, there are many rules to follow, but there are just as many exceptions to the rules, if not more.
When il(s) is at the end of a word and follows a consonant, the i is [i], and the l is sometimes silent and sometimes sounded.
The following is pronounced without an l or a glide.
- gentil (nice) [ʒɑ̃ˈti] N.B: You should not confuse this gentil with its feminine version gentille [ʒɑ̃ˈtijə] which is pronounced with a glide.
- fusil (gun) [fy’zi]
- grésil (hail) [gre’zi]
- sourcil (eyebrow) [sur’si]
The following is pronounced without a glide but with an l
- cil (eyelash) [sil]
- fil (thread) [fil] or fils [fil] (the plural form of thread and pronounced exactly the same as the singular form) and not to be confused with fils (son or sons) [fis], which is pronounced without an l, but with an s whether it be singular or plural.
You could memorize this list, consult a French dictionary for the IPA translation on these more special words, or refer back to this post.
The exception also applies to the ll in the following words and their derivatives:
- mille (thousand) [milə] Derivatives: million, milliers, milliards…
- ville (city) [vilə] Derivatives: village, villageois, villagoise
- tranquille (tranquil) [trɑ̃ˈkilə] Derivatives: tranquillité, tranquillement
If you don’t want to forget, memorize this phrase: Milles villes tranquilles: “A thousand tranquil cities” then you will remember that every word belonging to the family of these three words in French are pronounced as [l] rather than a [j].
These tips should help you navigate the world of “glide or not to glide” when it comes to the YOd and how to avoid making mistakes while singing, or speaking!
My favorite French dictionary online
We don’t always have a dictionary in our pockets, and let’s face the fact that we are in a digital age, no matter how much we love actual books. My favorite French dictionary online is the Larousse: https://www.larousse.fr/ This dictionary has been my go-to since as long as I can remember, it has it all, and the online version is quite good to work with.