For instance, I hear "professeur" and "fleur" with the "eu" sound, not "œ".

  • 2
    By "œ" do you mean the [œ] phoneme or literally the ligature ? Mar 4 '17 at 3:47
  • I don't think there is a really pronounced "Parisian French" - there are regional accents in France, but Paris doesn't really have one as far as pronunciation is concerned - or if there is, it's not very pronounced at all.
    – Frank
    Mar 4 '17 at 4:16
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    @Frank That's a very parisian statement. Of course there is a Parisian accent. That's very noticeable when you have a different one.
    – jlliagre
    Mar 4 '17 at 13:46
  • It turns out that I am definitely not parisian at all :-) I couldn't tell a "Parisian accent" myself - I can recognize an accent du sud, sometimes an accent in Alsace, but after that, the other "accents" in France don't feel very pronounced to me. There can be slightly different expressions, and I'm not saying accents are not there, just that there is a real "common denominator" that makes les quatre coins de l'hexagone mutually intelligible without any effort (if not speaking outright dialect).
    – Frank
    Mar 4 '17 at 16:58
  • 1
    Un vidéo sur l'origine de l'accent Québecois et de l'accent parisien : youtube.com/watch?v=yESKzTPnHAg
    – Frank
    Mar 5 '17 at 16:57

TL;DR: "œ" and "eu" aren't the same, but "œu" and "eu" do make the same sounds. Exactly which sound depends on context, but the behaviour mostly overlaps between the two of them.

In Parisian French "professeur" and "fleur" both end with [œʁ], using the vowel [œ] as in "œuf".

R-colouring likely comes into play. This is when an "r" modifies the vowel before it. Technically, as Wikipedia states, there's an actual change of vowel only in rare contexts — apparently you should only hear it in Québec French and then only in borrowings like "hamburger". But it would be fair to say that "r" mildly affects the quality of any vowel before it. The combination [œr] in particular can sound very odd to English ears, even though "œuf" doesn't raise any flags.

Longer analysis

When going from spelling to pronunciation, always keep a few terms in mind: graphemes (letters/smallest indivisible combination of letters), phonemes (underlying sound), and phones (the different ways a single phoneme actually sounds in a particular context).

It requires a lot of analysis to tell which phoneme a particular letter combination is linked to — and even that would have to be qualified with "most of the time", because spelling isn't consistent in French. (Even if French is much more consistent than English!)

I'd hoped to just copy a previous analysis, e.g. on the Wikipedia French phonology article... but since I don't see this adequately treated there, here's my best shot after testing out some dictionary entries and trying to recall my linguistics education. :p

First of all, the two combinations we're comparing are "eu" and "œu". That's because "œ" behaves a lot like "e". It came into the language as an attempt to spell the Greek diphthong [oi̯] (similar to "boy"). However, its pronounciation "was reduced to a simple vowel ([e]) in late Latin".

Being an attempt to render another language's sound, "œ" unsurprisingly has some inconsistent behaviour depending on which combinations it appears in — but then "e" on its own is also inconsistent. :) Luckily, we can reasonably hope that "œu" behaves similarly to "eu".

I would say that the two letter combinations both link to one phoneme, /ø/. That one phoneme, however, surfaces as either [ø] or [œ] depending on the context.

Mostly, open syllables (syllables that end in a vowel) are realized as [ø]:

pneu peu feu ceux yeux

vœu nœud

And closed syllables (syllables that end in a pronounced consonant) are realized as [œ]:

arroseur peur fleur fleuve

œuvre sœur cœur mœurs mœuf œuf

However, there are some exceptions that trouble this analysis:

arroseuse émeute ([ø] despite being closed syllables)

Particularly interesting is this one, where the phonetic context is the exact same:

jeune ([œ], as expected) vs. jeûne ([ø])

I haven't been able to find such exceptions with "œu", only with "eu". So that is probably a good hint that they can diverge sometimes.

The French phonology article also refers to "longer" syllables closed by a few specific consonants that are all voiced, which affect some similar vowel pairs in French. (The reason phones like [ø] and [œ] are linked to one phoneme is that they are very similar in pronunciation, sometimes differing only by whether the tongue is a little higher or farther forward.)

That might help to explain [ø/œ], but some of this data would still be hard to account for. For example, this group couldn't include both "arroseuse" ("long" syllable) and "émeute" ("short" syllable), nor would it explain "jeune" vs. "jeûne". To get a really robust analysis, we'd need to dig up more data.

Also, "œil" also has [œ], suggesting that "œ" followed by any vowel, not just "u", is pronounced [œ].

When not followed by another vowel, "œ" is often pronounced [e] as it was in late Latin, particularly in technical terminology (which often enters a language late and ends up using alternative phonology that hasn't seen centuries upon centuries of everyday use). For example:

cœliaque cœlacanthe fœtus œsophage

There are always exceptions, such as the loanword "Gœthe" (with [ø], as pronounced in German).

Note that there is only one nasalized version of these two sounds: [œ̃]. Incidentally, in "Parisian" French, this has merged with [ɛ̃]. Thus, "brun" and "brin" are pronounced the same in Paris.

Remember that this is just a provisional analysis... if someone takes the time to find exceptions to base a rule on, or to find an article detailing this in a clearer way, I welcome the insight. :)

  • 1
    You should distinguish "œu" or "œ" when followed by the vowel ("i") which is always pronounced either [ø] or [œ], and "œ" followed by a consonant which, like "æ" (e.g. læticia)", is expected to be pronounced [e] in French.
    – jlliagre
    Mar 4 '17 at 8:44
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    It really boils down to "œ" being a variant of spelling "e", except in some loanwords like Gœthe. Btw, "fleuve" is /flœ:v/, not /flø:v/ Mar 4 '17 at 9:57
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    @Eauquidort "œ" (but not "œu" or "œi") is more a variant spelling of "é", for example économie used to be spelt œconomie
    – jlliagre
    Mar 4 '17 at 10:18
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    It's much more accurate to the concensus on French phonolgy now. @jlliagre It can also be /ɛ/ in a closed syllable (œstrus). I deliberately glossed over the diacritic issue by considering /e/ and /ɛ/ as the core pronunciations of an orthographic "e" but i agree that's discutable Mar 4 '17 at 19:23

Here on Wikipédia is a short list of words that contain œ. It mentions that two pronunciations are prevalent for this "letter" : [œ] and [ø]. You can listen to them on the linked pages.

Indeed, both sound a lot like "eu", which technically designates [ø] (per Wikipédia).

  • Therefore, if you ask whether "eu" should sound like [œ], the answer is no, "eu" should sound like [ø]. It is quite close though. Mar 4 '17 at 3:49

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