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All books and dictionaries (notably Wiktionary) that transcribe french pronunciation by means of IPA transcribe the pronunciation of “u” as /y/. But the transcription uses /.../ as opposed to [...]. When I use [y] in my speech, my teacher corrects me and says [ʏ]. Could it be the case that all these textbooks and dictionaries use /y/ instead /ʏ/ in the open transcriptions, and that this is inaccurate?

TL;DR: Should “u” be pronounced [y] (close front rounded vowel) or [ʏ] (near-close near-front rounded vowel)?

Resolution: I mistook [y̠] (close front compressed vowel) for [ʏ] due to my lacking knowledge of the diacritic. A cognitive bias, if you will.

  • Do you know where your teacher did learned/practiced French? – jlliagre Apr 6 '18 at 17:39
  • North-eastern France. But upon further examination, it occurs to me that [Y] might be slightly inaccurate, and that [y̠] would be better. My untrained ears perceived the [y̠] as [Y]. The word in question was « eu » (of avoir), a word to which I assume that laxness not apply. If this be the case, I was simply wrong about what I heard, lacked the knowledge of the diactiric ⟨ ͍ ⟩ and made an erroneous post online. Thank you for linking me the aticles; I thought I already knew the sound ([y]) well, but I failed to consider centralisation, so they resolved my nonexistent issue. – Sebastian Apr 7 '18 at 18:57
  • It could easily be an issue for others, so thanks for the question anyway! But might I say that if you can accurately distinguish those three sounds as a learner of French, kudos to your accurate ear. – Luke Sawczak Apr 7 '18 at 23:59
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I always use the lower case /y/ but it looks like phonologists do not agree about how to represent this vowel.

See the wikipedia French ʏ vs English ʏ pages.

The Canadian French pronounciation might also play a role here:

The lax allophone of a high vowel may also appear in open syllables by assimilation to a lax vowel in a following syllable: musique 'music' can be either [myzɪk] or [mʏzɪk].

In France, using [ʏ] would betray an English accent and using [u] a Spanish/Italian/Portuguese one one. Germans do pronounce the [y] correctly because it is part of their phonetics (ü / ue / y ). On the other hand, the French vowel "u" is foreign to English ears so what is used is the closest familiar vowel which happen to be [ʏ].

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As I learned it in my linguistics undergrad, the usage is systematic. Your best bet to cover most cases is to pronounce it [y] in open syllables and [ʏ] in closed syllables.

In European French, this sound is always [y] — at least nominally.

However, in every dialect of French, there is a tense/lax realization of certain vowels, where the tense variant appears in an open syllable and the lax version in a closed syllable.

This rule can't be applied universally since some high vowels lack lax variants in European French: /i/, /u/, and /y/. But in Québec, these vowels do have lax variants: [ɪ], [ʊ], and [ʏ] respectively.

The rule is the same for these pairs as for others:

ici [i] vs. icitte [ɪ] *
roue [u] vs. route [ʊ]
du [y] vs. chute [ʏ]

As the Wikipedia article jlliagre shared says, a lax vowel in a closed syllable can also harmonize a nearby tense vowel, e.g. [ɪ] in musique harmonizing [y] to [ʏ]. (This effect is less predictable.)


* An undergrad paper I wrote hypothesizes that innovative forms like icitte and frette, whose origins are hard to identify, could have co-evolved with these lax vowels, as if to produce more occasions to use them and thereby further differentiate Québécois French for sociolinguistic reasons. Take that for what you will. :)

  • Does it mean anything that I use different variants for different words, like I feel musique is not lax whereas sud is very much so; do you think some of my familiarity with the English language affects how I pronounce words that share more of the same morphology? Thanks! – user3177 Apr 5 '18 at 20:40
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    @Améraldor If I'm trying to analyze my own speech, I pick a few words sharing a structure, alert a linguistically savvy family member that I'm trying to find out what I say, and then try to put it out of mind while waiting for them to catch un-self-conscious occurrences from me. :) Only then do I draw conclusions about why I do one thing or the other. But in any case, if you mean the /y/ in both of those, it seems to me that the harmony rule isn't the most common. I wonder, are both vowels lax in your icitte, if you say that? I feel like that's one where it's more consistent... – Luke Sawczak Apr 6 '18 at 13:53
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    @Améraldor One thing I learned while writing that paper was that languages as a whole influence each other's phonology on a very small scale compared to the lexicon, for example. On the other hand, I find it easy for my speech to alter to match that of people I like, and I hear this anecdotally confirmed by others. So your knowledge of English might have less effect on your French than the interesting French accent of a good Anglophone friend! – Luke Sawczak Apr 6 '18 at 13:59
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    Definitely a gradation of lax from muse to musique to sud for me. So indeed, musique wouldn't be an extreme example of lax, though it would still be one... – Montée de lait Apr 6 '18 at 19:08
  • I'd go look at Picard, or some other oil variety, for the source of frette. At least in my area (transitional between Picard and Walloon) /frɛt/ and /fre:t/ are the equivalents of froide. (likewise, /drɛt/ for droite) – Eau qui dort Apr 6 '18 at 21:10

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