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, 2018 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, 2018 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, 2018 at 23:59

2 Answers 2


I always use the lower case /y/ but it looks like phonologists do not agree about how to represent this vowel.

See the articles discussing [ʏ] on French Wikipedia versus English Wikipedia.

The Canadian French pronunciation 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].


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, 2018 at 20:40
  • 1
    @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, 2018 at 13:53
  • 2
    @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, 2018 at 13:59
  • 1
    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... Apr 6, 2018 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) Apr 6, 2018 at 21:10

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