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I thought that French has only /ɔ/ sound, which is a bit more relaxed sound then /o/sound. But when I try to find the pronunciation symbols for my vocabulary book, both of the rounded vowels appear.

For example, the words 'comme' and 'alors' come with /ɔ/sound. 'Cause' in 'a cause de' appears with /o/.

Do I have to memorize these different pronunciations? Surely there must be some rules as to how to pronounce it, mustn't it?

  • I wouldn't worry, as most answers indicate. Moreover, the sounds can be different depending on the part of France you are, for instance in South you'll more likely hear /ɔ/ . Some examples in the second half of this page : francaisdenosregions.com/2017/07/06/… with the word 'rose', and the lack of difference in South for "sotte" VS "saute". – Pac0 Aug 20 at 16:18
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I wouldn't worry too much about the distinction between /ɔ/ and /o/. In French French, /ɔ/ and /o/ tend to merge to /o/ in non-final open syllables, contrary to varieties spoken in Belgium or Quebec. There are only few words that are distinguished with these sounds to produce a difference in meaning. I'm thinking right off the bat of comme /kɔm/ and Côme /kom/, bosse /bɔs/ and Beauce /bos/. For other examples of minimal pairs, see Eauquidort's comment. Mistaking the two or blurring them will not, I believe, impair understanding and communication much.

Now there are other sounds that need to be clearly separated in pronunciation because very often they make it possible to distinguish high-frequency words or meaningful units between each other, such as, for example /ɔ̃/, /ɑ̃/ and /ɛ̃/. Think of qu'on, con /kɔ̃/, quand, qu'en /kɑ̃/, qu'un /kɛ̃/, bon /ɔ̃/, banc /bɑ̃/, bain, ben /bɛ̃/ etc. The same would be true of /y/ and /u/ in tout and tu, vous, vu, roue, rue etc.

This is the case in English as well. Somebody that would mistake /i:/ for /ɪ/ or have no distinction between the two, which is typical of a strong French accent, and pronounce leave and live, fit and feet, did and deed, Pete and pit, read and rid or seat and sit in the same way with French /i/ would make it harder to be understood because the opposition between /ɪ/ and /i:/ is so important in English.

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    Off the top of my head, other pairs are cotte and côte, conne and cône, roc and rauque, hotte and hôte, os and hausse, sole and saule, possibly phone and faune (but I say both with a closed /o/), notre and nôtre (but I say both with /ɔ/), pomme and paume, OTAN and autant, oral and aural, osier the matter and (vous) osiez. If you allow proper nouns, mode and Maude, ode and Aude, bonne and Beaune. Belgian French has fosse and fausse, pot and peau, mots and maux, boulot and bouleau to boot, but those are dialectal – Eau qui dort Aug 20 at 10:39
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    Bref, I don't think there's so little pairs than that – Eau qui dort Aug 20 at 10:39
  • @Eauquidort. Thanks for the other examples. My feeling still is that /ɔ/ and /o/ are in complementary distribution in spite of the minimal pairs that we can come up with with open o /ɔ/ in closed syllables and closed o /o/ in open syllables. If I'm completely off the mark, I'll amend the answer accordingly. I'd be interested in your take on this. – user21018 Aug 20 at 14:01
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    I'm fairly sure most native speakers use /ɪ/, not /i/, for "fit", "did", "pit", "rid", and "sit". Phonetic length by itself isn't usually important in English. (And most native speakers would probably be consciously unaware of why "fit" and "feet" are still recognizably different if pronounced /fit/ and /fi:t/, respectively. :) ) – chepner Aug 20 at 14:27
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    @chepner I'm using the old notation I was taught back in the days that goes back to the symbols Daniel Jones used in his English Pronouncing Dictionary, what I have in mind is the"fit" and "feet" vowel sound. I do realize it's bit outdated now. Feel free to change it. – user21018 Aug 20 at 15:16
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A contrast between close-mid /o/ and open-mid /ɔ/ is present in many varieties of French. But the distribution of the two sounds varies between accents. Some accents have distinctions in vowel length as well as in vowel quality, but I think that most French learners are not taught an accent with vowel length distinctions.

In some positions, the contrast is "neutralized", and you can predict with confidence that either [o] or [ɔ] will be used. For example, many speakers in France can only have [o] when the vowel sound is at the end of a word, as in pot and peau (both pronounced [po]). But in some French-speaking regions, /ɔ/ is possible at the end of a word.

In the north of France, either /o/ or /ɔ/ can occur before a word-final consonant sound. As LPH's answer says, many spelling patterns are associated with one sound or the other. The sound [ɔ] mainly appears in words spelled with the uncircumflexed letter o. The spellings au, eau, ô tend to indicate [o], as in saute [sot]. A plain letter o can also be pronounced as [o]. Before a word-final [z] sound, [o] tends to be used, as in rose [roz].

A well-known feature of accents in the south of France is the use of [ɔ] in place of [o] in syllables ending in a consonant sound. A speaker from southern France might use [ɔ] in words like saute and rose (you can see a map on this website: "Petit guide linguistique à l’usage des gens du Nord en vacances dans le Sud de la France", par Mathieu Avanzi, Français de nos régions).

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You do have to do that, learn each separately; just as in English, you have to learn them case by case (mostly);

English

  • ɔ:        hall, tall, walk, thought, pause, paw, law, north, …

  • ɒ         lock, pot, sausage, Austria, …

 

French

  • ɔ        sorte, homme, comme, tonne, pomme, Paul, …
  • o        rose, pause, cause, oser, dose, …

There is a bit of regularity though (réf.);

  • o          /ɔ/, /o/
  • ô          /o/
  • au        /o/ (very rarely /ɔ/)
  • eau      /o/

The grapheme "au" has regularly the /o/ pronunciation; the /ɔ/ pronunciation is an exception.

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There's no rule, but there are patterns. For example, words with the same syllables tend to have the same pronunciation.

école, coupole, créole, agricole, vole are all /ɔ/

austral, hausse, cause, exhausser, fausse, gaussien are all /o/

binôme, biome, lymphome, dôme, diplome, atome are all /o/

comme, homme, consomme, dégomme, nomme, pomme, gomme are all /ɔ/

Of course there are exceptions, but if you're unsure you can try that and most of the times you won't be too far off.

However, you should pay attention to where the syllable is in the word, it may be important! With -omm- for example, it's an open "o" only when it's the last syllable. If not, it's a closed "o".

commère, hommage, nommer, consommer are all /o/

voler, abolir, absolu, cajoler, décoler, hologramme, oligarchie are all /o/

It's actually also a common pattern for a "o" syllable to be closed when it's inside the word and open when it's at the end.

  • Careful with that second part, the merger of /ɔ/ and /o/ in non-final syllables is mostly a French phenomenon, and is going to feel quite accented in Belgium or Quebec – Eau qui dort Aug 20 at 10:41
  • @Eauquidort "merger of /ɔ/ and /o/"? What do you mean? – Teleporting Goat Aug 20 at 10:56
  • @Eauquidort And I always answer assuming people are learning France French, I don't think that deserves a -1. If there's a difference in other regional dialects, feel free to mention it and I'll add it to the answer. – Teleporting Goat Aug 20 at 10:57
  • If /ɔ/ and /o/ used to contrast in non-final open syllables, but now there's only /o/, they merged to /o/ in that environment, just some linguistics lingo. I mostly wanted to mention it because that's a part of the France French accent that's viewed rather negatively outside (mocked when imitating the accent, and so on), so it's best learners know that it's specific to it. I'm not the one who downvoted your answer though – Eau qui dort Aug 20 at 11:14
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    @Eauquidort. Does this mean that "L'eau qui dort" and "Loki dort" don't sound the same in Belgian French as they do in French French ? – user21018 Aug 20 at 21:48
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Please do not worry for this phonetic difference between /ɔ/ and /o/! In fact they rely on the same supra phonemic category /O/ and are never opposed in a minimal pair. Whatever your prononciation people will understand you.

a phonetic rule : /ɔ/ can officially not occur at the end of the word (but some local exceptions exist, for example /velɔ/ for bicycle in the region of Besançon.

an orthographic rule: The theory says that when you hear /o/ inside a word it should be written [au] but in some places people do not pronounce differently the two o (for example in Grenoble).

The truly important point is to pronounce differently the French nasal vowels (i.e., [in, un, on, an] =/ɛ̃ œ̃ ɔ̃ ɑ̃/) in the words for example pain, lundi, mon, mange from their correspondant oral vowels pas, /lødi/, mot, mage or you will have some difficulties to be understood.

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