In words like payer /peje/, pied /pje/, œil /œj/, paille /paj/, if I were to replace the /j/ with /i/ so these words become /peie/, /pie/, /œi/ and /pai, would there be any differences in pronunciation because I can't hear them at all. To me, /j/ sound just like /i/ except in positions like fille /fij/ where /j/ can't be replaced by /i/ because the /j/ in fille is made differently than the /j/ in /peje/.

So two questions:

  1. Can /j/ be replaced by /i/?

  2. Why is it that in fille /fij/ the /j/ kind of sounds like a downard glide (something like the /j/ sound from the english word 'yuck') while in all the other words I mentioned, it just sounds like /i/?

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    Two words that differ in this sound are pays /pɛ.i/ and veille /vɛj/, You might try listening to pronunciations of them. My impression (not a native French speaker) is that the main difference is that the /i/ in /pɛ.i/ is longer. Jun 19, 2021 at 13:44
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    @PeterShor Even better is to compare pays and paye.
    – jlliagre
    Jun 19, 2021 at 21:10

1 Answer 1

  1. No they can't when referring to the expected pronunciation but if you wrongly use one for another, the risk is low for you not to be understood unless there is a clash with a different actual word. /j/ and /i/ are close but different phonems. In particular, /i/ is a plain vowel that might be stressed and can be pronounced alone while /j/ is a semivowel that can never be stressed and requires an adjacent vowel to be pronounceable. That means that /pje/ is a single syllable word while /pie/ would be a two syllable one, something like pi followed by et.

Here is an example where a mispronunciation would clearly affect understanding:

Quelle belle abbaye ! \a.be.i\ or \a.bɛ.i\: What a beautiful abbey!

Quelle belle abeille ! \a.bɛj\: What a beautiful bee!

  1. Yuck pronunciation varying, let's use "yes" as an example. "Yes" starts with a /j/ and is normally a single syllable word while if we force it to start with an /i/, that would be more like spelling the word "es" in English, i.e. the letter E then the letter S. The /j/ sound starting "yes" is used in the remaining French words you cite, not just in fille (/fij/).
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    In English, the exclamation yuck (unlike other words beginning with "y") is sometimes pronounced something like eeyuck, and is occasionally even spelled that way. (But I don't think this will help much with the French /j/.) Jun 23, 2021 at 12:43
  • @PeterShor Thanks, the OP used yuck as an example. I just replaced it by yes in my reply, although I believe people might occasionally pronounce "yes" with a stressed leading "ee".
    – jlliagre
    Jun 23, 2021 at 12:55

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