Table of Contents
The French “r” In Brief
- Figure out where you pronounce [k] (as in “coat”) or [g] (as in “goat”) or “ng” [ŋ] (as in “thing”). Note that, to make these sounds, the back of the tongue and back of the roof of your mouth come together.
- In this same place, keep the two organs (tongue and roof of mouth) together, but make them vibrate as you breathe out, so as to produce a gargling sound. (This is what the French call le r grasseyé.)
- Initially, use this gargling sound wherever you see an r in a French word (except when it isn’t pronounced at all, as occasionally happens at the end of a word). Later, you can learn the variants used in specific contexts.
Laura Lawless says much the same about pronouncing the French r.
Also, Ms Edith Piaff will help you with the sound, if you imitate her singing Non, rien de rien.
The French “r” In Long
The standard French r is often described as a guttural sound, meaning that it is formed far back in the mouth, and as involving the uvula.
See the file on The Organs of Speech.
The uvula (la luette) is a little extension that the roof of your mouth ends in as it reaches the throat. Think of old cartoons in which a character is singing operatically: on a prolonged note, he or she opens wide, and you can see this organ vibrating furiously deep inside the mouth. (For photographs of the uvula, go here. Warning: some of these images are of unhealthy uvulas!)
Furthermore, the standard French r is a “fricative” or “trill,” meaning a consonant produced by restricting the airflow at a certain point, with some kind of a hissing (in the case of a fricative) or vibrating (in the case of a trill) sound being the result. Consequently this r sound would be the result of the back of the tongue and the uvula being brought close together, while air is forced through, causing the organs to vibrate and produce sound.
Myself, I think it is more helpful to think of the sound as involving the back of the tongue approaching not so much the uvula as the velum or soft palate. These are the same organs with which, and this is the same point at which, in English we form [k] and [g]; it is also the point at which Germans form [χ] (as in Bach).
Understood in this way, the French r is a dorso-velar (involving the dorsum [back of the tongue] and the velum [soft palate]) fricative or trill. (To be sure, the velum and the uvula are very close together; I imagine both of them get involved in the action.) If you know how to pronounce German, make the German [χ] sound, and then voice it. The resulting sound will be like a ferocious g-r-r-r-r; or like gargling.
See the file What Do “Voiced” and “Unvoiced” Mean?
Now, the pronunciation of the French r can be affected by other sounds near it. Notably, it has both an unvoiced version [χ], as for instance coming after certain unvoiced sounds [p, f, t, k]: pourpre, fricasser, quatre, cancre; and a voiced version [ʁ] in other situations: ordre, Robert, gratuit, Paris.
If you are just now learning this sound, I recommend practicing with the voiced version of the sound only; use this variant in all positions. Later, when you are very used to where and how this voiced sound is produced, you can “weaken” it or de-voice it.
What has come to be the standard German r resembles the French r. However:
- The German r seems to me to be pronounced further back in the throat (as though it truly were uvular).
- The German r is never devoiced.
Variants of the French r
Voiced: Strong [ʁ] & Less Strong
In certain positions, the voiced r will be very pronounced (that is, the “gargling” will have several flaps to it): notably,
- at the beginning of a word: rose, requin, rien, rappel, rugeux, riposte
- after a voiced consonant: bruit, draguer, graisse, vroom
In certain cases, the voiced r can become very weak (while still being voiced); the two organs, the back of the tongue and the soft palate, come together just once, or even merely come very close without actually touching. This can happen particularly:
- regularly, at the end of a syllable and before another consonant: tarte, bourdon, Mars (pronounced [mars]), Berthe
- very often, intervocalically: Paris, erreur, Europe, irrite, aurore, heureux
When it is the very last sound in a word, the r can be pronounced weakly, sometimes being partially or completely devoiced:
- car, cher, or, fard, finir, bonjour
This variant happens after an unvoiced consonant. It remains quite strong.
- crever, frère, propos, patron, Chartres
The Trilled r
The current standard French r [χ, ʁ] was introduced into the language in the 17th and 18th centuries. Before that, the standard French r was the trilled or rolled r (in French, le r roulé). This is essentially the same as the r in (classical) Latin and modern Italian and Spanish, in which the tip of the tongue vibrates (or taps, or flaps) against the alveolar ridge or the upper gums.1
The trilled r is associated with local accents, particularly in the Midi. It is also used (or was regularly up until very recently) in concert singing, as for instance in (French-language) operas. The rolled r was, likewise, standard in German dialects up until quite recently.
- This r can also be called “apico-dental,” meaning: involving the tip (apex) of the tongue and the upper teeth.