Like that of English - and unlike most other Romance languages - French spelling is not necessarily phonetic. The same letter used in two different words can make two different sounds, and many letters are not pronounced at all. In general, it's not impossible to sound out words, but suffice it to say that many experienced non-native French speakers -- and some native speakers -- mispronounce words often.
One thing to note is that final consonants of a word are usually dropped: allez (go) is pronounced ahl-AY, not ahl-AYZ; tard (late) is pronounce tar, not tard. Also a final "e" is usually silent. But if the next word begins with a vowel, the consonant may be pronounced; this is called liaison.
Stress is usually on the last syllable of a phrase, but sometimes when a word is emphasized, the stress moves to the middle of the word.
For many French words, it is impossible to write something which, when pronounced as English, sounds like the French word. Use the transliteration as a guide to liaison and the French spelling to pronounce the vowels.
Vowels in French can have accent marks, which generally have no noticeable impact on pronunciation. The only really important one is é, which is always pronounced "ay", and changes the meaning of the word.
a, à, â
like "a" in "father"
in most cases a central neutral vowel ("schwa") like "a" in "about", sometimes not pronounced at all, sometimes like "é" or "è"
é, è, ai, -er, -es, -ez
é is a bit like "ay" in "day", è is more towards "e" in "set", but many French people don't even distinguish them, you can consider them equivalent
like "ee" in "see" but shorter and tenser
o, ô, au, eau
generally like "oa" in "boat" or "aw" in "law", can be considered equivalent
like a very tight, frontal "oo" sound (purse your lips as if to say "oo" as in "soon" but try and say "ee") - uu in transcriptions
like "oo" in "food", but a pure vowel
like "ee" in "see"
between "ew" in "dew" and "ur" in "burp"; written eu in transcriptions
like "wa" in "walk"
like "wee" in "week"
like "wee" in "week", but with a French uu instead of the w
a bit like "eu" but more "open"
like "b" in "bed"
like "k" in "kill" (before "a", "o", and "u" or before a consonent), like "s" in "sun" (before "e", "i", and "y")
like "s" in "sun" (this letter can only be written before "a" ,"o", or "u")
like "d" in "death" (but a bit heavier than in English, and pronounced on the tongue)
like "f" in "fun"
like "g" in "go" (before "a", "o", and "u" or before a consonent), like "g" in "sabotage" (before "e", "i" and "y").
like "g" in "goose" (before "e", "i", "y")
like "ny" in "canyon". This is particularly difficult (even for little French kids) when followed by oi, as in baignoire (beh-NYWAR) "bathtub".
usually silent, but may sometimes prevent a liaison with the former word
like "g" in "sabotage"
like "k" in "kill"
like "l" in "like"
like "m" in "me"
like "n" in "nurse" (but see Nasals below)
like "p" in "push" (unaspirated like the t)
most of the time like "k" in "kill" (not like "qu" in "quick"); in some words like "qu" in "quick" (generally before an "a") or the same but with a French u (generally before an "i")
gutteral; kind of like coughing up a hairball
like "s" in "sun"; like "z" in "zero" (between two vowels)
like "sh" in "bush"; sometimes like "k" in "kill" (in words of Greek origin mostly)
like "t" in "take" (unaspirated, it should sound dry and on the tongue, like a spanish speaker)
like "v" in "value"
only in foreign words, mostly like "w" in "wise" and sometimes like "v" in "value" (in particular, "wagon" is "vagon" and "WC" is "VC"!)
either ks (like "x" in "exit") or gz
like "z" in "zero"
like "f" in "fun"
an, en, em
nasal a (not always pronounced as a nasal, especially if the n or m is doubled: emmental is pronounced as a normal "emm" sound)
nasal o - distinguishing between this and "an" is tricky, it's a deeper, more closed sound
nasal eu (almost always pronounced the same as 'in'
nasal "wè" (thus, coin is a nasalised "cwè")
like "i" in "fight"
either literally, or like "y" in "three years", with some exceptions (ville is veel, fille is fiy)
When there is an accent mark on "e", it prevents diphthongs. Letters should be pronounced separately, following the rule for the accented letter. Example: énergumène, (rowdy character), réunion (meeting).
A diaeresis (") may also be used to prevent diphthongs on "e", "u" and "i". Example: maïs (maize).
In the combinations "gue" and "gui", the "u" should not be pronounced, it is there only to force the prononciation of "g" as in "go". If the "u" is pronounced, a diaeresis is added: aiguë (sharp).
In the combination "geo", the "e" should not be pronounced, it is only there to force the prononciation of "g" as in "sabotage" (in the case the "e" should be pronounced, it is indicated with an accent mark as in géologie).
In French, there are several levels of politeness. But to keep things simple this phrasebook is limited to two levels -- formal and informal -- with complex rules about age and social rank that determine which level you use. In France and most of the rest of the world, formal speech is the default; in Canada, it's informal that's used more often. This phrasebook gives everything in the formal level of politeness, on the principle that your friends or peers will just laugh if you address them too formally (vouvoyer), but strangers and "superiors" will find it offensive if you address them too intimately (tutoyer). Except a few phrases, such as "Buzz off", when you want to be offensive.
Note you should try not to pronounce the "G" where "NG" is used in the prononciation hint.
soixante-dix (swah-sahngt-DEE) or septante (set-AHNGT) in Belgium and Switzerland
quatre-vingt (katr-VANG) or huitante (wee-TAHNGT) in Belgium and Switzerland (except Geneva)
quatre-vingt-dix (katr-vang-DEE) or nonante (noh-NAHNGT) in Belgium and Switzerland
deux cent (deu sahng)
trois cent (trwa sahng)
deux mille (deu meel)
un million (ung mee-LYOHNG)
number _____ (train, bus, etc.)
numéro _____ (nuu-may-ROH)
demi (deh-MEE), moitié (mwah-tee-AY)
plus tard (ploo TAHR)
le matin (luh mat-TANG)
in the morning
dans la matinée (dahn lah mah-TEEN-ay)
le soir (luh SWAH)
in the evening
dans la soirée (dahng la SWAH-ray)
la nuit (lah nwee)
one o'clock AM
une heure du matin (ewn er dew ma-TAN)
two o'clock AM
deux heures du matin (duz er dew ma-TAN)
one o'clock PM, 13:00
une heure de l'après-midi (ewn er duh la-pre-mee-DEE), treize heures
two o'clock PM, 14:00
deux heures de l'après-midi (duz er duh la-pre-mee-DEE), quatorze heures
six o'clock PM, 18:00
six heures du soir (sees er dew SWAR), dix-huit heures
quarter to seven, 18:45
sept heures moins le quart, dix-huit heures quarante-cinq
quarter past seven, 19:15
sept heures et quart, dix-neuf heures quinze
half past seven, 19:30
sept heures et demi, dix-neuf heures trente
_____ minute(s) (mee-NUUT)
_____ heure(s) (eur)
_____ jour(s) (zhoor)
_____ semaine(s) (smen)
_____ mois (mwa)
_____ an(s) (ahng), année(s) (ah-NAY)
cette semaine (set SMEN)
la semaine dernière (lah SMEN dehr-NYEHR)
la semaine prochaine (lah SMEN proh-SHEN)
Writing Time and Date
Dates are written day/month/year. So if you see 04-12-2003, you know that's le quatre décembre, not April 12. A date (18-12-1963) fully spelled out is le dix-huit décembre dix-neuf cent soixante-trois (you can either use dix-neuf cent or mille neuf cent and so on for years from 1100 to 1999). The ordinal is used only with the first (premier) of the month.
Times are written with the letter 'h' after the hours: 18h30 (read "dix-huit heures trente"). 24 hour clock is the most common way of giving times. If there is no indication of matin or soir, it's in the 24-hour clock.
Bus and Train
How much is a ticket to _____?
Combien coûte le billet pour _____ ? (kom-BYAN koot luh bee-LAY poor)
One ticket to _____, please.
Un billet pour _____, je vous prie. (ung bee-LAY poor ____ zhe voo PREE)
Where does this train/bus go?
Où va ce train/bus ? (oo va suh trang/buus?)
Where is the train/bus to _____?
Où est le train/bus pour _____ ? (oo eh luh trang/buus poor ____)
Does this train/bus stop in _____?
Ce train/bus s'arrête-t-il à _____ ? (suh trang/buus sah-ret-TEEL ah _____)
When does the train/bus for _____ leave?
Quand part le train/bus pour _____ ? (kahng par luh trang/buus poor _____)
When will this train/bus arrive in _____?
Quand ce train/bus arrivera-t-il à _____ ? (kahng suh trang/buus ah-reev-rah-TEEL ah _____)
la/cette navette (lah/set nah-VET) (also means a tatting shuttle)
a one-way ticket
un aller simple
a round trip ticket
Where is the _____?
Où se trouve _____ ? (oo stroov _____)
...the train station?
...la gare ? (lah gahr?)
...the bus station?
...la gare routière ? (lah gahr roo-TYEHR?)
... l'aéroport ? (lah-ay-roh-POR?)
...le centre-ville ? (luh sahng-truh-VEEL?)
... la banlieue ? (lah bahng-LYEU?)
...the youth hostel?
...l'auberge de jeunesse ? (law-BEHRZH duh zhuh-NESS)