Pronunciation: difference between /a/ and /ɑ/.

Minimum level A2

Reference of the lesson: PR678-AR78

Many people wonder if there is, in French, a difference of pronunciation between the "a" and the "â". The traditional example given is in the words "patte" and "pâte".

If you remember that the difference still exists in some regions (not just regions of France, but countries of the whole "Francophonie", and regions within these countries) and not anymore or not much anymore  in some others, you have understood everything.

Thanks for coming, the lesson is over. 😉 Well, I enjoy your company, so please stay a bit longer with me...


Here are the two sounds /a/ and /ɑ/.

If you wish, you can record yourself pronouncing those two vowels and send me the mp3. Please do not forget to tell me what nationality you are.

Originally, the circumflexe accent in French generally replaced an old "s" that you could find, for example, in the medieval times.

Because the difference of pronunciation between the two sounds is disappearing in some regions and still exists in some others, it logically means that in the past this difference of pronunciation existed everywhere, or practically everywhere. It is rather true. In the old days, people used to make a much clearer distinction between those two sounds, wherever they were.

However, some regions of France, like southern regions for example, have always been known for not making such a huge difference between the /a/ and the /ɑ/. Basically, to make it very simple, they both are pronounced /a/

The difference between those two sounds has been very clear in Paris until the XIXth century, then it started to disappear. 

For what reason? For one thing, "a", noted /a/ in the phonetical alphabet, is easier to pronounce. If you wish to know more about the pronounciation of those two sounds, you can also read the last part of this lesson which is a bit more technical.

Although the "â" tends to disappear more and more in its pronunciation ( /ɑ/ pronounced like an /a/), no spelling reform has rectified the spelling of words containing this letter (yet?). 

On the contrary, words containing "î" or "û" have been reformed and the circumflex accent has been abandoned, or at least not compulsory anymore. Which probably means that it will be totally abandonned sooner or later. 

Personally, I like "î" and "û". I think it adds a sort of elegance to the word, don't you think so?

Anyone still making a real difference?

What is said in this paragraph applies mainly to France.

1) Funnily enough, nowadays, higher social classes, wherever they are in France, tend to carry on making the difference more than other social classes between the /a/ and the /ɑ/. What is the reason for this? I do not know. Maybe it comes from the fact that it is sometimes considered a bit posh, at least in France, to pronounce very clearly the sound /ɑ/? It is true that this /ɑ/ will be more present in the very posh "16th arrondissement" (16th district) of Paris for instance.

I have found on Wikipedia an excerpt of a novel where this exaggeration of the /ɑ/ is described. Do not try to understand the text below if you are A1 or A2, just remember that the person described by Léon Daudet is supposed to be ridiculous because first of all he puts /ɑ/ (written "â") where in reality there is none, but he also exaggerates his pronounciation of this /ɑ/

"Il prononçait les â très ouverts, d’une large bouche qui se refermait comme une boîte, avec un bruit sec. Il racontait ainsi une villégiature en famille au bord de la mer : « Mâdâme Richet, mâ vénérâble épouse, avait de l'eau jusque-lâ… Mossieur Charles Richet, mon fils, âgrégé à lâ même Fâculté… âvait de l'eau jusqu'ici… Moâ-même le professeur Richet, je n'avais, vu mâ haute taille, de l’eau que jusqu'aux genoux. » — 

(Léon DaudetSouvenirs littéraires – Devant la douleur, Editions Grasset, 1915). 

(Click on the blue name to read about the author)

("He was pronouncing the â very open, with a wide mouth that closed like a box, and with a dry noise. He was telling about a family holiday by the sea"... etc. )

In France, the ironic word "moâ" ("me"), pronounced with an exaggerated "âââ" (a long /ɑ/is used (in oral language, apart from litterature) to make fun of a very narcissistic person, and snobbish people in general. The correct word meaning "me" is "moi".

2) Old people also tend to carry on making the difference in their pronunciation between the /a/ and the /ɑ/, due to the fact that it was more in use in the old days as I said above. 

The next generation of old people (in other words the young people of today, hope you are following me otherwise you get a supplement assignment 😉) probably won't make any difference when they are old (actually, most of them already don't make the difference anymore).

3) Concerning Francophonie countries, the difference between the two sounds is much more present in Belgium and Switzerland, and especially Canada. 

Let's see a few examples. 

The words "patte" and "pâte"

The first word means "paw", the second word means, according to the context, "pastry" or "pasta". Have you noticed that the "s", which disappeared in French, still exists in English words? Actually, "pasta" is Italian, but you also use it in English.

You'd better pronounce those two words in a different way, otherwise people will understand that you have cooked some paws for your dinner, instead of pasta.

Same problem for the words "tache" and "tâche". The first one means "stain", and the second one means "task". So what would you say if your French boss asked you if you have finished all the stains of the day? Or if someone told you that you have a big task on your jumper? 

Amazing how a simple accent can change the meaning of a word!

"Grâce" and "grasse" are not written exactly the same way, but you'd better make the difference when you pronounce them as "grâce" means "grace", and "grasse", which is the feminine form of "gras", means "fat".

Another example of this accent which changes the meaning of the word is "mât" and "mat".

"Un mât" means "a mast" (on a boat).

"Mat !" means "Checkmate!". However, in this case, you must pronounce the "t" at the end of the word.

Another example? Ok.

"Un mâtin" and "un matin".

"Mâtin" designates a big guard dog.

"Matin", as you certainly already know it, means "morning".

These two words look alike, although one has an "e" at the end: 



Un mâle is a male (antonym of female) and "mal" means "wrong", "bad" when it is an adjective, and it means "evil" when it is a noun. 

As the "e" at the end of "mâle" is silent, the oral pronounciation of the two words would be exactly the same if you did not make the difference between "a" and "â".

I also like to give the example of the word "mâche"

The word:  "Mâche" 

- can be a form of the verb "mâcher" (to chew), for example: je mâche (I am chewing), 

- and it can also be a category of lettuce. 

My advice: try to maintain a certain difference, or even a real difference, between the two sounds /a/ and /ɑ/ if you can, but without exaggerating the /ɑ/

There is one word where you can use this exaggeration to increase its meaning, or shall we say to mime its meaning. It is the word "un bâillement" which means "a yawn". 


In this case, the exaggeration of the /ɑ/ will suggest the intensity of the yawn, as you usually open your mouth wide when you yawn. OK, I may have exaggerated a bit too much in the recording... 😁

Be careful: some websites offering an automatic transcription of words to International Phonetic Alphabet will show you [bajmɑ̃] instead of [bɑj.mɑ̃].

Sometimes the "a" loses its circumflex accent in derived words.

Some other words don't lose their accent in their derived words:

In the example of the word "Un câlin", it is interesting to note that the accent has not always existed. It was added in the 19th century. 

The suffix "âtre" means "ish". 

"Jaunâtre" means "yellowish".

"Verdâtre" means "greenish".

"Rougeâtre" means "reddish".

In this case, the "â" is still pronounced /ɑ/  very clearly. This (more or less exaggerated) pronounciation suggests that the colour is not very pretty.

Example, in a dialogue which I have just invented:

Madame A : "De quelle couleur était la peinture ?

Madame B : - Jaunâtre..."

(What colour was the paint/painting? Yellowish...)

Obviously, that was not a very pretty yellow, and pronouncing a strong /ɑ/ will reinforce this idea.

Now, let's go a bit deeper into phonetics if you don't mind...

This part of the lesson is going to be a bit more technical, so if you are an A2 student, you can skip it if you feel like it. 

1) /ɑ/ 

/ɑ/ is a posterior vowel. To be more precise it is an open back unrounded vowel, which means in every day normal language that:

- open: the tongue is situated as far as possible from the palate when you pronounce it,

- back:  the tongue is positioned as far as possible at the back of the mouth, 

- unrounded: the lips are not round when you pronounce it.

2) /a/ is an open front unrounded vowel.

Here is, below, an image to illustrate the position of vowels in French. To tell you the truth, I am not a huge fan of diagrams in general, but they are nevertheless useful to have a global view of a situation. 


3) One last technical remark:

Please note that none of these two sounds are nasal. Nasal vowels in French are: 

/ã/ as in the words pantalonmanteauventre...

Look at the diagram above: do you see how near /ɑ/ is to /ã/ ? Amazing! 

/ɛ̃/ as in the words mainceinturemincir...

/õ/ as in the words talonmaison... 

/œ̃/ as in the words lundi, brunparfum... 

We can consider that the /œ̃is to the /ɛ̃what the /ɑ/ is to the /a/. 

This /œ̃also tends to disappear, like the /ɑ/to the point that experts expect there will remain only three nasal vowels in French in the future.

Vowel that are not "nasal" are called "oral". 

"Excuse me, Erica, but "oral" means "spoken", doesn't it?" (I know it irritates some of you when I do this 😉)

Do not confuse the word "oral" meaning the contrary of "written", and the word "oral" employed in phonetics to mean the contrary of "nasal" when you describe vowels in a language.

When you pronounce an oral vowel, the air passes only through the mouth.

When you pronounce a nasal vowel, the air passes through both the mouth and the nose.


1) "a" or "â" ? Choose the correct word.

2) Vrai ou faux ? True or false?

Scan the QR code on your telephone or open this link directly.
Once you have finished, please click on "Envoyer". 
The website will then show you a link and a code to your archive. 
Keep them preciously to be able to check your exercise later,
as I will send you a personalized correction and/or a comment.

Reference of the lesson: PR678-AR78

Looking for something?