Like many French letters, the French S can have different pronunciations or no pronunciation at all depending on the context. Luckily, there are a few simple ways to remember how and when to pronounce the French S.
In English the letter S can make two different sounds depending on where it is in the word. It makes the classic soft S sound in words like “star” and “calendars.”
It makes an unvoiced fricative sound when paired with the letter H in shine and cash. The French S can also make two different sounds depending on the letters around it and its location within a word.
Classic French S
First up, is the classic soft S sound. This is the exact same sound we have in English in words like “stick” and “crowns.” It is the most common pronunciation of S in French and can be found in multiple different situations.
French S at the Beginning of a Word
Starting off strong, let’s talk about one of the most noticeable places to find a French S: at the beginning of a word. This S will always be pronounced as the classic soft S. You’ll notice it in words like:
- une salade salad
- une série TV show, series
- une soupe soup
- un singe monkey
- un serpent snake
French S at the End of a Word
In most cases, the S at the end of the word will be silent. When a French word ends in the letters -is, the -s is silent.
- Paris sounds like Par-ee
- Je finis I finish; sounds like juh fee-nee
- unis united; sounds like u-nee
This is because in French one of the most basic French reading rules is to not pronounce the final constant. There are exceptions to this rule with words like roc, docteur, and when it comes to S, fils.
The -s is pronounced and sounds like a -z sound when a word ends in -ise.
- cerise (cherry; pronounced seyr-eez)
- fraise (strawberry; pronounced fr-ayz)
- Louise (female name; pronounced lu-eez)
The S is silent for plural nouns that end in S. For example:
- les voitures (cars)
- les gens (people)
- les Français (French people)
- les ordinateurs computers
Many of the French nouns that end in S and come from Latin have an S you’ll pronounce at the end. Examples of this are:
- Un consensus (consensus)
- Un rictus (fixed grin)
- Un fils (son)
- Un sens (direction)
- Un os (bone)
- Un processus (process)
- Un sas (airlock)
- mars (march)
As well as words that end in S and come from other languages like
- Un albatros (albatros)
- Un autobus (bus)
- Un rhinocéros (rhinoceros)
You’ll notice that all of these words above are singular. You’ll very rarely encounter a plural word with an S on the end that will be pronounced. The only regular exception to this happens with French liaison, which we’ll dive into next.
French S and Liaison
If you’ve learned a little bit about liaison, you’ll know it changes the sounds of certain consonants when they occur before certain words that begin with a vowel.
When a word ends in a French S and comes before certain words that start with a vowel, it turns into a “Z” sound.
For example, les amis is pronounced as “lay-z” amis and des apartments is pronounced like “day-z” apartments.
French Double S
With the double French S, which occurs most often in the middle of the word, you’ll always pronounce it as the classic soft S sound. Very rarely, you’ll find a double at the end of a French word. Most of these are words that come from other languages and the double S will always be pronounced at the end.
French S Overview
Overall, when in doubt, pronounce the French S in its classic, soft pronunciation when it’s at the beginning or in the middle of a word.
When you find an S at the end of a word, double check for liaison and then if it’s one of the exceptions you learned about above. If it’s neither, you most likely don’t pronounce it.
Practice might make perfect, but all masters made mistakes at one point. The more you watch French movies, listen to French music, and speak French, the more you’ll become a master of the French S.