Colloquial language doesn’t only mean colloquial words: speech registers also affect the pronunciation and the grammar of a language. These topics are maybe less fun and more complicated, but they are nonetheless important to understand colloquial French. So today we are going to talk about pronunciation.
People who don’t speak French or who are learning it often say that they have trouble understanding where words begin and end when they hear spoken French. They are right, because groups of words are usually pronounced as a single word. In addition, some sounds that are pronounced in careful speech are dropped in the colloquial language.
You probably already know about elision: words such as je, de, le became j’, d’, l’ in front of vowels (for example l’ami, “the friend”; le ami is not correct). But in spoken French, it happens in front of consonants too. The same short e sound (called by grammar books e caduc, e muet or schwa) often disappears in the middle of a word: app’ler (appeler, “to call”), ach’ter (acheter, “to buy”), p’tit (petit, “small”)… (They are usually not spelled this way, the apostrophe is only here to show you what sound has been dropped).
Je n’ai pas le temps de venir chez toi, je dois acheter de la nourriture. (Formal French)
J’ai pas l’temps d’venir chez toi, j’dois ach‘ter d’la nourriture. (Colloquial French)
I don’t have time to come to your place, I have to buy food.
(Note that je n’ai pas became j’ai pas. Ne/n’ usually disappears in spoken French, I will talk about it in another article.)
These contractions are not obligatory, but still very common. French people would pronounce all of these e‘s only if they wanted to speak especially clearly, for instance to repeat the sentence because the other person didn’t hear it the first time, or when reading poetry.
These contractions are not always possible: je me fais (“I do to myself”), for example, will be pronounced as j’me fais or je m’fais, but not j’m’fais because it would be really difficult to pronounce. Le temps, in my previous example, can be pronounced as l’temps because there is a word ending in a vowel before it (so pas le temps is not difficult to pronounce: “paltemps“), but at the beginning of a sentence this would not be possible (beginning a sentence with [lt] is really difficult).
Two especially common contractions are chuis and chais (not usually spelled that way, though): “I am” and “I know”. J’suis and j’sais are possible too, but the contractions appeared because they are easier to pronounce than words beginning with js. Chais is mostly used in the negative form, chais pas, with can be translated as “I dunno”.
Another thing you should know is that the pronoun tu, in colloquial French, becomes t’ in front of a vowel. Elision normally happens only with e; this is an exception. However, unlike normal elision, it does not happen in front of a consonant in colloquial speech (or very rarely): the tu in tu viens is always pronounced as it is written; t’viens is not possible (well, maybe sometimes in very colloquial and lazy speech, but it’s not that common).
Be careful: because of this, in colloquial speech, t’ can stand either for tu or te. But it is always clear from the context (I think I have never heard an ambiguous case where I didn’t know if t’ meant tu or te).
— Où t’as mis les clés ?
— Chais pas, cherche.
— Where did you put the keys?
— I dunno, look.
Finally, the pronoun il is usually pronounced only as i, unless it is followed by a vowel, in this case it is pronounced as it is written. The l of ils is also dropped, therefore it is pronounced as i before a consonant and iz (because of liaison) before a vowel.
Il [il] a dit qu’il [i] voulait pas venir.
He said he didn’t want to come.
Ils [iz] ont dit qu’ils [i] voulaient pas venir.
They said they didn’t want to come.
Listen to the examples: