The letter u is one of the most difficult sounds in the French language, at least for English speakers, both to pronounce and to distinguish from ou. Some tips and sound files can help you hear the difference and say the words correctly.
Sounds Like Soup
In French, ou is pronounced more or less like the "ou" in "soup." The French u, on the other hand, has no English equivalent: The closest sound is also the "ou" in soup, but the u sound is created further forward in the mouth.
The following words are pronounced the same except for the vowel, so you will be able to see how the different pronunciations can make a very big difference in meaning. The words are grouped by alphabetical sections to make locating them easier and paired, with the "u" word listed first and the "ou" term second.
"Bu" Through "Joue"
Click on the words to hear how each one is pronounced. When two words are listed on the same line, they are homophones (pronounced identically).
- bu - past participle of boire (to drink) | le but - goal
- la boue - mud | le bout - tip
- la bûche - log
- la bouche - mouth
- le bureau - desk, office
- le bourreau - torturer
- le cul - ass | q - the letter q
- le cou - neck | le coup - blow
- dessus - on top
- dessous - underneath
- du - contraction of de + le | dû - past participle of devoir (to have to)
- doux - sweet
- eu - past participle of avoir (to have) | u - the letter u
- ou - or | où - where
- je jure - I swear
- le jour - day
- le jus - juice
- la joue - cheek
"Lu" Through "Pour"
From lu, the past participle of lire (to read), to pour (for), you'll find major differences in meaning depending or whether "u" or "ou" are used in various French words.
- lu - past participle of lire (to read)
- le loup - wolf
- mû - past participle of mouvoir (to move) | la mue - molting
- mou - soft | la moue - pout
- nu - naked
- nous - we, us
- pu - past participle of pouvoir (power) | ça pue - that smells (from puer)
- un pou - louse
- la puce - flea
- le pouce - thumb | la pousse - sprout
- le pull - sweater
- la poule - hen
- pur - pure
- pour - for
"La Rue" Through "Vous"
Pairing "u" with "r" (and "e") yields the word street-rue-in French, but adding "ou" to that same combination of letters creates the word roue (wheel).
- la rue - street
- la roue - wheel
- le russe - Russian
- rousse - red-headed
- su - past participle of savoir (to know)
- un sou - cent | sous - under
- tu - you | tu - past participle of taire (to be quiet) | il tue - he kills (from tuer)
- tout - all | la toux - cough
- le tutu - tutu (ballet skirt)
- le toutou - doggie
- vu - past participle of voir (to see) | la vue - view
- vous - you