Why does the French consonant "b" sound so different from the "b" in the IPA chart (with audio)?

I have compared many IPA chart audios, and the "b" in all IPA charts I have found always sounds different from the "b" as taught by a French native. Can anyone help?

Here are the links for the IPA chart and the French native person demo: https://web.uvic.ca/ling/resources/ipa/charts/IPAlab/IPAlab.htm https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=83sTgHd5Iw0

I checked the IPA chart for French (as in the below link), still having the same problem: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Help:IPA/French

But what confuses me even more, because it makes no sense, is that the consonant "b" of all other languages sounds the same as the one in the IPA chart. I am super confused now!

  • 3
    Clicking the letters on the IPA chart (which I assume is meant to play a production of that sound?) doesn’t do anything in my browser, so I can’t really compare your links, but the [b] in the YouTube video (who is clearly not a native French speaker, by the way) sounds like a pretty normal IPA [b] to me. Unlike English [b], which is very often only partially voiced (starting off as unvoiced) in initial position, the French [b] is generally voiced throughout, sometimes even with pre-voicing (i.e., [ᵐb]). That may be why it sounds different to you. Commented Dec 16, 2023 at 11:54
  • Consonants are only pronounced with some letter following them. You can't pronounce them in a void. fr.wiktionary.org/wiki/… French does not have: beebee. But it has bébé. What is different are the vowels, not the consonants.
    – Lambie
    Commented Dec 30, 2023 at 17:12

1 Answer 1


As a starting point, I recommend getting 4 opinions, not just 1: here. The first speaker is in John Esling and they are the same recording. You can hear differences between all 4 of the expert recordings. However, the differences are not important, because an IPA symbol like [b] is not an exact physical object, it stands for a range of objects. They are all within the range defined by [b].

We can set aside the fact that your Youtube speaker isn't a native speaker of French, what is more interesting is that he incorrectly assumes that listeners "already know" the standard for IPA [b], which is not commonly used in English in initial position (instead, you find [p] which not [pʰ] as in [pʰæk] "pack"). His production of French doesn't strike me as significantly different from IPA standard.

The main point to keep in mind in thinking of IPA symbols is that they cover a range of physical realizations, and the correct question to be asking is "Is this language sound closer to IPA X or to Y?". His [b] is not more like [p], [β], [v], [m], therefore the choice of symbol is correct from the perspective of the auditory standard. You could measure the acoustic or articulatory properties of French [b] if you had a native speaker (and the time to do such an experiment).

  • Thanks for your kind response and advice! I got some clues from you, however could not move on. Reason is I found the IPA "b" sound like "ba" as in Alibaba, while the French person's "b" sound as "bur" as in "bowl" (youtube.com/watch?v=83sTgHd5Iw0 -time:1:09.10-1:14.10 ), should I just ignore IPA? They really sound different to me!
    – Wilks
    Commented Dec 17, 2023 at 8:44
  • Also remember that the IPA carrier context is "Ca, aˈCa", but the usual default French vowel is "e" (so-called schwa is itself not IPA ə). Vowel context massively affects consonants. If your interest is French pronunciation, ignore IPA and focus on what actual French speakers do.
    – user6726
    Commented Dec 17, 2023 at 15:49
  • @Wilks The primary difference between /ba/ and /bə/ (what you write as ‘bur’) is the vowel, not the consonant. The vowel may cause the consonant to be pronounced differently (e.g., the consonant in /ka/ and /ki/ will usually be different, the one in /ki/ being more palatal), but it would not normally be expected to make a significant different in /ba/ vs /bə/. But it makes no sense to say that French /b/ ‘doesn’t sound like IPA’ because the sample you happen to be using for French uses a different vowel than the one you use for IPA – that just means your samples are poorly chosen. Commented Dec 17, 2023 at 17:45
  • Thanks, Janus Bahs, thanks for your advice! I agree with you to ignore IPA sounds, except using IPA to understand the tongue & lip position and the state of vocal cord and air flow feature............................ In previous message, I should have used French person's "b" as "bay" as in bowl, instead of "bur". ................................. Anyway, if the IPA chart have warned people the proper way to use the IPA chart, it would have caused less confusion to beginner learners........................At last, thanks for help!
    – Wilks
    Commented Dec 19, 2023 at 10:06

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