Merry Christmas in French: The Proper Pronunciation

Joyeuses fêtes ! Happy holidays to you! Is there a French-speaking family member, friend, or neighbor in your life who you want to wish a Merry Christmas? A quick Google search will tell you the written translation… but how do we actually pronounce it? Especially that weird “ë” letter in Noël, which doesn’t exist in English. 

I’m breaking it all down for you in today’s lesson, so you can feel completely confident in your pronunciation when wishing someone a Joyeux Noël this holiday season.

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1) “Joyeux Noël” and other French season’s greetings

Joyeux Noël ! = Merry Christmas !

That’s the French greetings of the season. There are a lot of scary letters in there, but the pronunciation isn’t so difficult. Listen to the video lesson to hear me say it. It sounds kind of like : “Jwah-yuh Noh-ell.”

Joyeux Noël is also a 2005 movie, a drama based on the Christmas truce of December 1914, depicted through the eyes of French, Scottish, and German soldiers, who stopped fighting in the trenches for one Christmas eve.

As you can hear:

  • The x” is silent in Joyeux” (= Merry, happy)
  • The strange letter ë sound like “ay” (or the French è)

The two dots in top of Ë / ë are called un tréma (= a “trema” sign). This sign means that the vowel under it sounds like a separate letter.

The extra mile:
For instance, Le maïs (= corn, maize) sounds like “Mah-eess” and not like the French word mais (= but, sounds like “may” in one syllable.)

Click here to learn more: French Pronunciation Fundamentals – é, è and e (“eu.”)

You can also wish:

  • Bonne fêtes ! = Happy holidays!
  • Joyeuses fêtes ! = Merry holidays!

Une fête (sounds like [“fett”]) is “a holiday,” or “a party.” It’s a feminine noun. The accent on top of ê is called un accent circonflexe. It means there used to be an “s” there before, in previous versions of the word. You can often still find it in related words.

For instance:

  • Une fête (= a holiday, a party) → festif (= festive)
  • Une fenêtre (= a window) → défenestrer (= to throw out the window)
  • Une forêt (= a forest) → forestier (“in (from) the forest”), un chemin forestier (= a forest road)

2) “Joyeux Noël” and French pronunciation of the letter Y

You might have noticed the pronunciation of the French y in Joyeux.

In French, the letter Y is called “i grec” (= “Greek i”) (though it’s never written that way.)

On its own, y sounds like “ee” and means “there” :

  • Tu y es ? = Are you there?
  • On y va ! = We’re going there! / Let’s go! (metaphorical “over there”)
  • Promenons-nous dans les bois, pendant que le loup n’y est pas… (= “Let’s walk in the woods, while the wolf is not there,” traditional kids’ song.)

Between consonants, “y” also sounds like “ee” :

It’s the same vowel sound when it comes between consonants, as in :

  • Une syllabe. = A syllable.
  • Un cycliste anonyme. = An anonymous cyclist.

Between two vowels, though, it sounds more like two French “i” :

  • Joyeux = “Joi” + “ieu (where “oi” sounds like “wah” in French)

Or take the word Moyen for instance. It sounds like “Moi” + “ien” (where “oi” sounds like “wah” in French, and “en” sounds like the French nasal sound “in.”)

Click here to learn more: French Pronunciation Fundamentals Part 2 : Nasal Sounds

Moyen” is an interesting French word, by the way. It can mean “middle”, or “a mean” or “mediocre” :

  • C’est le moyen de gagner. = That’s our means for winning. = It’s the way to win.
  • C’est très moyen. = That’s very “in the middle,” that’s mediocre.
  • Il y a moyen. / “Y’a moyen.” (= It’s possible. Informal expression.)
  • Il n’y a pas moyen. / “Y’a pas moyen.” (= It’s impossible, there’s no way.)
    Y’a moyen d’avoir encore de l’eau ? = Is it possible to have some more water?

The same pronunciation rule applies to a few other words, such as:

  • Loyal = loyal (“loi” + “ial”)
  • Royal = royal (“roi” + “ial”)
  • Incroyable ! = Incredible!
  • Un crayon = a pen (“crai” + “ion,” where “ai” sounds like “ey” in French.)
  • Un rayon = a ray
  • Tutoyer = saying “tu” (= friendly singular “you”) to someone
  • Vouvoyer = saying “vous” (= respectful plural “you”) to someone

Click here to learn more about “Tu” and “Vous” : Tu or Vous? How to say “you” in French

“Y” is sometimes used at the beginning of a word, as a “semi-consonant.” It sounds like “y” in “yule.” Les yeux = the eyes, le yaourt = yogourt

3) “Joyeux Noël” and pronunciation of “Y” in “Lyon”, “Bayonne”...

When a “y” is placed between a consonant and a vowel, it also sounds like two French “i”. For example, the city of Lyon sounds like “Li – ion” (two syllables) rather than un lion (= a lion, in one syllable.)

In practice, though, French people do speak fast. So the long “y” sounds like a shorter “i,” the difference tends to disappear.

There are also some exceptions to the rules we’ve seen in the section above. (There are always exceptions in French.) I’m thinking of the cities of Bayonne (in South-Western France) and Cayenne (in French Guyana, an overseas French department in South American) for instance.

Bayonne does not sound like “Beh + yonn”, but like “Bah + yonn.
Cayenne does not sound like “Keh + yenn”, but like “Ka + yenn.

Now you can buy du jambon de Bayonne (= some ham from Bayonne) or du poivre de Cayenne (= some Cayenne pepper) with the right pronunciation!

I hope you’re spending a lovely, lovely December.

Allez:
Bonnes fêtes ! Joyeuses fêtes ! Joyeux Noël !

Click to learn more with extra free lessons:

À tout de suite.
I’ll see you in the next lesson!


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Join the conversation!

  • Merci Geraldine
    J’ai trouve les lecons de tres utile dans cette annee. Quand mon mari et moi avons visitons Le nord de Loire-Atlantique dans l’ete, Toutes nos voisins nous arreter pour dire ‘Bonjour’.
    I would like to ask them ‘how are you coping this year?’. It has been so difficult and many live alone , so the normal ‘Ca va ‘ doesn’t project my concern.
    Hope to join you in the New Year to keep my French fresh and relevant.
    Bonne Annee.

    • Bonjour Suzanne
      I’m UK based, and so a French language
      student like yourself. I liked your question
      and thought to myself ~ well, what would
      I say ?
      Here’s my rough shot at it –

      C’était difficile cette année, comment ça
      va chez vous ? / c’était bien chez vous ou
      non ?

      Nous vivons des temps difficiles dans le
      monde maintenant ~ vous vous débrouillez
      chez vous comment ?

      Est ce que ça marche pour vous dans la
      vie maintenant, dans ces jours assez
      difficiles pour tout le monde ?

      And so on ..

      In one’s own language things come to
      mind like “how’s it going these days ?”,
      but in another language it’s easy to
      make mistakes if we try to be too
      colloquial. I hope the above are not so
      far off the mark, and that they don’t end
      up getting you deported from France 😀

      Have a lovely Christmas Suzanne, and
      all best wishes for 2022.

    • Bonjour Suzanne,

      Given that “to cope” would translate as “faire face” or “surmonter”, perhaps questions like “Comment est-ce que vous surmontez cette crise ?” or “Comment est-ce que vous faîtes face à la crise ?” may seem a bit more adequate.
      However, and more colloquially, I would suggest: “Comment est-ce que vous vous en sortez (avec cette crise) ?” , “Vous tenez bon (avec cette crise) ?”

      I hope this helps. Bonnes fêtes,

      Fabien
      Comme Une Française Team

  • Salut Géraldine
    Bonnes fêtes!
    C’est correct si l’on dire « d’avoir encore de l’eau ? «  Pas encore d’eau?
    Comme un pichet d’eau, un peut plus d’eau ?

    Bisous
    Brian

    • Bonjour Brian,

      Oui, en effet, you can use “pas encore de l’eau” (some water).
      However, un pichet d’eau, un verre d’eau (of water).

      I hope this helps. Joyeuses fêtes.

      Fabien
      Comme Une Française Team

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