In The X Factor, we focused on the various pronunciations of the letter x. We learned that x is usually silent at the end of words, including a few numbers. There are just three numerals (not including the larger numbers composed of them) ending in x in French: deux, six, dix (two, six, ten). These numbers are a breed apart, as they follow their own set of rules.
As mentioned in our earlier lesson, the final x in a word is silent in most situations, such as when the word is isolated or followed by punctuation. Note how Patricia pronounces deux (i.e., does not pronounce the x) in her lesson on numbers:
Caption 5, Le saviez-vous? Les chiffres et les nombres - Part 1Play Caption
The same rule applies to all numbers ending in deux. This time, soixante-deux (sixty-two) is followed by a comma, also making the final x silent. (We'll deal with the x in soixante in a moment.)
Captions 24-25, Le saviez-vous? Les chiffres et les nombres - Part 2Play Caption
In addition, the x in deux, six, and dix is silent when followed by a word beginning with a consonant, as in six minutes (six minutes) and dix premiers (first ten):
On va dire approximativement cinq à six minutes.
We'll say approximately five to six minutes.
Caption 39, Alsace 20 Grain de Sel: Au Caveau de l'étable à Niederbronn-les-BainsPlay Caption
On appelle les dix premiers nombres composés de deux chiffres les dizaines.
We call the first ten numbers composed of two digits the tens.
Captions 34-35, Le saviez-vous? Les chiffres et les nombres - Part 1Play Caption
Note, however, that there is a second pronunciation that is also correct. You might hear the x sounded like a soft s: diS premiers, siS minutes. The s sound helps emphasize quantity. Strangely enough, this never occurs with deux (two), whose x stays silent.
On the other hand, the liaison rule is not optional and applies to all three numbers. The presence of a vowel or silent h will trigger a change in pronunciation, and the final x in deux/dix/six will sound like a z to form the liaison. Listen to the examples in the videos below. Do you hear the z sound in deuZ enfants (two children), siZ ans (six years), and diZ-huit (eighteen)?
Je suis avec mes deux enfants et mon mari.
I'm with my two children and my husband.
Caption 64, Actus Quartier Devant la SNCFPlay Caption
Et nous sommes mariés depuis six ans maintenant.
And we've been married for six years now.
Caption 15, Ahlam et Timothé Des conversations basiquesPlay Caption
Caption 54, Le saviez-vous? Les chiffres et les nombres - Part 1Play Caption
Interestingly, a liaison also occurs with the number dix-neuf (nineteen), pronounced diZ-neuf, even though neuf starts with a consonant!
Pareil pour dix-neuf.
Same for nineteen.
Caption 55, Le saviez-vous? Les chiffres et les nombres - Part 1Play Caption
Going back to a more regular pattern, you will also hear the z sound in ordinal numbers, as in sixième (sixth), deuxième (second), and dixième (tenth), since the x is between two vowels:
Il nous avait assurés qu'il n'y aurait pas de deuxième confinement.
He had assured us that there would be no second lockdown.
Caption 12, Lionel L Le deuxième confinementPlay Caption
Donc au sixième étage tu peux manger
So on the sixth floor you can eat
Caption 72, Amal et Caroline Centre Georges PompidouPlay Caption
So far so good, but here comes another set of exceptions: the rogue sixties (and seventies)! All numbers containing soixante (sixty) escape the z-sound rule. Whereas usually an x between two vowels is pronounced like a z, in soixante it sounds like an s instead. Listen to Patricia again. Do you hear the s sounds in soiSSante (sixty) and soiSSante-siS (sixty-six)?
Et soixante. Soixante et un.
And sixty. Sixty-one.
Captions 22-23, Le saviez-vous? Les chiffres et les nombres - Part 2Play Caption
Caption 28, Le saviez-vous? Les chiffres et les nombres - Part 2Play Caption
Besides the exception above, there are other regular instances when the x should sound like s. When isolated or separated by punctuation, dix and six sound like diS and siS. (But as mentioned, deux keeps its silent x.) Here's Patricia again:
Caption 9, Le saviez-vous? Les chiffres et les nombres - Part 1Play Caption
Après dix, on aura donc dans les dizaines...
After ten, we will thus have, in the tens...
Caption 36, Le saviez-vous? Les chiffres et les nombres - Part 1Play Caption
You're more likely to use the s sound when counting or doing math:
Dix-sept, c'est dix plus sept.
Seventeen is ten plus seven.
Captions 49-50, Le saviez-vous? Les chiffres et les nombres - Part 1Play Caption
These frequent switches between sounds come naturally to native French speakers but can be a bit of a puzzle for new learners. Note how Patricia toggles between diZ and diS effortlessly:
Pareil pour dix-huit. Dix plus huit.
Same for eighteen. Ten plus eight.
Captions 52-53, Le saviez-vous? Les chiffres et les nombres - Part 1Play Caption
In short, the pronunciation of the numbers deux, six, and dix may seem very inconsistent and challenging at times. But with practice and listening to many Yabla videos, things will become easier. Here's a summary to help you:
The x is silent when a consonant follows the number:
deux parapluies (two umbrellas)
six voitures (six cars)
dix maisons (ten houses)
And when deux is isolated or separated by punctuation:
Un, deux, trois. (One, two, three.)
The x sounds like a Z when a liaison occurs:
deux amis (deuZ amis, two friends)
six enfants (siZ enfants, six children)
deuxième, sixième, dixième (deuZième, siZième, diZième, second, sixth, tenth)
dix-huit (diZ-huit, eighteen)
Exception: dix-neuf (diZ-neuf, nineteen)
The x sounds like an S when six or dix is isolated or separated by punctuation, and in numbers containing soixante:
dix plus six (diS plus siS, ten plus six)
Cinquante-six. (Cinquante-siS, fifty-six)
Soixante. (SoiSSante, sixty)
soixante-six, soixante-dix (soiSSante-siS, soiSSante-diS, sixty-six, seventy)
Thank you for reading. And remember that you can always count on Yabla videos to help you out!
This lesson is brought to you by the letter x, an exaspérante (exasperating) letter that can morph into several different sounds. How do you extract a meaningful rule out of this unruly letter? Are you ready to explorer (explore) this exciting letter x? Fear not, the French pronunciation of the letter x is similar to English, at least at first glance. However, there are some notable differences that we will explore.
You may have noticed that some of the cognates mentioned in the previous paragraph share the same x sound in French and in English. Here is an example using the word explorer (to explore):
Il faut les explorer, les décrire, en faire une carte et en découvrir d'autres.
We have to explore them, describe them, map them, and discover some more.
Caption 12, Il était une fois: les Explorateurs 10. Amerigo Vespucci - Part 3Play Caption
Here is another example, with exacte (exact):
Du coup, c'est très compliqué d'avoir la date exacte.
As a result, it's very complicated to get the exact date.
Caption 37, Lionel Le musée de Jeanne d'Arc - Part 2Play Caption
In a few instances, an x at the end of a French word will render the same x sound as in English. The video below refers to l’Académie des Lynx, named after the wild animal le lynx (lynx), renowned for its sharp eyesight:
Le prince Federico Cesi, fondateur de l'Académie des Lynx
Prince Federico Cesi, the founder of the Academy of the Lynxes
Caption 33, Il était une fois: Les découvreurs 9. Galilée - Part 7Play Caption
Likewise, words ending in -ex are usually pronounced as in English:
C'est-à-dire, vous faites un barré avec votre index
That is, you do a barre with your index finger
Caption 10, Leçons de guitare Leçon 3Play Caption
But words ending in -ex or -nx are not that common in French and tend to be of foreign origin. Instead, typical x endings come in the following combinations: -oux, -aux, -eaux, and -eux, which all call for a silent x. (We’ll explore exceptions further on.)
In the video below, the speaker, a British server, has never heard of a silent x… She tries to entice Sam and the gang with some “gâtox," which has everyone flummoxed. Fortunately, Sam saves the day and explains that she meant to say gâteaux (cakes), with a silent x. Listen carefully to learn how NOT to say gâteaux:
"Gâtox"... Je crois qu'elle veut dire "gâteaux".
"Gâtox"... I think she means "cakes."
Caption 45, Extr@ Ep. 11 - Les vacances - Part 6Play Caption
Here is an example with the correct pronunciation of nouveaux ("new," plural):
Les nouveaux livres qu'on a reçus.
The new books that we've received.
Caption 14, Gaëlle Librairie "Livres in Room"Play Caption
Since the x is silent, gâteaux and nouveaux are pronounced the same as singular gâteau (cake) and nouveau (new). But listen carefully to this sentence with the same word, nouveaux (new). Why does the x now sound like a z?
Afin de développer de nouveaux outils de pilotage...
In order to develop new steering tools...
Caption 10, Canal 32 Le futur de l’éolien se joue dans l'AubePlay Caption
This is not a mistake. The speaker formed what we call in French une liaison by joining two words together—the first one ending with a consonant, nouveaux, and the following one starting with a vowel, outils (tools)—rendering a z sound: nouveaux-Z-outils. (Notice how the speaker runs the two words together without pausing to make them sound like one word.) You will find more information on liaisons in the lesson Liaisons, Numerous and Dangerous.
So, look out for nouns (sometimes adjectives) starting with a vowel. It is a signal that you should sound the x like a z! Here's another example:
Les vieux époux ont décidé de mener leur vie
The old couple decided to lead their lives
Caption 4, Le Jour où tout a basculé Mes grands-parents sont infidèles - Part 9Play Caption
And here's one with a very short word, the determiner aux ("to the," plural):
Nemours a un passé particulièrement intéressant et très intimement lié aux États-Unis pour deux raisons.
Nemours has a past that is particularly interesting and very closely linked to the United States for two reasons.
Captions 5-6, Voyage en France Nemours - Part 2Play Caption
So we have: les vieux-Z-époux and aux-Z-États-Unis.
In short, when a word ends in x, the x is usually silent unless there is a liaison. If you are still unsure, don’t worry. Many liaisons are optional, and French people don’t apply the liaison rule to the letter, so to speak. Just remember, though, that in some situations, liaisons are de rigueur. The examples given above are very common and always call for a "liaiZon."
On the flip side, when a French word begins with x, it does not sound like a z, as it would in English. Instead, it's pronounced more like the x in exemple (example):
D'un symbole d'unité française, ce drapeau a été utilisé parfois comme symbole de xénophobie.
Once a symbol of French unity, this flag has sometimes been used as a xenophobic symbol.
Caption 41, Le saviez-vous? Histoire du drapeau françaisPlay Caption
Stay tuned for another X-rated lesson on the numbers deux, dix, et six (two, ten, and six) and find out what is special about them. Thank you for reading!
How do you pronounce ville (city) and fille (daughter)? In all logic, the pronunciation should be the same, but is it? The French language has its idiosyncrasies that make learning interesting and challenging at times. Words like ville, fille, fil, fils (city, daughter, thread, son) have their own stories to tell. Are you ready?
Words ending in -ille (with a double ll), such as brille (shines) and fille (girl/daughter), follow a specific pronunciation rule. The -ille sound is roughly equivalent to the sound “ee-yuh” in English, as in “giddy-up."
Listen to Sam, who sees the sunny side of life in this video, and pay attention to the way he says brille:
Le soleil brille dehors.
The sun is shining outside.
Caption 17, Extr@ Ep. 9 - Du boulot pour Sam et Nico! - Part 1Play Caption
Most words ending in -ille end with same “ee-yuh” sound. Hence, it’s no surprise to hear that brille (shines) rhymes with fille (girl/daughter):
Sa fille lui expliqua et lui demanda conseil.
His daughter explained it to him and sought his counsel.
Caption 42, Contes de fées Le roi grenouille - Part 1Play Caption
However, you guessed it, there are exceptions! No need to panic, though, as there are only three: mille, tranquille, ville (thousand, tranquil, city). In these words, the -ille is pronounced differently, like “eel” in English. (Note, however, that the word for "eel," anguille, rhymes with fille!)
Listen to the way mille, tranquille, and ville are pronounced in the following videos:
Notre amour brillera de mille feux
Our love will shine a thousand fires
Caption 10, Alsace 20 Colonel Reyel en session live acoustique!Play Caption
L'avantage, c'est qu'on peut s'y promener de façon vraiment tranquille
The advantage is that you can walk here in a really tranquil fashion
Caption 17, Antoine La Butte-aux-CaillesPlay Caption
Nous sommes maintenant dans la vieille ville de Chartres
We are now in the old town of Chartres
Caption 6, Voyage en France La Ville de ChartresPlay Caption
If a word ends in -ile, with a single l, this is no longer an issue, as you simply sound the l as you would normally.
Et des automobiles qui se suivent en file et défilent
And of automobiles that follow in line and drive past
Caption 15, Il était une fois: Les découvreurs 9. Galilée - Part 1Play Caption
The feminine noun la file (line) has a masculine homophone, le fil (thread/wire), with no e at the end. They both sound the same but mean different things:
la prêtresse grecque qui déroula son fil
the Greek priestess who unravelled her thread
Caption 9, d'Art d'Art "La mélancolie d'une belle journée" - ChiricoPlay Caption
In the plural form, le fil becomes les fils (threads/wires), and they share the same pronunciation since the s in the plural is always silent:
Bon, enfin. -Et les fils?
Well, anyway. -And the wires?
Caption 1, Sophie et Patrice Les lampes de Sophie - Part 2Play Caption
So far so good. However, the word fils has another trick up its sleeve! Les fils (threads/wires) could also be les fils (sons). Fortunately, these two words are easy to tell apart as they have a different pronunciation. When talking about les fils (sons), the l is silent while the final s is pronounced.
Il transmit à ses fils tout ce qu'il possédait.
He passed on to his sons everything he possessed.
Caption 5, Contes de fées Le chat botté - Part 1Play Caption
Furthermore, le fils (the son) also ends in a sounded s, even though it’s singular:
Il cherche son fils à l'école.
He looks/is looking for his son at school.
Caption 9, Farid et Hiziya Chercher et trouverPlay Caption
The only way to tell how to pronounce fils—and whether it's referring to threads, wires, or sons—is through context.
Merci mille fois (many thanks) for following le fil (the thread) of this newsletter!
Have you noticed that while some French words have many variations in spelling, they sound the same?
For example, the words un verre, un ver, vers, and vert(s) share the same pronunciation yet have different meanings. That makes them homophones.
Homophones are especially common in French as the letters t, d, and s, when placed at the end of a word, are usually silent.
Check out Patricia’s video on homophones and homonyms, which she turned into a fun story.
Let’s examine the examples mentioned earlier.
Un verre can mean "a glass" or "a drink." The expression boire un verre means "to have a drink." Or, you can say prendre un verre.
On est tous là avec juste l'envie de passer
We are all here just with the desire to have
un bon moment, de boire un verre.
a good time, to have a drink.
Caption 52, Actu Vingtième - Vendanges parisiennesPlay Caption
Le verre also refers to the material itself. It means "glass," as in English:
Nous sommes maintenant chez le souffleur de verre de L'Isle-Adam.
We are now at the L'Isle-Adam glassblower's.
Caption 11, Voyage en France - L'Isle-AdamPlay Caption
Speaking of verre, did you know that Cinderella’s slippers might originally have been made not of verre, but of vair (squirrel fur)?
Some scholars believe the original fable described pantoufles de vair (squirrel fur slippers), which became pantoufles de verre (glass slippers) in Charles Perrault's famous version. No one knows if he made a mistake or simply chose a new material for the slippers in his version of the fairy tale.
From squirrels to worms…. Un ver de terre is an earthworm, a critter that Claire and Philippe remember fondly in their La campagne video.
Alors elle prenait le petit ver de terre dans la main.
So she used to take the little earthworm in her hand.
Caption 71, Claire et Philippe - La campagnePlay Caption
And the poetically named ver solitaire (literally, "solitary worm") is the French word for "tapeworm”!
If the thought of many vers solitaires turns you off (vers being the plural of ver), let’s turn toward vers, an innocuous word that simply means "toward."
In the Actus Quartier video, this young lady is looking toward the future:
Je suis tournée vers l'avenir
I'm looking toward the future
et vers tout ce qu'on va construire...
and toward all that we're going to build…
Caption 40, Actus Quartier - Fête de la rose au caviar rougePlay Caption
Vers also means "around," "about":
Plutôt vers deux heures du matin.
Instead around two o'clock in the morning.
Caption 60, Adrien - Le métro parisienPlay Caption
Now, for a more colorful version of this homophone, you have the word vert, which means "green."
As you probably know, vert, like most adjectives, takes on masculine, feminine, and plural endings. For more information on adjective agreements, refer to previous lessons.
As mentioned earlier, -t and -s are often not pronounced at the end of a word. So vert (masculine singular) sounds exactly like verts (masculine plural). However, note that vert will become verte when agreeing with a feminine singular noun, and the t in verte will be pronounced!
Donc, on va écrire "vert". Masculin.
So we're going to write "green." Masculine.
Otherwise... "green" [feminine].
Caption 28, Leçons avec Lionel - CouleursPlay Caption
Now that you’ve acquainted yourself with homophones, you’ll be surprised how many you'll be able to spot! But if you haven't satisfied your appetite for homophones, click here to learn some more.
If you listen to Jean-Marc’s description of Mediterranean beaches versus those in western France and the eastern United States, you might be struck by the way he pronounces the word plus (more):
Les plages sont beaucoup plus petites, avec beaucoup plus de gens.
The beaches are a lot smaller, with a lot more people.
Caption 8, Jean-Marc - La plage - Part 1Play Caption
Did you notice that he didn’t pronounce the “s” in the first instance of plus, but did pronounce it in the second? That’s no inconsistency on his part—Jean-Marc is actually obeying the tricky pronunciation rules of this common little adverb.
The general rule of thumb for plus is fairly easy to remember: when it’s used to mean more of something (plus de...), the “s” is pronounced; when it’s used in a negative sense (ne… plus [no more], non plus [neither]), the “s” is not pronounced:
Je ne savais plus qui j'étais.
I didn't know who I was anymore.
Caption 16, Melissa Mars - Mozart, L'opéra rock - Part 1Play Caption
Mais toi non plus tu n'as pas changé.
But you, you have not changed either.
Caption 25, Le Journal - Retour sur scène de Julio IglesiasPlay Caption
This becomes especially important in informal conversation, when a lot of French speakers tend to drop the ne in negative constructions. So if someone says je veux plus de pain and they don’t pronounce the “s,” you can tell that they don’t want any more bread even though they left out the ne. If they do pronounce the “s,” you can pass them the bread basket!
A different rule applies when plus is used comparatively, i.e., when it’s followed by an adjective. In that case, the “s” is usually not pronounced (like when Jean-Marc says plus petites in the first example), unless the adjective begins with a vowel:
Voici celle qui est sans doute la maison la plus illuminée d'Alsace.
Here is what is without a doubt the most illuminated house in Alsace.
Caption 4, Alsace 20 - Alsace: les plus belles déco de Noël!Play Caption
If the adjective begins with a vowel, the “s” of plus is pronounced like a “z” to follow the rules of liaison, which you can learn about in our previous lesson on that subject.
The “s” is also pronounced when plus is used at the end of a sentence to mean “more” and when it is used as a noun (le plus):
Du coup, ils ont commencé à être plus proches de moi et à me parler plus.
So they started to be closer to me and to talk to me more.
Caption 35, B-Girl Frak - LimogesPlay Caption
Qui peut le plus peut le moins.
He who can do more can do less.
So to sum up, here’s a general breakdown of the pronunciation of plus:
The “s” is pronounced:
-in the expression plus de....
-when plus is followed by an adjective beginning with a vowel.
-when plus is at the end of a sentence and means “more.”
-when plus is used as a noun.
The “s” is not pronounced:
-in negative plus constructions (ne… plus, non plus).
-when plus is followed by an adjective beginning with a consonant.
Nous espérons que c'est un peu plus clair maintenant! (We hope that this is a bit clearer now!) Since it’s such a common word, plus appears in quite a large number of Yabla videos—you can find a list of them here. And stay tuned for a lesson on the opposite of plus—moins (less)—coming soon to Yabla.
Thanks to subscriber Felicity S. for suggesting this lesson topic!
Let's have a listen to Cali's beautiful tune "C'est quand le bonheur", paying special attention to this line:
Il paraît que vous faiblissez devant les hommes bien habillés
It appears that you swoon for well-dressed men
Caption 22, Cali - C'est quand le bonheurPlay Caption
Do you hear a "z" sound sneaking its way in between les and hommes, such that we hear "les-Zhommes"? You might also notice an "n" sound between bien and habillés, such that we hear "bien-Nhabillés."
What you are hearing are examples of liaison, which often happens when the (usually silent) final consonant of one word can be heard pronounced at the beginning of the following word, if the following word begins with a vowel or a mute h (learn more about the distinction between "mute h" and "aspirated h" here).
In most cases, the sound produced by liaison is very straightforward. In the Cali song, for example, the n of bien tacks right onto habillés. Simple! As is the first liaison we hear in the next line of the song:
Je suis tendu, c'est aujourd'hui que je viens vous offrir ma vie
I am tense, today is the day I am coming to offer you my life
Caption 23, Cali - C'est quand le bonheurPlay Caption
We hear a liaison in "c’est-Taujourd’hui." The final consonant of c'est, t (which we usually don't hear in French), binds with the vowel sound at the beginning of aujourd'hui.
But liaison doesn't always result in the sound you might expect. The next liaison in the line is in vous offrir. As in the case of les hommes, we have a preceding word that ends in an s (generally not pronounced in French) rendering a "z" sound that binds to the next "vowel-starting" word, resulting in "vous-Zoffrir."
A final s is not the only consonant that renders a "z" sound in liaison; the same is true for a word ending in -x. Let’s return to Cali and his romantic vieux amants (with our handkerchiefs close by):
Car qui mieux que ces vieux amants, sait qu'on perd l'amour...
Because who knows better than those old lovers that you lose love...
Caption 35, Cali - C'est quand le bonheurPlay Caption
As you can hear, Cali is singing of "vieux-Zamants"; the final x in vieux, usually silent, renders a "z" sound at the beginning of amants.
Another case where a consonant produces an unexpected sound in liaison involves words ending in -d. Here, the liaison carries over not as a "d" sound, but a "t" sound.
Here's an example concerning Viktor Bout, a notorious arms dealer who was the basis for Nicolas Cage's character in the movie Lord of War:
L'un des hommes les plus recherchés au monde,
One of the most sought-after men in the world,
finalement arrêté dans un grand hôtel de Bangkok.
finally arrested at a big hotel in Bangkok.
Captions 5-6, Le Journal - Viktor BoutPlay Caption
Did you catch where Bout was arrested? Not in a "grand-Dhôtel," but a "grand-Thôtel."
As you expose yourself to more authentic French, you will become accustomed to liaison and start to get a feel for where it does, and doesn't, belong. It's a tough subject to get a full handle on, and it's not uncommon to hear native French speakers adding a liaison where it "technically" shouldn't exist, or vice versa.
Here is an interesting article on liaison from ThoughtCo.com:
And another, from the Académie Française:
As a French learner, you have no doubt begun to see (if not been outright taught) that words that begin with vowels are treated differently than words that begin with consonants. Perhaps most obvious to the casual observer is the process known as elision, which is the contraction formed by many common words, such as je, le, la, que, ce, and de (to name only a few) when they come before words that begin with a vowel. Elision is the reason why, for example, even the biggest francophobe can be heard confidently uttering c’est la vie (that’s life!) and not ce est la vie.
Another thing that you probably know by now is that the French h is always silent. However, since French words that start with h are almost always followed by a vowel (heure, histoire, honneur, etc.), an obvious question to ask is: do we treat words that begin with h as we do words that begin with a vowel (since a vowel is the first sound that we actually hear)?
The answer is: sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t! The vast majority of French words that start with h are treated as if they start with a vowel (even though, technically, the French consider h a consonant). The French call the h at the beginning of these words an h muet (mute h). However, there is a relatively small group of "h words" that are treated as if they begin with a consonant (which they do!). The French call the h at the beginning of these words an h aspiré (aspirated h).
Ils ont été écrits comme ça, je pense, en un quart d'heure...
They were written like that, I think, in a quarter of an hour...
Caption 5, Bertrand Pierre - Victor HugoPlay Caption
In the caption above, we see that singer Bertrand Pierre says en un quart d’heure, forming an elision between de and heure to create d’heure. This is because heure, like most French words that start with h, begins with an h muet; it forms elision just as words that start with a vowel do.
Maladie qui ne l'empêche nullement d'être un sportif de haut niveau.
An illness which in no way keeps him from being an elite athlete.
Caption 4, Le Journal - Un sportif handicapéPlay Caption
On the other hand, the h in the word haut is aspiré; it is treated the same as other words that begin with a consonant. This is why we hear no elision between de and haut in the caption above. We hear three distinct words: de haut niveau, NOT d’haut niveau. (Put another way, h aspiré “prevents” the elision.)
How do we know whether an h at the beginning of a word is an h muet or an h aspiré? Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing just by looking at it! H aspiré words will usually have an asterisk or an apostrophe before them in French dictionaries. Also, lists of h aspiré words have been published that can be used for reference or (gasp!) memorization.
Other than that, exposure to fluent French speakers will hopefully help you build a “native-like” feel for which words are h aspiré and which are h muet. H aspiré words tend to be of “foreign” origin (“borrowed” from another language, e.g. le hockey), but this is not always the case, and even when it is, it is not always obvious.
Another common phenomenon associated with words that begin with a vowel is known as liaison, which has to do with pronunciation changes caused by certain types of words (contingent upon the letter they end with) when they precede a word that starts with a vowel. As you might have guessed, we also hear liaison occurring with h muet words and not with h aspiré words.
Passez par chez nous, restaurant ''Les Héritiers",
Stop by our place, "Les Héritiers" restaurant,
n'oubliez pas c'est un ''apporter son vin''...
don't forget it's ''bring your own wine,''...
Captions 31-32, Les Héritiers - Les bonnes recettesPlay Caption
Do you notice that when the chef says the name of his restaurant we hear something like "les-Zhéritiers"? That “z” sound is an example of liaison. We hear something similar in les heures (the hours), les histoires (the stories), and any number of h muet words.
In contrast, have a listen to the lovely lady from Le Mans we met one day in Manhattan’s Central Park, extolling the virtues of the fair city of New York:
Et les hamburgers sont meilleurs ici...
And the hamburgers are better here...
Caption 41, Interviews à Central Park - Différences culturellesPlay Caption
You will notice that we do not hear any “z” sound between les and hamburgers. This is because hamburger begins with an h aspiré—there is no liaison between the les and an h aspiré word, just as there is no liaison between the les and a word that begins with a consonant
The thing about most “rules” is that you know they will be broken! It is not terribly uncommon to hear native French speakers forming elisions and liaisons with some words that the dictionary tells us are h aspiré. For example, even though the venerable Larousse dictionary insists that hamburger is h aspiré, it is entirely possible to encounter French natives forming the elision l’hamburger, or saying perhaps un hamburger with a liaison, such that we hear it pronounced as “un-Nhamburger.”
Side note: We use the word “contraction” when describing “elisions” because our English readers are familiar with contractions such as “didn’t,” “don’t” and “wouldn’t,” and the similarities are obvious. Technically speaking, to a linguist or the like, a contraction and an elision are not exactly the same thing.