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French Accents Posted by on Dec 14, 2015 in Grammar

Accents are essential to correctly using the French language, but for those of us who aren’t familiar to writing with accents, they can be very tricky indeed.

In French, the pronunciation and meaning of a word can change with or without an accent. Sometimes, accents aren’t included when the French type online…but that’s another story. In regular writing, it’s important to use accents correctly. (And, for a handy guide on how to type out French accents on the computer, check Jon’s post out here.)

The French language uses five different kinds of accents. They are as follows:

l’accent aigu (the acute accent, literally the “high” accent). This accent is only used as: é

l’accent grave (the grave accent, literally the “low” accent). The grave accent can be used with the following three letters: à, è, ù

l’accent circonflexe (the circumflex). This accent can be used with the following letters: â, ê,  î, ô, û

le tréma (the umlaut). This accent can be used with ë, ï, ü

la cédille (the cedilla). This accent is only used as: ç

The accent aigu is the most common accent used in French because it is used for the past tense form of many verbs. This makes the “e” sound higher–think of your voice following the accent up from the left to the right–é. For example the past participle of the verb donner (to give) is donné. The accent aigu on the last letter here makes it sound just like the infinitive verb form (don-ay).

With the letter “e,” the accent grave is the opposite of the accent aigu. Picture your voice going lower by following the accent from left to right–è. It is used for the pronunciation of the letter “e,” but with the letters “a” and “u” the pronunciation does not change and it is only used to distinguish one word from another. For example, ou means “or” but où means “where.” These two words are pronounced exactly the same.

La cédille is used to make a hard “c” sound softer. In fact, the ç sounds exactly like the English “s.” For example, façade is pronounced with a soft c or s sound.

The trema is used only when two vowels are next to each other and both need to be pronounced. Think of the two dots of the trema as both vowels next to one another. Thus, mäis is pronounced mah-ez.

The circumflex normally indicates that there was once an “s” or an s sound in Latin or old French. For example: “fête” was once spelled “feste.” This doesn’t mean that you pronounce an s sound, however. The circumflex only affects the pronunciation of the letters “a,” “e,” and “o”–not “i” or “u”. This change in pronunciation is very slight however, as the circumflex is a combination of the accent grave and the accent aigu. It’s also known as “le petit chapeau” in French!

If you know the use of these accents, you can spell any word that you hear correctly (accents and all!) based on its pronunciation.

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About the Author: Elizabeth Schmermund

Bonjour tout le monde! I'm a freelance writer, doctoral student, mom, and Francophile. I'm excited to share some of my experiences living in France, as well as the cultural nuances that I've learned being married to a Frenchman, with all of you. To find out more about me, feel free to check out my website at http://www.imaginistwriter.com. A la prochaine!


Comments:

  1. Herm iin Phoenix,AZ:

    A very useful article . . .thanks for sharing

  2. Stephanie Ricardo:

    In the article on French accents, you listed the circumflex as one of the accents, but you did not give it an explanation as you did with the other accents. Is there an explanation of it?

    • Elizabeth Schmermund:

      @Stephanie Ricardo You are very welcome, Herm! And, Stephanie, good catch–I didn’t explain the circumflex. The circumflex normally indicates that there was once an “s” or an s sound in old French. For example: “fête” was once spelled “feste.” This doesn’t mean that you pronounce an s sound, however. The circumflex only affects the pronunciation of the letters “a,” “e,” and “o”–not “i” or “u”. This change in pronunciation is very slight however, as the circumflex is a combination of the accent grave and the accent aigu. It’s also known as “le petit chapeau” in French!