French Language Blog

Les accents Posted by on Jul 2, 2021 in Language


Let’s talk about accents. In French they are important, since both the pronunciation and meaning of a word can change with or without an accent. For example:

pêcheur vs pécheur = fisherman vs sinner

Keep reading to help avoid mistakes like fisherman and sinner. 🙂


Accent aigu (the acute accent, lit. the “high” accent): You will only see it on the letter: é

Ex. travaillé (worked), mangé (eaten)

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. When you see this accent, the sound is “AY or EH” – travaill-ay, mang-ay.


Accent grave. (the grave accent, lit. the “low” accent) Occurs on the letters: à  è  ù

Ex. une pièce (room), une lèvre (lip)

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.


Accent circonflêxe. (the circumflex)  Occurs on all vowels: â  ê   î  ô  û

Ex. le château (castle), l’hôpital (hospital)

The circumflex normally indicates that there was once an “s” or an s sound in Latin or old French. Knowing this could help you understand the meaning in English at time as well.

For example: hôpital – hospital

fête – feste (feast)

degoûtant – degoustant (disgusting)

fantôme – phantasma (phantasm, ghost)

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.

The “petit chapeau” (little hat) can also represent another replaced letter. For example:

âge – aage (age)

mûr – meur (wall)

sûr – seur (sure)


Le tréma (the umlaut) Occurs on the vowels: ë  ï  ü

Ex. le maïs (corn), Noël (Christmas)

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. The popular name Zoë is therefore pronounced Zoe-ee and not Zoe.


La cédille (the cedilla) Only happens on the letter ç

Ex. français (French), ça (that)

La cédille is used to make a hard “c” sound softer. In fact, the ç sounds exactly like the English “s.” You will only see it in front of the letters ‘a’, ‘u’, or ‘o’. (A ‘c’ in front of an ‘e’ or ‘i’ already has an ‘s’ sound – so no need to add a cédille. For example – en face de (in front of).


Photo from Pixabay, CCO.

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About the Author: Bridgette

Just your average Irish-American Italo-Francophone. Client Engagement for Transparent Language.


  1. Cyril Wheat:

    I read all your posts with interest and this one in particular has been very illuminating. Clearly and simply explained with good examples. Thanks very much.

  2. Jill Hancock:

    This is the first time that I have received an email from you, many thanks.
    Explanation easy to understand, great examples and enlightening. Light globe moment for me.
    Merci beaucoup.

  3. Tom Arkwright:

    Years ago, I learned that accent marks are optional on capital letters.
    Today, all my software tools want the diacritics.

    Still optional?
    Which is the better practice?