When you're learning French, one of the most noticeable things about the written language is the profusion of strange and confusing French accent marks above and below many of the letters.
- What do they mean?
- How do you use them?
- And why does French need all these extra symbols?
In fact, many languages use accents – also known as “diacritics” or “diacritical marks”. And the fact that English doesn’t have them (apart from in one or two loan words) makes it the exception rather than the rule.
Different languages use accents for a range of reasons, including to mark the stress of a word or to indicate tone.
But in French, accent marks are mostly used to change the way a particular letter is pronounced. By the end of this post, you'll know exactly where to put French accent marks and how to pronounce words that have them.
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#1 Acute Accent – L’accent Aigu
In French, there are five diacritical marks, the acute accent, the grave accent, the circumflex, the diaeresis and the cedilla – so now let’s look at each one in turn.
The acute accent – l’accent aigu – is one of the most commonly used in French. It is written as a short line that rises from left to right and is found only above the letter ‘e’.
When it appears, it changes the pronunciation of the letter – ‘e’ can be pronounced in several different ways in French, but ‘é’ is always pronounced the same. Because of this, ‘é’ can almost be considered a separate letter.
In the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), it is represented by the symbol /e/.
This sound doesn’t exist in English, but perhaps the closest we have is the ‘-ay’ in the English word “day”. Maybe if you imagine the Scottish pronunciation of “day” but shorter, you'll be close.
The ‘e-acute’ is found at the end of the past participle of -er verbs, for example:
- jouer (to play) j’ai joué (I played)
- aimer (to like) il a aimé (he liked)
It's also common at the end of adjectives:
- doué (gifted, talented)
- bourré (drunk)
If the adjective describes a feminine noun, due to the rules of agreement, it is followed by another ‘e’. But when this happens, the additional ‘e’ is silent. And the pronunciation of the word remains unchanged:
- douée (gifted, talented) (feminine)
- bourrée (drunk) (feminine)
The e-acute can appear in many other words. But again, the pronunciation is always the same.
#2 Grave Accent – L’Accent Grave
The grave accent – l’accent grave – is written as a short line falling from left to right.
You'll find it above the letters ‘e’, ‘o’ and ‘u’ and has two distinct uses.
When it appears above the letter ‘e’, the grave accent, like the acute accent, changes the pronunciation of the letter.
In French, an ‘e’ can be pronounced in several different ways. But ‘è’ is always pronounced the same way. In IPA, it is represented by the symbol /ε/ and is similar to the ‘e’ in the English word ‘best’.
It is commonly found in some forms of certain verbs, for example, in peser (to weigh).
The singular forms of this verb, as well as the third person plural, are written with a grave accent to clarify how it should be pronounced, like this:
- je pèse (I weigh)
- tu pèses (you weigh)
- il pèse (he weighs)
- ils pèsent (they weigh)
It shows that the word should be pronounced with the /ε/ sound and not something else.
This accent is also found in other words, for example:
- sincère (sincere)
- colère (anger)
- frère (brother)
Sometimes, without this accent, the word would be pronounced quite differently. For example:
- après (after)
- âpres (rough, harsh (plural form))
With après, the accent tells us to pronounce the ‘è’ as /ε/, making this a two-syllable word. But in âpres, the ‘e’ is silent, making it a one-syllable word.
However, in all cases, the result is the same – this accent shows that the ‘e’ is pronounced as /ε/ rather than anything else. So ‘è’, like ‘é’, can almost be considered as a separate letter.
With ‘A’ And ‘U’
When it comes to ‘a’ and ‘u’ with a grave accent, things are simpler.
This accent rarely occurs with these letters. And when it does, it doesn’t change the pronunciation but distinguishes between two words that are otherwise written the same way.
For example, the words la (feminine form of “the”) and là (there, that) are pronounced the same. But, when written, are distinguished by the grave accent.
Similarly, à (at, to) and a (has as in “he has”) are pronounced the same but are distinguished in writing by the accent.
Another word, déjà (already), is written with the grave accent on the ‘a’. But this is now just a custom, and in modern French, this accent doesn’t serve any practical purpose.
The only word in French that has a ‘u’ with a grave accent is où (where). And this distinguishes it from ou (or), which has the same pronunciation.
#3 Circumflex – L’Accent Circonflexe
In practical terms, the circumflex – l’accent circonflexe – is of more interest to linguists and fans of etymology than you, the French learner.
This is because it doesn’t change the pronunciation of the word but rather tells you about the history of that word.
This accent, which looks like a conical “hat” above the letter, can occur with ‘a’, ‘e’, ‘i’, ‘o’ and ‘u’. Where present, it indicates that there was once an ‘s’ after the vowel but that it has since disappeared.
For example, the French word hôpital in English is “hospital” (and incidentally, in Spanish, it is also hospital). The accent shows that the French word once also had this ‘s’ but that it has been ‘lost’.
Interestingly, though, the word hospitalisé (hospitalised) still retains the ‘s’.
Here are a few more examples:
- pâte (paste)
- hâte (hurry or haste)
- île (island, isle)
- hôte, hôtesse (host, hostess)
- forêt (forest)
There are countless others, many of which show the development of the word and the origin of the English version, which has kept the ‘s’ where French has lost it.
Here’s one more for the purists: the French word for “same” is même while in Spanish, the word is mismo. Here, we can clearly see the words share the same root but that the French version has lost the ‘s’ while Spanish has kept it.
How The Circumflex Can Help Boost Your French Vocabulary
While this is all very interesting to those with a passion for linguistics, there is another reason I’m spending so much time on it.
This accent doesn’t change the pronunciation of a word, and as a learner, you just have to remember which words need it. However, if you know why the accent is there, it can help you guess the meaning of unfamiliar words and memorise new vocabulary.
For example, now you know the purpose of the circumflex, when you see the word côte, by putting back the ‘s’ that has disappeared, you might correctly guess that the meaning is “coast”. And once you know the word, it is also easier to remember.
Finally, note the difference between the words sûr (sure) and sur (on), which are distinguished in writing by the presence or absence of the circumflex.
#4 Diaeresis – Le Tréma
The diaeresis – le tréma – is a little-used diacritical mark that only appears in a few words. It takes the form of a pair of dots above a letter. And its purpose is to separate two letters so they are pronounced as separate vowels.
An example of this is the word maïs (maize or sweetcorn). Without the diaeresis, mais means ‘but’ and is pronounced a bit like the English month ‘May’. However, with its inclusion, it is pronounced something like ‘maa-ees’ – with two distinct syllables.
Here are a couple of other examples:
- naïve (naive) (pronounced naa-eev)
- thaï (Thai) (pronounced taa-ee)
- aïe ! (ow!) (pronounced aa-ee)
#5 Cedilla – La Cédille
The cedilla – la cédille – is one of the easiest diacritics in French to understand.
It appears only with the letter ‘c’, resembling a kind of curly ‘tail’ beneath the letter. And it is used to show that the ‘c’ should be ‘soft’ rather than ‘hard’. In other words, you should pronounce it like the ‘c’ in ‘parcel’ rather than in ‘cave’.
In French, without a cedilla, ‘c’ is hard before ‘a’, ‘o’ and ‘u’, as in capitaine (captain), conte (story, tale) and culture (culture). Before ‘e’, ‘i’, and ‘y’, on the other hand, it is ‘soft’, as in cependant (however), citer (to quote) and cygne (swan).
However, when a ‘c’ appears before ‘a’, ‘o’ or ‘u’, a cedilla tells you that you should pronounce it as soft rather than hard.
This is a relatively uncommon diacritic compared to some of the others, but it still occurs in a number of words. Here are a few examples:
- ça (that)
- français (French)
- garçon (boy)
- leçon (lesson)
- reçu (receipt)
French Accent Marks: Different Purposes, But All Essential
French accent marks aren't optional and must be used. If you write a word without the accent, it will be incorrect, your French will appear sloppy. And, if you're taking an exam, you will lose marks.
The exception to this is capital letters, where you can choose to include them or leave them out. However, nowadays there is a growing feeling that there is no reason to omit them with capital letters.
And the best advice is just to always include them. This way, as a learner, you will train yourself never to forget.
As we have seen, accents in French have different functions. With four of these marks, they affect the pronunciation of a word and can change the way you read it.
The odd one out is the circumflex since it serves only a historical rather than practical purpose. Although it can still help with your learning.
At the beginning, try to remember the role each mark plays and how it changes the letters it appears with. This will ensure you can read words correctly.And will also help you remember which accents to use when writing French.
Then, with time, understanding how accents change the sounds of letters they appear with will become second-nature. Especially if you immerse yourself in the written language by reading French books, where you'll see the French accent marks in action.