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French accent marks - Purpose and Pronunciation

French accent marks

There are four types of French accent marks.

Some of them have an impact on the pronunciation. Others only have a grammatical role.

Discover all there is to know about the French accents!

Table of content

The acute accent é

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Let’s start with l’accent aigu (acute accent): é.

This French accent mark has a phonetic purpose only, and it can only be added to the vowel e.

The letter é is pronounced as in the English word (may), but without pronouncing the second part of the vowel sound, associated to the letter y. Here is an example:

l'été (the summer)

The grave accent: à, è and ù

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You may find l’accent grave (grave accent) on the vowels a, e and u.

On the letter e, it has an impact on the pronunciation: pronounce the accentuated vowel è as in the English word (bed). Here is an example:

très (very)

On vowels a and u, however, this French accent mark has a grammatical role only: we only use it to differenciate two identical words.

It has no impact on the pronunciation.

la / là (the, feminine / there)

ou / où (or / where)

The circumflex: â, ê, î, ô and û

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L’accent circonflexe (circumflex) changes the pronunciation of the letter e.

Pronounce ê as in the English word (bed). For example:

vous êtes (you are, plural)

On the other letters, the circumflex will have none or a very small impact on the pronunciation.

Sometimes, the accentuated letters are a little longer, but even the native speakers don’t always make the distinction. Therefore, don’t bother too much with that.

For the most perfectionists, here is an example to illustrate this:

un âne (a donkey)

une année (a year)

A bit of history

The purpose of the circumflex in French is to indicate that a letter has been dropped from the historical word.

For example, une forêt (a forest) used to be written as in English: une forest.

Another example: un hôtel (a hotel) used to be written un hostel.

The diaeresis: ä, ë, ï, ü

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Le tréma (diaeresis) is used to indicate that two vowels must be pronounced separately.

In French, some letters form a combination (a unique sound).

Therefore, when we want to pronounce two letters separately, we sometimes have to add a diaeresis, in order to “break” the combination.

Here is an example with the combination of letters ai:

mais (but)

du maïs (corn)

How to pronounce the French accent marks: summary

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Let’s recap what we’ve learned in this article:

1. The Acute Accent Mark

The acute accent can only be added to the vowel e.

é is pronounced as in the English word (may).

2. The Grave Accent Mark

The grave accent may be used with the letters a, e and u.

è is pronounced as in the English word (bed).

However, à and ù are pronounced the same as a and u.

3. The Circumflex

A circumflex can be added to any vowel (except y).

ê is pronounced the same as è, like in the English word (bed).

On the letters a, i, o and u, the circumflex has none or a very small impact on the pronunciation.

4. The Diaeresis

The diaeresis is used on the vowels a, e, i and u.

A diaeresis is used to “break” a vowel cluster, so that each letter can be pronounced separately.


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