French Accent Marks – Your Complete Guide

If you’re studying French, you’ll know that the language has several different accent forms. These are known as ‘diacritics’ and, unfortunately for English learners, they are not optional in the French language. That’s right – the importance of learning French accent marks cannot be overstated if you want to avoid making grammatical errors.

French accents serve multiple purposes. Whilst they often change the way a word should be pronounced, they can also change the meaning of a word altogether.

Today, we will cover the following:

👍 The 5 French Accent Marks
👍 How these accents are used and pronounced.
👍 The main effects French accents have on a word’s meaning.

In addition to this, we’ll provide plenty of examples in order to ensure everything is clear for you.

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The 5 French Accents

There are 5 French accents, all of which are used frequently in the French language.

– Cédille Ç (the cedilla)
– Aigu é (the acute accent)
– Circonflexe â, ê, î, ô, û (the circumflex)
– Grave à, è, ù (the grave accent)
– Tréma ë, ï, ü (the trema)

The Pronunciation of French Accent Marks: Your Guide 

Once you have learned how each of the five French accents is pronounced, you’ll know how to pronounce any French word you come across. Below, you’ll find an explanation of how each of these French accents is pronounced, alongside several examples.

If you need further explanation after this post, you can always use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) for reference.

The Accent Cédille ç (the cedilla)

The cédille is only used in French on the letter C. Its purpose is to transform a hard ‘c’ sound (like the ‘k’ sound in cuit) into a soft ‘c’ sound (like the ‘s’ sound in garçon).

The ‘ç‘ is never used before the vowels ‘e’ or ‘i’. The reason for this is that these two vowels always produce a soft ‘s’ sound in French – (glaceici).

Note: The cedilla ‘ç’ only ever precedes the vowels ‘a’, ‘o’, or ‘u.’ This is because the ‘c’ before these vowels is pronounced in the same way (like an ‘s’), which makes the cedilla ‘ç’ redundant.

Examples of the cédille (ç):

Garçon – (boy, or waiter)
Français – (French!)
Reçu – (Receipt)
Ça – (that or it)
Caleçon – (underwear) – notice that the first ‘c’ takes the hard ‘k’ sound.

The Accent Aigu é (the acute accent)

You will only find the French acute accent on the letter ‘e’ as follows – ‘é’.

Usefully, the pronunciation of the acute accent in French never changes. However, the unaccented ‘e’ can be pronounced in many different ways.

Many online sources state that the acute accent in French is pronounced like the English ‘ay.’ For example, ‘play’, ‘tray’ and ‘way’.

Whilst this will help you to remember how to use the acute accent in French, it is not entirely correct. In fact, the pronunciation required by an accute ‘é’ is different and requires a sound we do not make in English.

Pronouncing the French ‘é’ in this ‘way‘ will sound incorrect and you will sound incredibly English. As complete beginners, we’ve all been there, but it’s a scenario we’d all rather avoid!

As a tip to help you with your pronunciation of the acute French ‘é’, say ‘day’ or ‘way’ but very slowly. Instead of saying the word quickly, try to draw out the vowel at the end of the word.

When you pronounce these words you’ll notice that you’re moving your tongue. The reason for this is that ‘ay’ comprises two vowels – with one followed by the other in quick succession. In linguistic terms, this is called a ‘diphthongs.’

With this in mind, note that the acute French “é” is the first of these two vowel sounds. In order to master pronunciation of this é, say ‘ay’ but don’t move your mouth beyond the initial pronunciation. You should hear a flat vowel sound, instead of a diphthong.

Examples of the accent aigu (é):

Le canapé – (sofa)
Le café – (cafe)
Soufflé – (Breathed)
Rosé – (pinkish)

The accent circonflexe â, ê, î, ô, û (the circumflex)

The French accent circonflex indicates that a letter ‘s’ used to follow the vowel.

No matter your current level of French, you’ll notice the French circumflex in any French text for its resemblance to a house roof. It is used above all five vowels in French: â, ê, î, ô and û.

The two accent marks looked at so far are relatively straightforward. Unfortunately, we cannot say the same for usage of the circumflex in French.

Let’s take a look at its usage.

First, it tells you how to pronounce ‘a;, ‘e’, and ‘o’:

– ‘â’ is pronounced a little like an English “ah” such as American “lot” or British “grass”
– ‘ê’ is pronounced like an English “eh” as in ‘let’ or ‘fret’ – the same as if it were “è” with a grave accent
– ‘ô’ is pronounced a lot like an English “oh” as in “float” or “morose”

French Accent Marks – What about ‘i’ and ‘u’?

If you’re already familiar with the pronunciation of the French word ‘au’ then the ‘ô’ should be nice and easy for you.

So, we know what the circumflex does to ‘a’ ‘e’ and ‘o.’ But what about ‘i’ and ‘u’?

When used on the ‘i’ or ‘u’, the pronunciation of the letter stays the same. Despite this, including the circumflex is still necessary in written French. So much so that omitting it would make the word grammatically incorrect. In some cases, it could change the meaning of the word entirely.

If you’re reading this then you’re probably studying French already. If this is the case, you’ll know that many letters in French are written but not pronounced.

The language is many moons from being phonetic. When placed on an ‘i’ or ‘u’, the French circumflex is the same as many of these unnecessary letters.

If you’d like to know more about the logic behind replacing one letter with an accent but keeping the same pronunciation, you’ll have to ask the Academie Française.

Contrary to popular belief, the purpose of this institution is to promote, maintain and develop the French language, not just make it difficult for English speakers to get to grips with!

Examples of the French accent circonflexe (â, ê, î, ô, û)

Le vieux château (The old castle)
Une fête (A Party)
Le dîner (The dinner)
L’hôtel (The hotel)
Bien sûr (Of course)

The Accent Grave à, è, ù (the grave accent)

The French grave accent can be used only on the letters ‘a’ ‘e’ and ‘u > (à/è/ù).

The purpose of the accent depends entirely on the letter. In fact, it serves a few purposes.

In some cases it is simply a pronunciation marker, but it can differentiate the meaning of a word entirely, (such as ‘à’ – ‘to’ versus ‘a‘ – ‘has.‘)

Let’s start with ‘à’ and ‘ù’. When used above ‘a’ or ‘u’, the French accent grave serves no purpose relating to pronunciation. Instead, it enables us to distinguish between words that have the same pronunciation but different meanings.

Examples of the French accent grave ‘à’ and ‘à’

ou – or – où – where
la – the (f) – là – there (adverb)
a – he/she has (third person singular of avoir) – à – to, at, in (preposition)

The French accent grave also features on several French words without an unaccented counterpart.

An example of this is:

déjà – (already)

Interestingly, the example above is the only word in the French language which contains an accent grave on the letter ‘u’.

Examples of the French accent grave ‘è’

Now, we’ll look at ‘è’.

On the letter e, the French accent grave indicates that the pronunciation of the letter needs to change.

The sound of the ‘è’ is not dissimilar to the acute accent. It sounds like the ‘e’ in the English word ‘fret’ – you’ll find

Here are some examples:

espèce (type, species) – (f)
lèvre (lip) – (f)
pièce (room, coin, play) – (f)
très (very)

The accent tréma ë, ï, ü (the trema)

The accent tréma, also known as the dieresis, indicates that the vowel is to be pronounced separately from the one that precedes it. These two little dots can be found in French above the ‘e’, ‘i’ and ‘u’ > ë, ï, ü.

German speakers in particular will recognise this French accent for its resemblance to the umlaut. Believe it or not, the trema is not actually an umlaut and does not even derive from the same place.

If you have ever met a Zoë or a Chloë before than you may be familiar with the trema in their names. The purpose of the trema here is to tell you that the “o” and “e” are pronounced separately. So, they rhyme with “blowy”, not “low”.

This used to be far more common in the English language, but the trema is now almost nonexistent in English.

Finally, there are two particular French words within which the trema works differently. It indicates that uë should be pronounced as a single sound.

If the trema were not present, neither letter would be pronounced.

Aiguë – acute (f)
Ciguë – hemlock (cigue would be pronounced ‘cig’)

Examples of the French accent tréma ë, ï, ü

Canoë (canoe)
Noël (Christmas)
Caraïbe (Caribbean) 
Maïs (Corn)
Naïf (Naive)
Jamaïque (Jamaica)

The Most Common French Accent Marks

Whether you’re a beginner in French or at intermediate level, you’ve probably come across all five of the French accent marks many times by now.

The é and the è are, without doubt, the two most common French accents you’ll find when reading in French:

é (pronunciation = ay)
été (Summer)
è (pronunciation = eh)
mère (mother)

French Accent Marks – A Summary

So, there we have it. As you’ll know by now, French accents are not easy to learn. Doing so requires plenty of practice.

Remember, the importance of learning French accent marks cannot be overstated if you want to avoid making mistakes in spoken and written French. Not only can many French accents change the pronunciation of a word, but they can also change the meaning entirely.

Finally, the video below provides some further insight and will enable you to continue practising. The internet is full of excellent material which will help you to improve your French grammar and pronunciation.

We hope French accent marks are now clearer for you and that this post has brought some needed clarity on the matter. Be sure to check out our French Language Resources and bonne chance on your French journey!

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