In my French studies, I’ve come across several different accents above varying letters. Par exemple: à (e.g. là – ‘there’), ô (e.g. tôt – ‘soon’), é (e.g. légère – ‘light’), and so on. Though I’ve been able to pick up on how to pronounce each accented letter due to repetitive use, I’ve still been curious as to the meaning behind each accent. It varies per language, but what (hopefully) follows is a clarification regarding each accent and its respective rules in the French language. The grave accent, seen above the letter a in the French word là, generally marks the openness of a vowel. The openness refers to the height at which your jaw is positioned during pronunciation. (‘Open’ means your jaw is literally more open; ‘close’ means the opposite.) In French, it is used on three letters: a, e, and u.
Its only purpose for appearing above letters a and u is to differentiate between homonyms that are otherwise spelled the same way; the pronunciation is not affected. In other words: a is the third-person singular present tense conjugation of the verb avoir (to have – elle a = she has). À on the other hand means to/belonging to/towards. Both words are pronounced the same; the grave accent is used to distinguish them.
When placed above the letter e, it marks a change in pronunciation. The letter è in French is pronounced open, as I mentioned earlier; it shares the same pronunciation as the ai in the English word air.
The circumflex accent plays an interesting role in the French language. When placed over the letter e (ergo, ê), it is pronounced open, much like è. I like to say that ê is pronounced the same as in the English word get when followed by the letter t; i.e. fête (party), tête (head). When used as ô, it is pronounced close, as it is in l’eau (the water), and plutôt (rather).
Not unlike the grave accent, the circumflex is also used to distinguish homophones. For instance; cote, meaning mark or level, and côte, meaning rib or coast. Now comes the interesting part.
The circumflex accent is also used to denote an English-to-French translation in which the letter s, used in the corresponding English word, has been omitted and thus is no longer pronounced in the French equivalent. Confused? Here are some examples:
- ancêtre, meaning ‘ancestor’
- hôpital, meaning ‘hospital’
- pâte, meaning ‘paste’
- août, meaning ‘August’
You’ll notice the s was lost in translation. See what I did there?
Fait intéressant: In handwritten French, such as when taking notes, an m̂ may be used as an informal abbreviation to mean même (same).
The acute accent in most Romance languages implies a stressed vowel; i.e. a vowel that emphasis is placed on in pronunciation. However, stress is not implied by the acute accent in French. It is only used on é, and should be pronounced like the letter e is in the English word seen. E in French without the acute accent is normally stressless, and by itself, should be pronounced as the u in the English word put.
The cedilla is easily recognizable as the little tail that hangs off the letter c in the commonly used French word ça, meaning it. It is used to mark the soft s sound with which to pronounce the letter c as opposed to the hard k sound, as in canard (duck).
The œ is not so much an accent as it is a ligature (a combination) of the letters o and e into a single glyph. It is pronounced the same as in the French consecutive letter pairing eu which sounds like the oo in the English words book and took. When oe occurs without the ligature, it is pronounced just as oi is in moi (me) and toi (you).
Fait intéressant: In French, œ is called e dans l’o, which literally means e in the o. Due to French pronunciation, it sounds similar to the phrase (des) œufs dans l’eau, meaning eggs in the water. This is a mnemotechnic* pun used when first learning the ligature in primary school.
*Mnemotechny is the study or practice of improving one’s memory.
In French, the umlaut is placed over a vowel when it is to be pronounced separately from the preceding letter. On several occasions, you’ll notice that a pairing of vowels in French is pronounced as a single sound. Take mais for example; it means but, and it is monosyllabic. But if you add an umlaut above the i, making it into maïs, its meaning changes to corn, and you must pronounce the vowels separately.
The umlaut is also placed over the letters e and u to denote a pronunciation change when the otherwise silent e follows gu. Compare the French words figue, meaning fig (which shares its English counterpart’s pronunciation), and ciguë, meaning hemlock. The latter is disyllabic due to the added umlaut, and is pronounced sig-y, as opposed to sig.
Hopefully this in-depth look at the phonetics of the French language is helpful to you. Maybe you never cared about the accents or their respective uses; that’s fine. Maybe you feel like your time was wasted in reading this. That’s fine, too. I’m not hurt by that…
But if you’re like me, and you need to learn every single tidbit of information about the language you’re learning and its history, then maybe you found this informative. I hope that’s the case. 🙂
P.S. You may have read in my very first post that I’d been planning to attach a French translation to each entry here on Wordsmith. You may have also noticed that that hasn’t been the case for most of my posts since then. I’ve decided that’s no longer something I’m going to do. Some posts end up being thousands of words long, and the translation takes me an awfully long time, as I’m still in the early stages of developing my French tongue. I may write bilingually in the future once I become more proficient. But for now, since I’m only a novice, and for the sake of saving time and space, 95% of my posts will be in English only. A few here and there may include a French translation, if I’m feeling ambitious. I hope you understand.
Also, a huge thank-you to the 50+ followers I’ve amassed so far. I really appreciate you coming along on this journey of creative writing, language, and occasional ranting and raving with me. It means a lot, and you’re all the reason I do what I do.