Those little lines and symbols above and below certain letters in French words are called diacritics, also known as diacritical characters. Many people commonly refer to them as French accents, but technically, not all diacriticals are accent marks.
There are hundreds of different accent marks and diacriticals used across different languages including Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, German, Turkish, and even Vietnamese, but each language only uses a subset of them, which can be used differently in each language.
While they may seem strange and challenging at first, they follow consistent rules that are easy to apply once you understand them.
In this guide, we will explore these rules and how accents affect words. By the end of this guide, you can say au revoir to mispronunciation and bonjour to linguistic accuracy and feel more confident when speaking and reading French.
Accent Marks in French and diacritics have several important purposes.
1) Modify French Pronunciation: Sometimes, they change the way a letter sounds, like the acute accent (é), which makes the letter (e) sound more like a closed /e/ as in “café.”
2) Change the meaning of a word: Sometimes, they don’t change the pronunciation but are used to differentiate between homonyms (words that are spelled the same but have a different meaning.) For example, “ou” (or) and “où” (where.)
3) Indicate a historical change in pronunciation and deleted letter: Sometimes, they are there for historical reasons to show that a letter was deleted from an older form of the word, such as the French word for hospital, “hôpital,” which was once written with an “s,” “Hospital.”
The French alphabet has more than 26 letters
Like the English alphabet, French has 26 standard letters.
However, the standard French alphabet contains up to 18 additional letters if you count accented French letters and letters with diacriticals and ligature marks. It makes it difficult to type a French pangram, a sentence that includes every letter of the alphabet.
Which accents and diacritics are used in the French alphabet?
The French alphabet uses just five different diacritical marks, 3 of which are accent marks, and there is also something called a ligature mark.
- 26 letters of the alphabet:
- 16 letters have diacritical signs (À Â Ä Ç É È Ê Ë Î Ï Ô Ö Ù Û Ü Ÿ)
- Two ligatures (Æ Œ).
The Æ ligature mark and Ü and Ÿ trema are rarely used in French except for loanwords from other languages and a handful of proper names, so you can ignore them.
|French Accent Marks||—|
|´Grave Accent||É (é)||—|
|`Acute Grave||À (à)||È (è)||—|
|ˆCircumflex||Â (â)||Ê (ê)||Î (î)||Ô (ô)||Û (û)||—|
|¨Diaeresis / Trema||Ë (ë)||Ï (ï)||—|
Diacritics and accents are only used with vowels except for the cedilla, which is used with the letter “C,”
How to pronounce French accents and their meanings
Let’s go over the three main accent marks used in the French language and then cover the other two diacritics and ligature marks.
- acute accent (´)
- grave accent(`)
- circumflex (ˆ)
Acute Accent (Accent Aigu): É (é)
(´): Only used over the letter É (é).
Pronounced (EY), like in the English word “hey.”
The French term “aigu” means acute or sharp, from the Latin word “acus,” (needle) or (sharp/)
Without the acute accent (accent aigu) over the letter “É,” certain words such as “École” (school) would be pronounced differently. “École” /Ey-Kole/would be pronounced “Ecole”(Uh-Kole), which doesn’t exist in French.
It may seem small, but the difference between similar-sounding words can have a big impact. For example, consider the words “cat” and “cot” – the only difference is the vowel sound. If you mistakenly say that your “cot” needs to be neutered instead of your “cat,” it could confuse people.
Here are other examples of words that take the acute accent in French.
- Freedom: Liberté /lee-ber-tey/
- Severe: Sévère /sey-vehr/
- Museum- Musée /myu-zey/
- Church: Église /ey-gleeze/
- Star: Étoile /ey-twahyl/
- Foreigner: Étranger /ey-trah(n)-zhey/
- Enormous: Énorme /ey-norm/
- Side: Côté /koh-tey/
Fun fact: The french word with the most acute accents is “hétérogénéité” (heterogeneity,) It refers to the quality or state of being diverse, varied, or composed of different elements or components.
How the acute in French can change its pronunciation and meaning.
|Without accent||With accent|
Die (singulear of dice)
Type of charcuterie
Grave Accent (Accent Grave) (à, è, ù):
(`): Only used on the letters à, è, and ù:
Does not change the pronunciation of letters à or ù, only used to distinguish between homonyms. Changes the pronunciation of é, pronounced like “bed” or “let.”
The French accent grave, from the Latin word “gravis,” meaning “heavy” or “serious,” is used over the letters À, È, and Ù. However, there are two accent grave characters, Ì and Ò, which are not used in the French language. These two characters are mainly used 3 romance languages: Italian, Aromanian, and Sardinian.
How the French grave accent can change the meaning of a word
The accent grave over the “è” changes the pronunciation. However, it does not change the pronunciation of the other vowels À, Ù, which are used to distinguish between two homonyms.
|À (à)||À (à)
To or at
|/Deh/: and /Dey/|
Circumflex Accent (Accent Circonflexe) (â, ê, î, ô, û):
(ˆ): Only used over the letters a, e, i, o, and u.
No change in pronunciation. Indicates historical changes in pronunciation which led to a letter being dropped in the original French word: Usually, the letter “s” such as “hôpital” (hospital)
The circumflex accent, informally referred to as a “petit chapeau” because it looks like a small hat (^), does not change a word’s pronunciation but has two distinct purposes.
- Change the meaning: To differentiate between two homonyms such as Jeûne (young ) and Jeune (to fast).
- Historical reasons: Indicates a historical change in pronunciation where a letter was deleted from the original word after it became silent. Adding a circumflex on the letter that came after the deleted letter helps readers understand the historical evolution of how certain words were pronounced in the past.
The term “circumflex” comes from the Latin word “circumflexus,” which means “bent around” or “curved around.” Several languages use the curcumflex including Portuguese, Romanian, and some regional varieties of Occitan.
French Words that use circumflex to show a historical letter that was dropped.
French words that use circumflex to differentiate between homonyms
The circumflex over certain vowels can also be added to distinguish the word from its homophone.
|Ê (ê)||Pêcher||To fish||with|
(1st person singular)
|Û (û )||Jeûne||Young||with|
Other French diacritics
The cedilla (ç) and the trema (^) are two diacriticals sometimes called accent marks, but technically, they are not considered accents.
Cedilla (Cédille) (ç):
(Ç): Used under the letter ç. Its only purpose is to modify the sound of the letter /C/ from a hard /K/ to a soft /S/
The cedilla is a squiggly line or tail used under the letter (Ç). Its only purpose in life is to modify the sound of the letter /C/ from a hard /K/ to a soft /S/, but only when it falls before the vowels “a,” “o,” and “u” like in the word Garçon.
- Garçon: (boy), pronounced /gar-son/.
- Garcon: not a real word in French without the accent, but would be pronounced /Gar-Kon/
Examples of French words using the Cedille:
- Français (French) /Fron-say/
- Leçon (lesson) /Less-own/
- Reçu (received) /Ruh-Sue/
- Glaçon (Ice cube) /Glah-son/
Several other languages also use the “ç,” including Portugues, Catalan, Occitan, Spanish, and Turkish.
Diaeresis (Tréma) (ë, ï):
(¨): Tremas, or diaeresis, are only used over the letters (ë) and ( ï) in the French language. Indicates that two vowels next to one another should be pronounced as separate syllables.
Diaereses, also known as Tremas, are diacriticals that consist of putting two dots (¨) over vowels. These are not used as often as French accents.
There are 6 tremas (ä, ë, ï, ö, ü, and ÿ,) but the French language only uses tremas over the letters (ë) and ( ï).
The other tremas were once used in old French but now are rarely used except in loan words or proper names, such as the French girl’s name “Maÿlice and the French town “L’Haÿ-les-Roses,” located in the department of Val-de-Marne.
Pronunciation: ë ï
The tremas’ main job is to show that vowels should be pronounced separately as their own distinct syllable rather than blending it with the preceding letter.
For example, in the French word “maïs” (corn,) the tréma over the (ï) means that it should be pronounced as two distinct syllables /Mah-eese/. Without the trema, the word becomes “mais,” which means “but” and is pronounced /Meh/
French Words that have tremas :
- Noël (Christmas) /No-elle/
- Coët (a surname) /Ko-eh/
- Canoë (Canoe) /La-noh-eh/
- Androïde (Android) /An-dro-eed/
- Haïr (to hate) /Ah-ear/
- Maïs (corn) /Ma-eese/
- Laïcité (secular) /Lah-ee-see-teh/
Ligature Marks: What are they?
A Ligatures is not a French accent mark or a diacritical but is sometimes treated the same.
Unlike accent marks and diacriticals, which are marks or characters added to letters to change their meaning or pronunciation, Ligatures are when two or more letters are combined to make a new letter.
They were created to make handwriting books and manuscripts more efficient and aesthetically appealing in many languages, including English, during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. They fell out of fashion beginning in the 19th and 20th centuries and were eventually replaced by more simplified writing systems.
A common letter many people don’t realize was originally a ligature mark is the letter “W,” which combines two letter U’s together, hence the name “double u.” The letter “W” in French is called “double V.”
The “and sign” (&), also known as the ampersand, also began life as a ligature mark. It was a shorthand way of writing “e” and “t” (et), the Latin word for “and” which is also the French word for “and.” It was even considered the 27th letter of the English alphabet until the early 17th century. So the alphabet ended with “X, Y, Z, “and per se and” but over time, “and per se and” was morphed together into “ampersand.
Latin Ligature OE (Ligature Latine OE) “Œ”:
The main ligature mark used in French is “œ,” which combines the letters O and E together. It’s called “O in the E” (“E dans l’O.) In modern standard French, “œ” is considered a single letter, although many people do write them as separate letters for simplicity.
The “œ” ligature represent the sound /uh/in French words similar to the sound in ‘but.’
- Beef: bœuf /Buf/
- heart: cœur /Kur/
- maneuver: manœuvre /Ma-nuh-vruh/
- knot: nœud /Nuh/
- eye: œil /Uh-y/
- carnation: œillet /Uh-yay/
- egg: œuf /Uf/
- work (as in work of art) œuvre /Uhv/
- sister: sœur /suhr/
There is also the “Æ” ligature, which combines the “a” and “e,” but it’s rarely if ever, used in French anymore except for Latin loanwords and is not considered a standard part of the modern French alphabet.
Typing French accents and diacritics using keyboard shortcuts (Alt Codes)
Unless you have an international keyboard or an AZERTY French keyboard, you’ll have to use keyboard shortcuts to type French accent marks, diacritics and ligatures using a specific numeric code.
- Press and hold the “Alt” key on your keyboard.
- While holding “Alt,” type the specific numeric code.
- Release the “Alt” key, and the special character will appear.
|Lower Case||Upper Case|
|é = Alt + 130||É = Alt + 0201|
|Lower Case||Upper Case|
|à = Alt + 133||À = Alt + 0192|
|è = Alt + 138||È = Alt + 0200|
|ù = Alt + 151||Ù = Alt + 0217|
|Lower Case||Upper Case|
|â = Alt + 131||Â = Alt + 0194|
|ê = Alt + 136||Ê = Alt + 0202|
|î = Alt + 140||Î = Alt + 0206|
|ô = Alt + 147||Ô = Alt + 0212|
|û = Alt + 150||Û = Alt + 0219|
|Lower Case||Upper Case|
|ç = Alt + 135||Ç = Alt + 128|
|Diaeresis / Trema|
|Lower Case||Upper Case|
|ë = Alt + 137||Ë = Alt + 0203|
|ï = Alt + 139||Ï = Alt + 0207|
|ü = Alt + 129||Ü = Alt + 154|
|ÿ = Alt + 152||Ÿ = Alt + 0159|
|œ = Alt + 0156||Œ =Alt + 0140|