Oh the French—they’re always so stylish.
Even their vowels have accessories.
You must admit the English “e” looks pretty underdressed next to the très élégant (very elegant) French é and è.
Okay, so those little diacritical marks or accents aren’t just added for flair, they’re essential to the word’s meaning and indicate how the word is pronounced.
Just as in English—where if you don’t dot your “i” or cross your “t,” you’re left with a stubby little line that is dangerously close to becoming an “l”—French accents are used to distinguish between letters.
In many cases, omitting the accents makes what you have to say very confusing.
For example, it could alter your plans, say, if you are inquiring about how to get to the congrès (conference) or the congres (eels). Whether you are planning to haler (to haul in) or to hâler (to tan) is up to you, ultimately. But personally, I’d much rather tell someone that I’m a pêcheur (fisherman) than a pécheur (sinner). Wouldn’t you?
Luckily for French language learners, there are only five you must know: four accents for the vowels (a, e, i, o, u) and one for a consonant (c). Think of them like the five fingers on your hand. Four accents and a thumb—or four digits and a cedilla.
“To be or not to be” understood in French depends on these five accents. Let’s take a look at them all, starting with the four vowels, and learn what horrible fate befalls those who omit them.
Time to Accessorize: 5 Stylish Accent Marks All French Learners Need to Know
1. Acute Accent ( ´ )
The accent aigu, also known as the acute accent, looks like this: ´, a little apostrophe-like mark that floats up in to the sky, like a bird in flight (é). Aigu, which sounds like egg-ew, can only be on the letter e. Think of eggs or a tasty French omelette to help you remember this rule.
The aigu is placed on the end of a word to indicate that letter e is prounounced like ay, as in marché (market), pronounced somewhat like mar-shay, or parlé (spoken) or the place you’ve probably already visited several times this week, café. We’ve borrowed the word “cafe” in English, but don’t normally use the aigu.
When the aigu is used at the beginning of a word, it often indicates that an s used to follow that vowel, for example étudiant (student) or étudier (to study). Un étudiant qui étudie à l’école (A student who studies at the school).
2. Accent Grave ( ` )
The accent grave looks like this: `. Grave is pronounced like the first syllable of the English word “grovel,” as in, “The lowly French language learners groveled in front of the French king,” with that same ahh sound. One clever way to remember the difference between the grave and its mirror image the aigu is to think of the English word “grave,” as in “I’m digging my own grave here.” The accent mark goes down, into the grave.
The grave can be found on an a, e, or u. However, it only changes the pronunciation of the letter e. It makes the e sound like ehh.
On the a and u, it helps distinguish between words that are spelled the same, such as ou (or) and où (where). Here are a few more examples of how the grave changes the meaning of the word:
il a (he has)
la (the; her/it)
des (of the; some)
3. Circumflex ( ˆ )
L’accent circonflexe, or circumflex, is also called the hat or le petit chapeau (little hat). That’s easy to remember, isn’t it? The cute little hat—a little too pointy to be a beret, but hey if that helps you remember it, then why not?— goes on the a, e, i, o and u (â, ê, î, ô, û).
There are two good things about this accent that you will want to take note of. The first is its effect on pronunciation is so slight you won’t need to worry. In fact, there are some language reform groups who are in favor of getting rid of it. The second thing that makes the circumflex pretty cool is that there really aren’t that many words in French that wear it. You’ll probably run into the little hat if you travel and stay at a hôtel (pronounced more or less like owe-tel, and almost identical to the English “hotel” without the “h”).
Sometimes the circumflex is used as a marker to reference the old spelling of a word. In the case of the word forêt (forest), the accent indicates that an s once followed the vowel, as it does in the identical English word “forest,” but over time was dropped. Think of it like a kind of grave stone that pays tribute to the original Latin version of the word.
In English, an apostrophe used in words like “don’t” and “can’t” are simply shorter versions of “do not” and “cannot.” (I mean come on, there are so many hours in the day and I don’t want to waste my time with those extra letters, do I?)
The circumflex has a more important job when it is also used to distinguish between words with different meanings. This is when you want to make sure that it is worn correctly. For example:
dû: past participle of devoir
du: a contraction of de + le
du (of the, some)
sur (on, upon)
And, just to keep you on your feet, there are a few French words that use the little hat simply to give the word more prestige. Among them are trôner (to put on the throne) and trône (throne), prôner (to advocate) and prône (a sermon), and suprême (supreme). As long as you stay aware when writing about politics, religion or monarchies, you’ll be fine.
4. Trema ( ¨ )
You know those two little dots that you sometimes see hovering above an e, i or u? That’s the tréma It is used when two vowels are next to each other and both must be pronounced, as in naïve, a word English has borrowed from the French, without the tréma.
Usually, the ¨ is placed above the second of two consecutive vowels to indicate that both vowels are to be pronounced separately. Think of the English word “coincidence,” which despite appearing to have a “coin” in it, is actually pronounced “co-inn.” Coincidence is a French word, but in French it’s spelled coïncidence (pronounced ko-ehn-see-dahns, with a little more emphasis on the dahns, as opposed to the English which sounds more like “dense.”)
If we used the tréma in English, it would be in words like “cooperate” or “coordinate,” where it’s important to pronounce both “o”s. Some magazines still use it for clarity, and the French seem to like it for the same reason.
5. Cedilla ( ¸ )
Enfin! (At last!) We made it to the thumb, or the little tail as it’s commonly nicknamed. This little guy, the cédille, goes under the letter c as so: ç. You’ve probably seen this letter in other languages such as Portuguese, Catalan or perhaps in all your Azerbaijani studies. In French there is a simple rule of thumb: It only goes under the c. Facile, no? (It’s easy, right?)
The cédille is used to give the c an s sound instead of a hard k sound—for example leçon (lesson), pronounced leh-sohn or français (the French language), pronounced frahn-say. Parlez-vous français ? (Do you speak French?) You will also hear this often in the daily greeting, ça va ? (How are you?)
And then there’s the infamous garçon (boy/waiter). When you’re in a romantic restaurant in Nice, trying to impress your date, and you snap your fingers and yell garçon! across the restaurant…Wait. Please don’t ever do that! If you do have to ask for the waiter, do it politely and be aware that because of the circumflex the ç makes it sound like gar–sohn.
Now that you know how to use these five, how can you easily type them on a computer?
How to Type French Accent Marks
On a Mac: Go into your system preferences and choose “Keyboard,” then “Input Sources” then choose “US – International.” If you don’t see that option click the + sign, select “US – International” and then “Add.”
With an international keyboard, French accent are so easy to type. Simply type the accent as you normally would, followed by the letter you want it to appear over. No holding necessary!
So, to type ô, for example, hold down shift and press the “6” key (which is how you would type the ^ symbol normally), and then type the letter “o.” Voilà!
If you want to be able to quickly change between keyboards, check “Show input menu in menu bar” to add a small icon that will show up next to your computer’s date and time (top right-hand corner). You can click this icon and bypass going into your system preferences.
If you are using the international keyboard and want the symbol to appear normally, and not over the following vowel (like when using apostrophes and quotation marks before vowels while typing in English), just hit the space bar after you type the symbol, like so:
With space bar: Shift + ” + space bar + I = “I
Without space bar: Shift + ” + I = Ï
It’s really intuitive, and takes no extra effort or time once you get used to how it works.
On a PC: In your start menu’s search field, type “intl.cpl.” Open and click on “Keyboards and Languages” then choose “Change Keyboards.” Next hit the “Add…” button, then select “United States – International” and then “OK.”
If you want to have this optional keyboard permanently, you can select the international keyboard as your default keyboard from the drop down menu while the keyboard menu is still open. You can also have a small keyboard icon stay on the menu bar at the bottom of the screen.
There are other tools for inserting French keyboard strokes into your system, like this site which creates an easy way to insert French accents while you’re typing.
Now that you understand how essential it is to put the accents in their proper places, you’ll have an easier time pronouncing and writing French. Knowing the rules means you’ve earned the respect of French language speakers and you’re one step closer to fluency. Congratulations!
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