How to Spell: 5 Useful Tips for Spelling French Words Flawlessly

“I wana liv in a howce in the citi.”

Could you understand that sentence?

If you’re a teacher, have a child or perhaps can recall your own childhood, it was probably easy to decode.

The scribblings of elementary school students who are learning how to read and write often have misspellings, such as “liv” for “live,” “howce” for “house” or “citi” instead of “city,” as seen above.

They certainly don’t get it right the first time, but as kids learn specific tactics and tricks, they start to spell words correctly.

Learning how to spell in French often means remembering those early days when you were trying to understand how to put the English language on paper. Just like back then, after you’ve learned verbal skills—like introducing yourself and having a short conversation in French—it’s time to take those verbal skills and transfer them to paper.

How do you connect those sounds with letters and turn them into correctly spelled words? Where do you begin?

Luckily there are basic rules you can learn which will help you make educated guesses as you brave the world of French spelling. So we’ve put together five powerful tips to get you spelling like a pro in no time.

A Brief History of French Spelling

As you get the ball rolling, it’s important to know a little bit about the history of the French language. This will help you understand where the alphabet and the language’s arrangement of words came from, which will give you a stronger grasp of the language and its quirks.

French as a Latin Language

French derived from a dialect of the Latin that was taught and spoken during the Roman Empire. There were many types of Latin during this time period, but the different dialects that emerged from the many different regions of the Empire were very different from the Classical Latin traditionally taught in schools.

What is now French today emerged from one of these vernacular Latin languages. This early stage of French was heavily influenced by the Gauls who lived in what is now France.

Ways today’s French was affected by this stage:

  • Today, French still retains almost 200 words from the Gaulish language.
  • Many Celtic words were brought through Latin, which is why this influence isn’t as obvious to us today.
  • Several peculiar features of the language, including the use of prefixes ro- and re-, can be attributed to the Gauls (i.e. uire “to glimmer” vs. reluire “to shine”; related to Irish ro– and Welsh rhy– “very.”)

Old French

What we now know as Old French was called as such by the ninth century, when this dialect spoken in what is now modern-day France was so different from Classical Latin that it was renamed as a different language entirely.

What’s interesting about this stage of the French language is that there was heavy Germanic influence, mainly from a Germanic tribe called the Franks, but also many others throughout modern-day France.

Ways today’s French was affected by this stage:

  • Though Wikipedia gives a fairly comprehensive list of the many changes in the language during this time period, several major spelling characteristics, including prefixes and endings, were adopted from the Germanic influence.
  • Many words derived from German—or, more specifically, a dialect called Old Low Franconian, that we now see in English—were adopted into the language. One example of this is brāmbesi, which turned into frambroise (raspberry) in French.

Middle French

The short stage before the establishment of Modern French, from 1300-1600, was known as Middle French. During this time, we see a lot of Norman words integrated into the language due to the Duchy of Normandy becoming part of France in the early 13th century. This is also the time that French started to become recognizable as the language with which we are familiar today.

Ways today’s French was affected by this stage:

  • French lost the declension system (the inflection of nouns, pronouns, adjectives and articles to indicate number, case, and gender) that’s still retained in Latin.
  • The 700 words that the language adopted from Italian emerge during this time period. They were mostly military and artistic terms, and include words like cavalier (horse), soldat (soldier) and sonnet (sonnet).

How to Spell: 5 Useful Tips for Spelling French Words Flawlessly

Now that you know a bit about the history of French, it’s time to learn the best ways to approach French spelling as you learn the basics of the language.

Armed with these tips (and the plethora of dictionaries; spell checkers like Reverso, BonPatron and functionality in Microsoft Word), you can be well prepared to spell French words correctly right from the start. 

1. Get Familiar with the French Alphabet

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Just as learning to read English requires mastery of the alphabet, learning to spell and write French correctly means that you must know the alphabet (here’s exactly how you can learn it).

Though the French alphabet looks similar to that of English, it’s crucial to remember that pronunciations are quite different. In order to nail down these differences, try watching this video until you become familiar with the pronunciation. Consider re-learning the alphabet song, just with new, French pronunciations.

Once you learn the alphabet, you’ll have a firm foundation for understanding why letters are paired together and why spellings are often so dramatically different from English.

2. Don’t Forget About the Accents

There are five major kinds of accents that are crucial to the French language:

  • L’accent aigu (acute accent) [ ´ ] — This accent is found only on the letter e, and makes the letter e sound like “ay” instead of “euh.”
  • L’accent grave (grave accent) [ ` ] — This accent can be found on letters a, u or e, and, interestingly enough, is not used to change pronunciation. It’s likely one of the most crucial accents for spelling because its purpose is to distinguish homonyms (i.e. à [to/towards] being distinguished from the conjugated verb [to have]).
  • L’accent circonflexe (circumflex) ˆ ] — This accent can be used on any vowel. Here’s where that history shows itself; this accent often shows that an “s” used to exist in place of the vowel that’s currently there. Words derived from Norman French and English still retain that accent. For example, the French word for forest is forêt. There’s a circumflex on the “e” because the previous version of the word, which is now our word in English, retains the “s.”
  • L’accent tréma (dieresis or umlaut) [ ¨ ] — This accent can be placed on the e, i or u. It’s used when two vowels are next to each other in a word and need to be pronounced, such as Noël, which means “Christmas.” Without the dieresis, the e would be silent.
  • Cédille (cedilla) [ ¸ ] — This can only be found on the letter c. It makes the pronunciation change from “say” to the pronunciation of the English “s.”

Once you understand how accents work and how it changes the way a letter sounds, you’ll be able to identify more quickly how a letter is spelled when someone speaks it. Certain sounds will begin to stick out in your mind as a certain accent, and it’ll become easier to spell an unfamiliar word.

3. Match the English Word Ending to the French Equivalent

There are many spelling equivalents in English and French (though watch out for those faux amis!). Once you get familiar with which words are similar, reference this handy list for the French suffix so that you spell it correctly.

Though it’s best to know all of these, some of the most useful equivalents include:

  • French: -aire | English: -ary
    • militaire (military)
  • French: -é, -e | English: -y
    • qualité (quality)
    • gloire (glory)
  • French: -ment | English: -ly
    • rapidement (rapidly)

If you’re familiar with the words that are similar in French and English, this is a trick for not only learning new French vocabulary, but also being able to immediately spell the equivalent word in French and English.

4. Remember the Ligatures

There are two ligatures, which occur when two or more letters are combined into one single letter or pronunciation, in French:

  • Œ — This is the combination of the letters o and e in French. It can be found in many common words, including sœur (sister) and cœur (heart).
  • Æ — This one is much less common, but can be found in some words of Latin and Greek origin.

These are important to know, especially with the few words that possess this two-letters-turned-into-one. Just like the accents, once you hear the sound of a ligature, you’ll be able to identify it as such immediately, which will make spelling the word correctly that much easier.

5. Nail Down the Major Letter Combinations (Digraphs and Trigraphs)

This is where your knowledge of the alphabet and its pronunciations really come in handy. Digraphs and trigraphs are the major letter combinations found in the French language. These can include ligatures, as well. They’re used in almost every word that exists in the language, and they set the general rule for what letters can go together—and which ones can’t.

As you begin to learn how to spell, keep a list handy when you’re attempting to spell something correctly or when you learn a new word. Train yourself to pick out the common digraphs and trigraphs as you become more familiar. Eventually, you’ll know how to pick out what looks right and what looks wrong—just like how you can in English.

You can find a fairly comprehensive list here that apply to both combinations of more than one consonant, at least one vowel and one consonant, and more than one vowel.

Some consonant digraphs include:

  • dd — addition (check)
  • th — thème (theme)

Some vowel digraphs include:

  • ai — vrai (true)
  • ue — actuel (current)

Some consonant-vowel digraphs and trigraphs include:

  • en — bien (well)
  • uil — huile (oil)

Now that you’ve learned some history and some major tips, go forth and spell! And don’t forget to keep a dictionary handy.

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