French accents: everything you need to know

French accents: everything you need to know

by Anne-Lise Vassoille

Updated November 9, 2022

French and English use the same alphabet, but there is a big difference between the two languages: French often uses accents, mostly on vowels. In several cases, they inflect the pronunciation. They can also affect the meaning or the grammatical nature of a word. This is what makes them such an important and necessary feature to master if you want to learn and speak French.

The good news is there are only five types of accents in French (put it this way, it’s a much smaller number than how many different types of cheese there are in France!):

  1. é: accent aigu (acute accent)
  2. à/è/ù: accent grave (grave accent)
  3. â/ê/î/ô/û: accent circonflexe (circumflex accent)
  4. ë/ï/ü: tréma (trema)
  5. ç: cédille (cedilla)

Let’s review them according to their type and purpose: 

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Which accents are pronounced in the French language?

Accents are most famously known for changing pronunciation. Indeed, some of the most frequent accents have no other aim. Yet, other accents have a different purpose. Let’s look into this in more detail.

1. é: accent aigu (acute accent)

Don’t be fooled. Even though the acute accent is used only on one letter, the vowel “e”, it is more common than any other accent in the French alphabet. You will find it frequently on adjectives and on past participles, such as “préféré” (“preferred”), “doré” (“golden”) or “foncé” (“dark” when referring to colours in French like “dark red” or “dark blue”). In fact, you can also find it in English on words borrowed from French like “café”, “appétit” or “résumé”. 

As for pronunciation, the acute accent sounds very much like “ay”. You can practise the sound via Youtube videos

2. è: accent grave (grave accent)

After the acute accent, the French accent grave is frequently used on the letter “e”, on common words like “très” (“very”), “thème” (“theme”) or “crème” (“cream”). Though close, its pronunciation is not to be confused with “é”. Instead, the sound “è” is similar to how you pronounce “bed”, “fresh” or “get”.

3. ê: accent circonflexe (circumflex accent)

Next comes the accent circonflexe “ê”, which is pronounced in exactly the same way as the accent grave “è”. You can find it on words like “être” (“to be”), “forêt” (“forest”) or “fenêtre” (“window”). The two accented letters used to be pronounced differently in old French, but the distinction has been lost over the centuries, even though both accents are still in use.

4. ë/ï/ü: tréma (trema)

Though a less common accent, the trema plays an important role: it is used when the vowels “e”, “i” or “u” sit next to another vowel, in order to indicate both vowels should be pronounced separately. For instance, “maïs” (“corn”) is pronounced “ma-iss”, whereas “mais” (“but”) is pronounced as one vowel, like “may”. The trema on “ï” is what allows us to distinguish between the two French words. 

5. ç: cédille (cedilla)

The cedilla is a little squiggly mark that is exclusively used on the consonant “c” with the vowels a, o or u, to indicate when the letter should be pronounced as “s”. You will find it in common words like “garçon” (“boy”), “déçu” (“disappointed”) or “français” (“French”). Without it, the letter “c” is pronounced like “k”, such as in “commentaire” (“comment”), “casser” (“break”) or “cuisine” (“kitchen”).

The consonant “c” is already pronounced “s” when it is followed by the vowels e and i, such as in the word “cédille” itself. This is why the cedilla is never needed with those two vowels.

What are the other accents used in French? 

You may have noticed that we have left several vowels with accents in the list above. In those remaining cases, the accents don’t alter the pronunciation but play other, equally important roles.

à/ù: accent grave (grave accent)

Contrary to the grave accent on “è”, the grave accent on “à” and “ù” doesn’t impact the pronunciation. Instead, it serves to distinguish between two words that have the same sound and spelling (apart from the accent), but different meanings, such as in the following cases:

  • “là” (“there”) vs. “la” (feminine form of “the”)
  • “à” (“to”/”at”) vs. “a” (“has”)
  • “où” (“where”) vs. “ou” (“or”)

As you can see in those examples, such word pairs often have very different grammatical functions. In that sense, they can be compared to English homonyms like “there” and “their”, or “your” and “you’re”. While you can’t hear any difference when you say these words, the addition of the grave accent is essential in order to write grammatically correct sentences.

â/î/ô/û: accent circonflexe (circumflex accent)

As with “à” and “ù”, the circumflex accent on “a”, “i”, “o”, “u” doesn’t change the pronunciation. Instead, it helps to distinguish between two homophones, for instance “mur” (“wall”) and “mûr” (“mature” or “ripe”), “sur” (“on”) and “sûr” (“sure”), or “du” (a French article which may have different meanings like “some”, “from” or “of the”) and “dû” (“had to”).

The accent may also be a trace of the letter “s” that used to feature in some words in old French, as you can sometimes tell from the English corresponding word, such as with “hôpital” (“hospital”), “intérêt” (“interest”) or “île” (“island”).

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How do you type French accents on a keyboard?

As you can see, French accents are as important in writing as they are in speaking. This simple fact can quickly become a hassle when you are in front of an English keyboard. Thankfully, there are a few tricks and shortcuts that will help you speed the process.

How to type French accents on your mobile

Typing French accents is particularly easy on mobile devices. All you need to do is hold the letter you want to add an accent to and all the existing accents for that letter will appear. Another method is to download the French keyboard on your mobile in addition to the English one. Not only will you see all the special characters on the French keyboard, but you will also benefit from auto-suggestions in French rather than in English. 

How to type French accents on your computer

The first solution that may come to mind is simply to get a French keyboard. However, on top of that extra expense, you will need to get used to the different positions of several letters, punctuation signs and other special characters on the keyboard. 

You may therefore prefer to learn to use keyboard shortcuts from your current keyboard to type French accents. All you will have to do is opt for the US (international) keyboard setting from the main menu:

On Windows: Start Menu > Settings > Time & Language > Region & Language > English > Add Keyboard > United States (International).

On Mac: Settings > Keyboard > Input Sources > US International – PC.

We have detailed the five shortcuts you will need to know, depending on which type of computer you own.

French accentPC ComputerMac Computer
Acute accentSingle quote ‘ followed by eCommand+E followed by vowel
Grave accent` (to the left of 1) followed by vowelOption +` (next to Shift) followed by vowel
Circumflex accentShift+6 followed by vowelOption+I followed by vowel
TremaShift + single quote ‘ followed by vowelOption + U followed by vowel

The importance of French accents can’t be stressed enough

Whether you’re looking to speak or write in French, accents are an essential and common ingredient of the language. They change the pronunciation of certain vowels and help distinguish between words that would otherwise be spelled or uttered in exactly the same way. But rest assured: you will soon become familiar with them as you simply cannot escape them. 

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Anne-Lise is a translator and copywriter working for various industries, such as hospitality and travel, as well as health and well-being. Settled down in London since the end of her university years, she cannot get enough of the exceptional cultural life in the English capital city, starting with theater, be it to see a new West End show or to roll up her sleeves with her amateur drama group. She is also interested in photography, as her Instagram profile shows. She indulges her passion for languages in a translation blog she writes with other linguist friends. Go to her Linkedin page to know more about her background and her professional experience.

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