The French alphabet: Everything you need to know

The French alphabet: Everything you need to know

by Anne-Lise Vassoille

Updated November 9, 2022

When young French children discover the alphabet in a song, it is usually when they start learning how to read and write. But the situation and the final goal are quite different for adult beginners in French. The focus is much more on oral skills, since the purpose of learning the French alphabet is to be able to recognize and reproduce the basic sounds of the language. This article gives you an overview of the letters of the French alphabet, their unique sounds and their vital role when you study and use French in your everyday life.

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How many letters are there in the French alphabet?

The French alphabet is made of the same 26 lettres (letters) as the English alphabet, with the same six voyelles (vowels), including the particular case of the letter y, and 20 consonnes (consonants). In addition, there are two French ligatures: æ (made of the vowels a and e) and œ (made of the vowels o and e). You can find them in a few words like ex æquo (on a tie), et cætera (et cetera), sœur (sister) and cœur (heart). 

All the letters of the alphabet can be written as minuscules (small letters) or majuscules (capital letters), though French is a lot less fond of the latter than English is. It’s also worth noting the slightly different look of the traditional French calligraphy, compared to the English one:

FrenchEnglish

Beyond the difference in font style, the main contrast between the French and the English alphabet is the pronunciation. Out of the 26 letters mentioned above, only six sound exactly the same way in French and in English, as we will see further below.

Why learn the alphabet in French?

As we just saw, the French alphabet is pretty much made of the same letters as the English one, if we don’t consider the French accents and special characters. Plus, in our computer age, French people are more likely to use the English font style than the traditional French calligraphy when typing on their laptop or mobile. And yet, when it comes to pronunciation, knowing the French alphabet will often come in handy. Here’s why.

You can’t do without it for spelling

We don’t just mean for lessons or when learning the correct spelling of a new word. We also mean in your daily life. You may often need to use the French alphabet when spelling your name, your home address or your email address. You will also need to understand when a receptionist or an agent gives you a reference code made of a mix of numbers and letters. The examples and the situations are just endless.

It’s a great opportunity to practice your pronunciation and your accent

If you know how to pronounce single French letters correctly, chances are you will find it easier to pronounce entire words without making a mistake. For instance, if you know that the letter i sounds like ee as in “cheese”, and not i as in “time”, then you will more easily know how to pronounce such words as merci (thank you), lundi (Monday) or prix (price). It will also help you make the distinction between close sounds, such as the tricky pair of ou and u. If you practice recognizing and saying the letter u correctly, then you will be able to distinguish between these pairs of words: 

-u sound-ou sound
au-dessus (above)au-dessous (underneath)
bûche (log)bouche (mouth)
jus (juice)joue (cheek)
nu (naked)nous (we)
puce (flee)pouce (thumb)
rue (street)roue (wheel)

Of course, certain difficult words to pronounce will demand more practice. But learning the sounds of all the letters of the alphabet is an essential way to learn speaking French.

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How to pronounce the letters of the French alphabet

To make it easier to memorize, we have broken down the alphabet between vowels and consonants, but also between the main types of sounds. It is important to remember that each letter of the alphabet may have different sounds when used in words, especially when they have an accent or are part of a combination of letters, like the famous French nasal sounds. For the sake of our article, we are focusing on the pronunciation of the letters when they are used on their own, for instance, to spell a word.

French vowels

Among all the vowels in our table, y is the only one whose name in the alphabet never matches the sound of the letter when it is used in words. The letter is called i grec (Greek i). However, it is pronounced ee as in “cheese” when it is used without another vowel, such as in myriade (myriad), or in the same way as y in “yes” when used with other vowels, such as in voyelle (vowel). 

VowelSound of the alphabet letterExample of the sound in words
aahchat (cat)
euhje (I)
ieelire (read)
oohtrop (too much or too many)
uutu (you)
yee grakemyriade (ee sound)
voyelle (y sound as in “yes”)

French consonants which sound the same as in English

Let’s start easy with the 6 consonants that sound the same in both alphabets:

ConsonantSound of the alphabet letterExample of the sound in words
fefeffet (effect)
lelelle (she)
memaimer (love)
nenitalienne (Italian, when referring to a female person or any feminine word)
sesessai (trial)
zzedzéro (zero)

French consonants which the ay sound

These are pretty much all the consonants with an ee sound in English. The only exception is the letter w: while it is called “double u” in the English alphabet, it is called “double v” in French. So it only makes sense that it should fall in the same category as the letter v, but also that the name for w in the French alphabet doesn’t match the sound of the letter when it is used in words. Then, w is pronounced like v:

ConsonantSound of the alphabet letterExample of the sound in words
bbaybébé (baby)
csaycesser (cease)
ddaydélicieux (delicious)
gjaygéranium (geranium)
ppaypersonne (person)
ttaytéléphone (phone)
vvayvélo (bike)
wdoo-bluh-vaywagon (train carriage)

The French consonants that don’t fall into specific categories

Those remaining consonants have unique sounds, and as such it is difficult to put them in a coherent category. Beware of the letter q which contains the same u sound we mentioned before. When used in words, the letter sounds like c in cat.

ConsonantSound of the alphabet letterExample of the sound in words
hashhache (axe)
jgeetajine (tagine)
kkahkaraté (karate)
qkuN/A
rairmer (sea)
xeeksxylophone (xylophone)

It’s also important to note that g and j in the French alphabet have the exact opposite sounds than in the English alphabet: j sounds like gee in French, but jay in English, whereas g sounds like jay in French but gee in English.


Practice how to pronounce the letters of the French alphabet

The French alphabet may have as many letters as the English one, but some letters in French  sound very different from their English counterparts. Learning how to pronounce them will not only help you with spelling but also introduce you to some very useful and unique French sounds. It’s a vital step to be able both to distinguish and to reproduce the specific pronunciation of the letters of the French alphabet. 

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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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