French is based on the Latin alphabet (also called the Roman alphabet), and there are twenty-six (26) letters. Originally there were twenty-five (25) letters, with ‘W’ being added by the mid-nineteenth century. Unlike the English, who call it a “double-u,” the French use “double-v” and pronounce it (doo-bluh-vay) after the ‘V’ which is pronounced (vay). During the period from Old French to Modern French, the letter ‘K’ was added. These two letters are used mostly with adopted foreign words. The French alphabet used today is less than 200 years old.
The twenty-six letters are parted into :
- 20 Consonants (Consonnes): B C D F G H J K L M N P Q R S T V W X Z
- 6 Vowels (Voyelles): A E I O U Y
In addition, French uses several accents: grave accents (à, è, and ù) and acute accents (é). A circumflex applies to all vowels, except Y (considered as a vowel): â, ê, î, ô, û. A tréma (French for dieresis) is also applied: ë, ï, ü, ÿ. Two combined letters (called orthographic ligatures) are used: æ and œ. Finally, a cedilla is used on the c to make it sound like an English s: ç.
Letters and examples
Listen to the alphabet here.
In French, certain consonants are silent when they are the final letter of a word. The letters p (as in coup (/ku/ (koo))), s (as in héros (/e.ʁɔ/ (ay-roh))), t (as in chat (/ʃa/ (shah))), d (as in marchand (/maʁ.ʃɑ̃/ (mahr-shah(n)))), and x (as in paresseux (/pa.ʁɛ.sø/ (pah-reh-sew))), are generally not pronounced at the end of a word. They are pronounced if there is an e letter after it (coupe (/kup/ (koop)), chatte (/ʃat/ (shaht)), marchande (/maʁ.ʃɑ̃d/ (mahr-shah(n)d))).
The letters d, l, n,s, t, and z are pronounced with the tip of the tongue against the lower teeth and the middle of the tongue against the roof of the mouth. In English, one would pronounce these letters with the tip of the tongue at the roof of one’s mouth. It is very difficult to pronounce a word like voudrais (/vud.ʁɛ/) properly with the d formed in the English manner.
b and p
Unlike English, when you pronounce the letters b and p in French, little to no air should come out of your mouth. In terms of phonetics, the difference in the French b and p and their English counterparts is one of aspiration. Fortunately, in English both aspirated and unaspirated variants (allophones) exist, but only in specific environments. If you’re a native speaker, say the word pit and then the word spit out loud. Did you notice the extra puff of air in the first word that doesn’t come with the second? The p in ‘pit’ is aspirated ([pʰ]); the p in ‘spit’ is not (like the p in any position in French).
The letter ‘q’ is always followed by a ‘u’. There are only two cases where there is an exception, and that is ‘cinq’ (five) and ‘coq’ (rooster).
A final ‘r’ after ‘e’ is generally mute, but it is pronounced on words of one syllable ‘fer’, ‘mer’ and ‘hier’.
Aspirated and non-aspirated h
In French, the letter h can be aspirated (h aspiré), or not aspirated (h non aspiré), depending on which language the word was borrowed from. The h is never pronounced, whether it is aspirated or not aspirated.
For example, the word héros (/e.ʁɔ/) has an aspirated h. When a definite article (le, la, l’, les) is placed before it, the result is le héros, and both words must be pronounced separately. However, the feminine form of héros, héroïne (/eʁɔin/) is a non-aspirated h. Therefore, when you put a definite article in front of it, it becomes l’héroïne, and is pronounced as one word.
The only way to tell if the h at the beginning of a word is aspirated is to look it up in the dictionary. Some dictionaries will place an asterisk (*) in front of the entry word in the French-English H section if the h is aspirated. Other dictionaries will include it in the pronunciation guide after the key word by placing an apostrophe ( ' ) before the pronunciation. In short, the words must be memorized.
Here is a table of some basic h words that are aspirated and not aspirated:
|héros, hero (le héros)||héroïne, heroine (l'héroïne)|
|haïr, to hate (je haïs)||habiter, to live (j'habite)|
|huit, eight (le huit novembre)||harmonie, harmony (l'harmonie)|
The punctuation symbols in French operates very similarly to English with the same meaning. The only punctuation symbol not present in French would be the quotation marks; these are replaced by the guillemets shown in the table above. For speech in fiction, no quotation marks are used. The two stroke punctuation marks (such as ;, :, ?, !) may require a non-breaking space before or after the mark in question.
Five different kinds of accent marks are used in written French. In many cases, an accent changes the sound of the letter to which it is added. In others, the accent has no effect on pronunciation. Accents in French never indicate stress (which always falls on the last syllable). Accentuated letters are usually never followed by a double consonant (except châssis for instance); moreover on e accent becomes useless because a following double consonant changes its pronounciation (e.g.: jeter ([ə],throw) but je jette (pronounced è, I throw). The following table lists every French accent mark and the letters with which it can be combined:
|acute accent (accent aigu)||é||éléphant (/e.le.fɑ̃/)|
|grave accent (accent grave)||è, à, ù||fièvre (/fjɛvʁ/), là (/la/), où (/u/)|
|circumflex (accent circonflexe)||â, ê, î, ô, û||gâteau (/ɡa.tɔ/), être (/ɛtʁ/), île (/il/), chômage (/ʃɔ.maʒ/), dû (/dy/)|
|diaeresis (tréma)||ë, ï, ü, ÿ||Noël (/nɔ.ɛl/), maïs (/ma.is/), aigüe (/e.ɡy/)|
|cedilla (cédille)||ç||français (/fʁɑ̃.sɛ/)|
Note that the letter ÿ is only used in very rare words, mostly old town names like L’Haÿ-Les-Roses, a Paris surburb or Aÿ in Champagne region. This letter is pronounced like ï.
Note also that as of the spelling reform of 1990, the diaresis indicating gu is not a digraph on words finishing in guë and is now placed on the u in standard (académie française) French: aigüe and not aiguë; cigüe and not ciguë; ambigüe and not ambiguë. Since this reform is relatively recent and mostly unknown to laypeople, the two spellings can be used interchangeably.
Acute accent - Accent aigu
The acute accent is the most common accent used in written French. It is only used with the letter e and is always pronounced /e/ (ay).
One use of the accent aigu is to form the past participle of regular -er verbs.
|aimer (to love)||aimé (loved)|
|regarder (to watch)||regardé (watched)|
Grave accent - Accent grave
à and ù
In the case of the letters à and ù, the grave accent is used to graphically distinguish one word from another.
|Without accent grave||With accent grave|
|a (3rd pers. sing of avoir, to have)||à (preposition, to, at, etc.)|
|la (definite article for feminine nouns)||là (there)|
|ou (conjunction, or)||où (where)|
Unlike à and ù, è is not used to distinguish words from one another. The è is used for pronunciation. In careful speech, an unaccented e is pronounced like an a on the end of a word in English /ə/, as in “Angela”, and in rapid speech is sometimes not pronounced at all. The è is pronounced like the letter e in pet.
Circumflex accent - Accent circonflexe
This accent is often called a ‘hat’ in language and mathematics, and usually indicates the disappearance of the old-French s after the vowel wearing it (the hat) but this s can still be found in a noun or a verb of the same lexical family. Examples are: hospital –> hôpital but hospitalité, maistre –> maître, gâteau from old french gastel, ê is pronounced like è: Fenestre –> fenêtre but défenestrer, forest –> forêt but forestier.
Circumflex accent may be used to have closed-o (la Drôme (French department), un dôme… ô is pronounced [o] like in château, whithout this accent it would be said like the english word hot ; whereas this pronunciation is not really applied in the south of France.)
In past participle of devoir (must), dû a circumflex accent is written to distinguish it with the article du.
According to the spelling reform of 1990 some of circumflex accent are not compulsory any more (maître –> maitre, boîte –> boite…)
Cedilla - Cédille
The cedilla is used only with the letter c, and is said to make the c soft, making it equivalent to the English and French s.