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One thing you might have noticed about French spelling is that you use accent marks on a lot of words and letters. These are really useful cues about French pronunciation: everything you need is in those accent marks! Unlike Spanish, which mostly uses accent marks for word stress, French accent marks are all about which exact sound to make, and it's easy to remember! Here's the TL;DR:

  • French é: like the "a" in English "mate"
  • French è: like the "e" in English "met"
  • French ê: also like the "e" in "met"!

The story of each accent mark is a little different, and they all show how pronunciation changes over time and how we innovate ways to make that clear in writing. (Unless the language is English, which prefers to keep pronunciation maddeningly opaque.) In French, accent marks show the pronunciation of a word and a bit of its history!

Here are the main types of accent marks, what they're called, and what they tell you about French pronunciation:

Accent aigu: é

The accent aigu is the accent mark that leans to the right on top of "é," and it represents a sound pretty close to the one in the American English pronunciation of "bait" or "mate." (If you know the IPA, that's /e/.) Many French words that start with é used to have an "s" sound after the "é," which you'll still see (and hear!) in related languages like Spanish. Over time, some "s" sounds stopped being pronounced in French and then disappeared in spelling. Here are some examples of French words with an accent aigu and their Spanish counterparts that still have an "s":

English word French word with accent aigu Spanish word
student étudiant estudiante
school école escuela
sponge éponge esponja

Here are some other places you'll find é with accent aigu:

  • In the past tense forms of verbs, like parlé (spoken) and mangé (eaten)
  • In nouns that end in -ty in English, like “university” and “liberty”: université, liberté
  • The ending -ée often has the same meaning as the English ending "-ful": une cuillerée (a spoonful), une poignée (a handful/fistful)

Accent grave: è

The accent grave is the accent mark that leans to the left on top of an "è" and occasionally on "à" and "ù." The "è" with accent grave is pronounced like in the English words "bet" and "met."

Here are some places you'll find è with accent grave:

  • In the feminine forms of adjectives and nouns, like première (first) and complète (complete)
  • In the ending used for ordinal numbers, like deuxième (second) and centième (hundredth)
  • Some short words have an accent grave to clarify meaning, like ou means "or" but means "where"

Accent circonflexe: â, ê, î, ô, û

The accent circonflexe, or circumflex accent, can be thought of affectionately as a little hat that can go on any vowel in French: â, ê, î, ô, û. The circumflex accent also shows some French language history, like where there used to be a neighboring "s" sound or where there used to be a long vowel from Latin.

English word French word with accent circonflexe Spanish word
master maître maestro
beast bête bestia
pasta pâtes pasta

La cédille: ç

The cédille, or cedilla, (little tail on the letter "c") shows that the "c" should be pronounced like "s"! In French, the letter "c" is typically pronounced like the English "k" when it comes before the vowels "a," "o," "œ," and "u": café (cafe), comme (like), cœur (heart), and cure (cure). But sometimes a "c" is in a word for historical spelling reasons, but the sound is actually "s.” For example, all the different verb forms of commencer (to start) have a "c" or "ç" so that no matter the letter in the ending, you always know to pronounce it like "s": for example, je commence (I start) and nous commençons (we start) are both pronounced with "s" sounds, even when an "o" comes after the "ç."

English word French word with la cédille (notice they make the "s" sound before the letters "a," "o," "œ," and "u") Other French words it's related to
French français la France
facade façade la face
received reçu recevoir

Liberté, égalité et français !

Lucky for French learners, accent marks pack in both history and pronunciation information in a tiny, vowel-sized package. Be sure to check back for the next stage of our Tour de French Learning to learn more about French language and culture! Vive le français !