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French accents (a, e, o, u, i)

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For English speakers, French pronunciation might be a little bit different and hard. There are quite a lot of similarities between these two languages.

In this lesson you will find a detailed explanation of pronunciation of the vowels with accents and the pronunciation. Once you have mastered these rules you won't have problems neither with spelling nor with pronunciation. 

1) Pronunciation of French vowels

The French alphabet contains the same vowels as the English alphabet (A, E, I, O, U, Y) except the y, but the sounds of each of these vowels is different than their English counterparts.

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The Vowel E

The French letter E has many different sounds as a closed syllable and as an open syllable, it's not wrong if you don't know how to distinguish these two syllables until you don't do pronunciation errors. 

In the alphabet the e is generally pronounced [ə].

Moreover, this letter can take all three accents of the French language: the acute, the grave, the circumflex but also can take the umlet

The acute E

The acute e (French: l'accent aigu) is written é and is usually the sound [e].

 The acute follows some rules: we find a -e with an acute accent when

  • this vowel is the first letter or vowel of a word except the words en -ère and -ès that take a grave accent.
  • this vowel is the last letter of a word including if the word ends with a plural with -s or a -e mute
  • No accent on the vowel -e if it is followed by a final consonant d, f, r or if the letter z ends the word
  • It marks the sound with the prefixes dé-, mé-, pré-
  • at the end of the word on the past participles of verbs -er to the infinitive and être
éExamples
First letter of a wordéditeur, électronicien, méchanicien, épreuve
Last letter of a wordclé, abonnés, lycée, liberté 
Final consonantclef, pied, chanter, nez
Prefixespréféré, député, mélange, désigné
Past participlechanté, parlé, donné, tué, été

enlightenedNever put an acute accent on a -e preceding an -x:

  • Perplexe (puzzled)
  • Sexe (Sex)

enlightenedNever put an acute accent on a -e preceding a double consonant

  • Trompette (Trumpet)
  • Buvette (Pump room)
  • étiquette (Tag)​

The grave E 

The grave e (French: l'accent grave) is written è and pronounced [ɛ]. The general rule is to put a grave accent on the e when it is preceded by another letter and also followed by a syllable which includes a silent e. In the opposite case we put an acute accent. 

We find a grave e: 

  • at the end of the word, when this singular word ends with s
  • on the letter e placed in front of a group of consonants if the second is l or r

​Examples:

èExamples
singular words ending with ssuccès, accès, congrès, excès, exprès, près, progrès
in front of group trèfle, fièvre, lèpre

enlightenedthe e in one syllable words is pronounced as [ə]; je, me, ce, que,  and it also occurs in the first syllable of the word 'Monsieur' and the form of the verb faire: nous faisons [nu fəzõ]

enlightenedThe acute accent on the e indicates a closed sound while the grave accent e indicates an open sound.

The umlet E

The umlet E (French: le e tréma) is written ë and is prounounced [e]. Its usage is very rare and express that the precedent vowel needs to be pronounced separately. 

Examples: 

  • Canoë (Canoe)
  • Ambiguë (Ambiguous)
  • Exiguë (Exiguous)

​The circumflex E 

The circumflex accent on the e indicate the disappearance of a letter, usually 's'

Examples:

  • Fête (Party)
  • Prêt (Loan)
  • Forêt (Forest)
  • Fenêtre (Window)

enlightenedThe  e mute, as a rule, is a e who does not pronounce, we find after a vowel. 

  • Lycée (High school)
  • Bougie (Candle)
  • Pluie (Rain)
  • Vie (Life)
  • Année (Year)
  • Joie (Joy)

The Vowel A

In the alphabet theis generally pronounced [a].

Moreover, this letter can take these accents of the French language: the grave and the circumflex. 

The grave A 

The grave a is written à and is pronounced [a]. 

We place a grave accent on:

  • à as a preposition and là as an adverb of place to differentiate them from a of the verb "avoir" and  la the pronoun or article. 
  • the adverb çà to differentiate from ça the demonstrative pronoun 
  • delà, deçà, déjà, voilà 

Examples: 

  • Je vais à Paris. (I am going to Paris)  
  • Tu seras là quand je reviendrais. (You will be here when I 'll come back)
  • Au-delà de mes espérances. (Beyond my expectations)
  • Voilà mon amie. (Here is my friend)

The circumflex A 

The circumflex a is written â and is written [a].  It used on the a of the suffix -tre marking a depreciation, on words that lost the s. 

It indicates a sound more accentuated. 

Examples: 

  • Gâteau (Cake)
  • Bellâtre (Fop)
  • Grisâtre (Greyish)
  • Château (Castle)

enlightenedThere is a circumflex accent in the 1st and 2nd plural persons of the Literary past tense and the 3rd singular person of the imperfect subjunctive of the verbs in -ar. 

The Vowel U

In the alphabet the u is generally pronounced [y].

Moreover, this letter can take these accents of the French language: the grave, the circumflex and the umlet. 

the grave U 

The grave u is written ù and is pronounced like the letter u. This accent is used only with où which can be relative or interrogative pronoun to differentiate it from ou which is a coordinating conjunction used to mark the choice. 

Example: 

  • Où vas tu si tard ? (Where are you going this late ?)
  • Alors tu prends le noir ou le blanc ? (So, are you taking the black or white ?) 

The circumflex U 

the circomflex u is written û and is pronounced like the letter u. It uses a lot of nouns to diiferentate homonyms and make a different sound.

You can also find a circumflex û in adjectives. 

Examples: 

  • Croûte (Crust)
  • Mûr (Mature)
  • Jeûner (To fast)
  • Sûr (Certain)

enlightenedThere is a circumflex accent in the past participle of verbs ending in -oir, -ître

The umlet U 

The umlet u is written ü and is pronounced like the letter u. It has a very rare usage and it is used to underline the fact that the letters has to be pronounced separately. 

  • Carphanaüm 

​The Vowel O

The alphabet letter is always pronounced [o]

Moreover, this letter can take the circumflex accent

The circumflex o 

This accent is written ô and is pronounced like the letter o. It uses especially the possessive pronouns in the 1st and 2nd plural persons. 

You can also find it in some nouns to make the sound more accentuated. Generally, it is used to make the s disappear. 

Examples: 

  • Le nôtre (Ours)
  • Le vôtre (Yours)
  • Une côte (A coast)
  • Icône (Icon) 
  • Hôpital (Hospital)

The Vowel I

The letter i is pronounced as [i] so as the letter y . This sound is similiar to the vowel of English be

Moreover, this letter can take the circumflex accent and the umlet I

The circumflex I 

The circumflex i is written î and is pronounced like the letter i. It uses some nouns to accentuate the sound. 

We can also find it on the i of the verbs in aître or oître as well as the verb plaire (to please) when the i is followed by t. 

Examples: 

  • Il connaît cet enfant. (He recognizes the child)
  • Il croît à ses histoires. (He believes these stories)
  • Il me plaît beaucoup. (I do like him)

​Generally it has the same usage as the vowels a, e, o, u

  • Belître (Rascal)
  • Huître (Oyster)
  • Epître (Epistle)
  • Gîte (Covert)

The umlet I 

The umlet I is written ï and is pronounced like the letter I. It prohibits to pronounce two letters in one sound but separate them into two sounds. There are many French words that use the ï 

Haïr (to hate) is the only French verbs that keeps the umlet in all tenses and personal pronouns except in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd singular pronouns of the present tense and 2nd singular person of the present imperative. 

Examples: 

  • Je hais ce cadeau. (I hate this gift) 
  • Egoïsme (Selfish)
  • Naïf (Naive)
  • Maïs (Corn)

Exercises

  1. Exercise on special characters of French Alphabet
  2. Matching vowels and consonants
  3. French vowels exercise

Exercise on special characters of French Alphabet


Matching vowels and consonants


French vowels exercise


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