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The French Alphabet: A Guide with Audio [It’s Easier Than You Think!]


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If you thought learning the French alphabet would be complicated, think again!

In 1066, William (or Guillaume in French), the Duke of Normandy, invaded England and took possession of the crown of England.

As a result of the Norman invasion, the French language began its own invasion of the English language (called Anglo-Saxon or Old English). That’s one of the reasons why English and French have so much in common, even though they don’t belong to the same language branch.

In this guide, I will cover the French alphabet and all-important rules related to it. The audio will help you learn correct pronunciation!

French Alphabet 101

There are 26 letters in the French alphabet.

French and English share the same Latin alphabet, but the letters make different sounds in each language. I’ll get into that in detail below.

First, here’s how to pronounce of each of the letters of the French alphabet:

As you can see, the letters of the French alphabet are exactly the same as those of the English alphabet. But it’s also clear that not all the letters produce the same sounds as their English counterparts.

That’s why a word like , which is spelled the same way and means the same thing in both French and English, sounds so different in each language.

The good news is, most of the letters in the French alphabet make the same sound as their English equivalents.

Here are the letters that sound different in French and English:

French Consonants

G and J

First, the easy rule: a hard G sounds identical in French and English. So in the English word “garden” and the French word , the G sounds the same.

soft G, on the other hand, is a bit different. In English, a soft G, as in “giant”, sounds just like an English J. And in French, a soft G, as in , sounds just like a French J, as in .

But an English soft G (or J) sound is different to a French soft G (or J). Not much different, though!

I used the French word genre in my example of a soft French G above because it’s also a word in English – loaned from French, of course – so you probably already know how to pronounce it. You can also find this sound in many English words that end in -sion, like “vision” or “intrusion”. That’s what the French soft G, and J, sound like. Easy, right?

H

There’s not much to say about this one. In English words, the H is sometimes pronounced, as in “Harry”, and sometimes it’s silent, as in “honour”. But in French, it’s always silent. Don’t you love rules that have no exceptions?

R

As I mentioned earlier, the French R is definitely different to the English R! Practise really exaggerating that French guttural R sound in the back of your throat, and soon you’ll be able to pronounce it with very little effort (and without sounding like you’re getting over a bout of pneumonia).

Hang in there!

French Vowels

U
In English, the U can make three different sounds. It can sound like “yoo”, as in the word “cute”, “uh” like in the word “cut”, or “oo”, like in “flute”. (For the sake of argument, let’s ignore the other sounds it can make when followed by certain letters, such as in the word “urge”).

In French, it only makes one sound. As I mentioned earlier, that sound doesn’t exist in English. It’s a lot like making the “ee” sound while your lips are formed into an O shape.

Other French Vowels

Just like in English, there are a lot of different ways that French vowels can be pronounced. Most of the sounds that French vowels can make (except the pesky U, above) have a similar or identical sound in English, so it’s really not so hard. I’ll get into that a bit later.

And that’s it! Those are the only letters in the French alphabet that sound different than the same letters in English. I told you the French alphabet was easier than you think!

However, there’s a little bit more to French letters than you’ll see in the 26 letters of the alphabet…

The Unique Features of Written French that You Can’t Find in the Alphabet

The letters of the French alphabet can have a few unique features: vowel accent marks, a symbol named the  (which changes a “c” to a ç). There are also the joint letters æ and œ which aren’t even listed in the alphabet.

Let’s start with the accents.

There are four different types of accents in the French alphabet:

More on all these accent markers, plus the cédille and the letters æ and œ, below.

French Alphabet and French Pronunciation: It’s Not Always What it Seems

Related Learning: French Accent Marks: The Ultimate Guide

You may already know that French is not a phonetic language. What you read is not necessarily what you say. There are a lot of silent letters in French words. Sometimes accents give you clues about the pronunciation, and sometimes they don’t.

Check out our in-depth guide to French pronunciation for a look at some of the finer nuances of pronouncing words like a French speaker.

L’Accent Aigu

This is the easiest of the French accents. It can only go on one letter: E. And it sounds the same every time.

The sound that the  makes is pretty easy for English speakers to say. It sounds close to the -ay sound in the English word “clay”, but without the “y” sound at the end.

The “y” in “clay” adds this extra “ee” sound to the word, so it ends up sounding like “cleh-ee” when you say it. If you drop the “ee” and just say “cleh”, that’s the French word  (“key”)!

Any time you see an é in any French word, it will always be pronounced like this.

L’Accent Grave

L’accent grave is the most frequent accent in French after l’accent aigu. Three letters can wear it: A, E and U.

L’accent grave on the letter a is most often used to distinguish different words, such as:

  • a, as in il a (“he has”), and à (“at”),
  • la (“the” for feminine nouns) and  (“here” or “there”).

On the letter E, an accent grave changes the pronunciation to a short “e” sound, as in the English words “elf” or “let”. It’s often needed in certain verb forms, to denote the proper pronunciation.

For example,  (“to buy”) in the je form becomes . Without that è, it would sound more like “j’ashte”, and that just sounds wrong.

L’accent grave on the letter U is found in only one word in the whole French language! The word  (“where”) is the only word with the letter ù. Ou, without the accent, means “or”.

The pronunciation of ou and où is exactly the same (“oo”).

L’Accent Circonflexe

This accent serves a few purposes. In many words, it’s a remnant of Old French, where l’accent circonflexe began to replace the S in certain words.

That S usually still exists in the corresponding English word today. Think of the words hôpital (“hospital”), arrêt (“arrest” or “stop”), prêtre (“priest”) or forêt (“forest”)

In other cases, l’accent circonflexe on an A, E or O slightly changes the pronunciation of the word. An â becomes more “open”, to give an “aww” sound. An ô sounds more “closed”, to give an “oh” sound. The difference is subtle though, so there’s no need to worry too much about it.

Finally, like with l’accent gravel’accent circonflexe can be used to distinguish the spelling of some words that would otherwise look identical. For example:

  • du (“some”) and  (“due” or “owed”)
  • sur (“on”) and sûr (“sure”)
  • croit (“believes”) and croît (“grows”)

There was a reform of French spelling in 1990. L’Académie française (the French Academy, the institution in charge of the rules regarding the French language) decided to forget l’accent circonflexe in most words where its presence didn’t change the meaning of the word.

Le Tréma

I think you’ll like le tréma. You’ll find it in a few words to remind you to pronounce a certain vowel following another vowel or a consonant (instead of the sound created by these two letters put together).

English used to have a tréma. Until pretty recently, we spelled “cooperate” as “coöperate” and “reenter” as “reënter”, so we’d remember not to pronounce them like “coo perate” and “reen ter”.

You still see it occasionally words like “naïve” or the name “Zoë”, but it’s pretty much fallen out of use.

Unfortunately, it’s mostly fallen out of use in French, too. A pity, since it’s such a great clue to pronunciation! Only a very few frequent words have a tréma. Because of the 1990 reform, some words that had a tréma now wear l’accent circonflexe instead.

A few examples of words with un tréma:

  • (“corn”). The tréma is needed here to tell it apart from mais, which means “but”. Mais is pronounced /mɛ/ (something like “meh”), and maïs is pronounced /mais/ (something like “ma-ees”). The word maïs should receive an award for being one of the only French words where you pronounce all the letters, including the final S!
  • (“ambiguity”), pronounced fairly close to the English. Without le tréma, it would sound like “ambi-gee-té” (where the G is a hard G).

You can also find le tréma in loanwords from Germanic languages. For example: maelström (“maelstrom” in English). But the spelling maelstrom is also accepted.

You might have guessed, this kind of word isn’t very common in French.

La Cédille

Here’s another useful symbol: la cédille (“the cedilla” in English). It’s like a hook that you put under the letter c to get the letter c cédille: ç.

I say “useful” because its pronunciation is always the same. You pronounce the letter ç exactly like the letter s. And that’s all you need to know about this nice letter.

No sneaky pronunciation trap à la française.

A few words with la cédille:

The Rare Joint Letters æ and œ

There are two more symbols in written French that we haven’t seen yet: æ and œ.

You pronounce Æ (that’s the upper case version of æ) like un e accent aigu (é).

You can find it in words like  (“joint”, “tie”, “equally ranked”),  (“et cetera”), or  (“résumé” or “curriculum vitae”).

The æ is falling out of use these days in French. The spelling ex aequo and et cetera are more frequent. And very few people will use the whole word curriculum vitæ. The abbreviation CV is much more common, as in English.

(the upper case version of œ) is still pretty common in French. It has a similar pronunciation as the French letter E on its own.

You can find it in words such as:

Note that it’s common to write œ as the separate letters “oe”. But thanks to autocorrect, I don’t think you’ll see œuf written as oeuf online very often.

If you’re wondering what the names of these joint letters are, I doubt most native French speakers could give you an answer! It’s frequent to say “O E collés” (“O E glued”) for œ. And nothing for æ, since it’s almost nonexistent.

Now you know all the symbols of the French alphabet. You just need to get used to the strange French punctuation before you can write Les Misérables better than Victor Hugo.

A Quick Guide to Learn the Basics of French Punctuation

So you thought you knew everything about the French language’s weirdness? Think again!

OK, this isn’t strictly part of the French alphabet, but French punctuation is a bit different from English. Even after you master French spelling, there are a few rules you’ll need for your written French to be sans défaut (“flawless”).

France is one of the only countries to use a space before the punctuation marks ?, ! and :. Not even Quebec French has this rule.

The French also write their numbers differently. In English, we generally use commas to separate three-digit groups of numbers. Sometimes we use a space.

For example, the number twenty-three thousand would look like this in English:

  • 23,000 or
  • 23000

In French, there would never be a comma in the above number. There would either be a space:

  • 23 000

Or nothing if the number is between 1,000 et 9,999:

  • 5 000
  • 5000

Why no comma, you ask? Because in France (and many other countries) the comma is used before the decimal part of the number. In English, we always put a period in that part of the number.

For example, the number 3.5 (“three point five”) in English would look like 3,5 (trois virgule cinq – “three comma five”) in French.

Keep this in mind when looking at prices in France!

French Keyboards: How to Type the French Alphabet

French keyboard with the French alphabet and extra letters and characters

The French keyboard has several peculiar characteristics:

  • It’s one of the only AZERTY keyboards in the world.
  • There’s a key for l’accent grave `, even though there are also keys for the letters è, à and ù.
  • There’s a key with ù even though this letter appears in only one word in the whole French language:  (“where”).

If you ever need to type in French, here are two ways:

  • You can set up your keyboard as a French keyboard. Look into the language or keyboard settings of your computer or smartphone.
  • Or you can use a website that gives you the special characters, such as Lexilogos. You just have to type the character(s) you need, and then copy and paste.

The French Alphabet is Perfect for Making Lots of Mistakes

French is infamous for the number of silent letters in its words. And while this can easily seem discouraging for any language learner, you needn’t worry. French spelling can be mastered with a little extra effort! Learning the French alphabet is the perfect place to start, because once you realise that it’s easier than you thought, French spelling becomes easier too.

Sure, you’ll make mistakes along the way, but you know me: the more mistakes you make, the better. (I aim for 200 mistakes a day when I’m learning a language.)

If you want to apply what you’ve learnt in this post to your written French skills, you can listen to the audio in this post on French colors and try writing the words down.

Original article by Akita Ropiket, updated by the Fluent in 3 Months team.

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Akita Ropiquet

Language Athlete

Akita makes the most out of YouTube to learn and maintain languages. He is documenting his language journey and creating a library of free resources on his blog My Name is Ropiquet.

Speaks: French, English, Spanish, Italian

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