The French Alphabet: Why it’s Easier than You Think
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.
French Alphabet 101
French and English share the same, 26-letter Latin alphabet. But the letters make different sounds in each language. I’ll get into that in detail below, but first, here’s how to say the names of each of the letters of the French alphabet:
- A, similar to the vowel in “cat”.
- B, pronounced like “bay” without the y sound.
- C, pronounced like “say” without the y sound.
- D, pronounced like “day” without the y sound.
- E, similar to the English word “a”, or that “euh” or “er” sound you make when trying to think of what to say. If you want to sound more French, round your lips and move your tongue a little bit more forward.
- F, pronounced exactly like the English letter F
- G, pronounced like the last syllable in “negligée” or “protegé” (both loanwords from French, as a matter of fact!).
- H, similar to ash.
- I, sounds like the “ee” in “bee”.
- J, sounds like the “gi” in “regime” (also a French loanword).
- K, similar to the “ca” in the word “cat”.
- L, sounds just like the English letter L.
- M, sounds like the English letter M.
- N, exactly like the English N.
- O, much like the English O, but round your lips more.
- P, pronounced like “pay” without the y sound.
- Q, a K sound followed by the French vowel u (see the letter U for more information).
- R, ah yes, the infamous French r! It’s pronounced a lot like the word “air” but with the French r sound at the end. If you struggle with this sound, the best piece of advice I can give you in just a line or two is to practise hawking. You know the disgusting sound someone makes when clearing phlegm from their throat? Try doing that! Practise a little every day, and eventually you’ll get to a French r.
- S, sounds just like the English S.
- T, like “tay” but without the y sound.
- U, this one is tricky. Start by saying “ee” as in “bee”. Then round your lips as if to say an “ooh” sound, without moving your tongue. That’s the French letter U.
- V, sounds like the final syllable in “convey”, but without the y sound.
- W, literally double V. In French, it sounds like doo-bluh vay.
- X, like “weeks” without the w.
- Y, in French (and most other Romance languages) is called “Greek i”. It’s pronounced “ee-grec” in French. Don’t forget to pronounce grec with the French r sound!
- Z, exactly like the English letter Z – if you’re not American, that is! Sorry, my American readers, this letter is pronounced zed, not zee, in French.
If you want to learn the French alphabet like French kids learn it, listen to the French alphabet song:
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 “jury”, 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 ones that sound different:
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 garçon, the G sounds the same.
A 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 genre, sounds just like a French J, as in jambon.
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?
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?
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 mouth, 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!
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 to 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
The letters of the French alphabet can have a few unique features: vowel accent marks, a symbol named the cédille (which changes a “c” to a ç), and then there are the joint letters æ and œ which aren’t even listed in the alphabet.
There are four different types of accents in the French alphabet:
- L’accent aigu, found only on the letter e: é.
- L’accent grave, which can go on the vowels a, e, and u: à, è, and ù.
- L’accent circonflexe – sometimes called le chapeau (“the hat”) in French – which can be found on all five vowels: â, ê, î, ô, and û.
- Le tréma, sometimes called les deux points (“the two dots”) in French. You’ll find it on the vowels e, i, and u: ë, ï, and ü. (You’ll occasionally see it on a few other letters in loanwords from other languages – ä, ö, and ÿ.)
More on all these accent markers, plus the cédille and the letters æ and œ, below.
French Pronunciation: It’s Not Always What it Seems
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.
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 é 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 clé (“key”)!
Any time you see an é in any French word, it will always be pronounced like this.
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 là (“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:
- acheter (“to buy”) in the je form becomes j’achète. 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 où (“where”) is the only word with the letter ù. Ou, without accent, means “or”. The pronunciation of ou and où is exactly the same (“oo”).
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 – and 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 grave, l’accent circonflexe can be used to distinguish the spelling of some words that would otherwise look identical. For example:
- du (“some”) and dû (“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.
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:
- maïs (“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!
- ambiguïté (“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.
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:
- ça is the short form of cela, which is French for this or that. You almost never hear cela in spoken French.
- déçu (“disappointed”)
- un aperçu (“a glimpse”)
The Rare Joint Letters æ and œ
There are two more symbols in written French that we haven’t seen yet: æ and œ.
Æ (that’s the upper case version of æ) has almost disappeared from the written language. You pronounce it like un e accent aigu (é). You can find it in words like ex æquo (“joint”, “tie”, “equally ranked”), et cætera (“et cetera”), or curriculum vitæ (“résumé” or “curriculum vitae” – the æ has mostly been replaced with “ae” these days in English).
The æ is also 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.
Œ (the upper case version of œ) is still pretty common in French. has the same pronunciation as the French letter e or the letters eu – it sort of sounds like the “oo” in “book”. 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.
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:
- 23,000 or
In French, there would never be a comma in the above number. There would either be a space, or nothing:
- 23 000 or
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!
If you want to write French online, we’ve got you covered.
French Keyboards: How to Type the French Alphabet
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: où (“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). So don’t be afraid to write French and make mistakes.