Linguists consider the alphabet the foundation of any language. Before you start building something, you need to have a solid foundation. French is no different. If you want to learn French, you first have to master the French alphabet and pronunciation.
The good news is the French alphabet is very similar to other alphabets like the English one. Of course, the pronunciation is not exactly the same, but you won’t have to start from scratch. If you speak English, the French alphabet will be easy to learn.
Remember those days when you were in school and learned your ABCs? Let’s do something similar today. By the end of this post, you will have a better idea of the French alphabet. Let’s get started, shall we?
Letters of the French alphabet
French has 26 letters just like English. Out of those 26 letters, there are 20 consonants and 6 vowels. Let’s take a look at the table below for a better illustration.
|A a||[a] as in art||une abeille (a bee)|
|B b||[be] as in beg||belle (beautiful)|
|C c||[se] as in celery||un céleri (a celery)|
|D d||[de] as in delicious||un débutant (a beginner)|
|E e||[eo] as in supper||bleu (blue)|
|F f||[ef] as in elephant||un effet (an effect)|
|G g||[ge] as in gentle||un ingénieur (an engineer)|
|H h||[ash] as in ashes||une hâche (an axe)|
|I i||[ee] as in feel||mille (thousand)|
|J j||[ji] as in Jill||jeans (jeans)|
|K k||[ka] as in cafe||kaki (kahki)|
|L l||[el] as in elaborate||améliorer (to improve)|
|M m||[em] as in emulate||un témoignage (a testimony)|
|N n||[en] as in ten||énervant (annoying)|
|O o||[o] as in orange||une orange (an orange)|
|P p||[p] as in pen||pêcher (to fish)|
|Q q||[ku] as in curator||quitter (to leave)|
|R r||[er] as in era||une erreur (an error)|
|S s||[es] as in escalator||un escargot (a snail)|
|T t||[te] as in tenant||une télévision (a tv)|
|U u||[u] as in mute||connue (known)|
|V v||[ve] as in vest||un verre (a glass)|
|W w||[woa] as in what [va] as in valley||un watt (a watt)|
|X x||[ix] as in mix||fixer (to set)|
|Y y||[e grehk] as in feel, grape, and trek||un yacht (a yacht)|
|Z z||[zed] as in zero and dot||un zoo (a zoo)|
You can also watch the video below to practice your pronunciation. The teacher goes letter by letter. Repeat after him as many times as necessary, and you will learn the alphabet in no time.
As you can see from the table above, there are a few differences between the French and English alphabets. Let’s take a look at consonants first.
G and J
For starters, did you notice that the letter names are quite the opposite in French? In English, they’re pronounced “gee” and “jay” respectively, while in French it’s the opposite. This can be tricky for French learners.
There is only one way to pronounce j, but g has two pronunciations. If g precedes a, o, or u, it’s called a hard g. Examples: garçon, gonfler, guide. You would pronounce g just like you would in garden, goal, or guru.
However, if g precedes e or i, the pronunciation changes. It’s what we call a soft g. Examples: gentille, gifler.
Unlike English where h can or can’t be pronounced, in French, h is always silent. Examples: heure, horreur, histoire. This makes things easier, doesn’t it?
Now comes the fun part. The French R is by far the most recognizable element of the French alphabet and language. Have you ever tried to pronounce it? It doesn’t remotely resemble the English R.
Modern English is not as guttural as it used to be, so that’s probably one of the reasons English speakers have a hard time pronouncing the French R.
The sound forms in your throat. It’s similar to gargling. You will have to exaggerate it at first, although in normal speech it’s subtler. Examples: roman, raison. Watch the video below for a better explanation.
The good news is, French vowels have the same or similar pronunciation as their English counterparts. Some exceptions depend on accent marks. More on that later.
The most notable difference is the pronunciation of u. In English, u has at least 3 different pronunciations. However, in French, it only has one. This sound doesn’t exist in English, so it’s sometimes hard for English speakers to pronounce.
To pronounce u in French, you have to form your lips into an O shape, purse your lips tight, and say ee. The closest English sound is ou. Watch the video below to compare both sounds. Can you see the difference?
We’ve already covered the basics of the French alphabet. I hope you practiced it a few times before moving on.
Some French elements don’t exist in English. Let’s talk diacritics or accent marks as they’re also known.
In French, there are 4 accent marks:
- L’accent aigu
- L’accent grave
- L’accent circonflexe
- Le tréma
It’s essential to understand and master these marks since the pronunciation of some words might vary when they’re present. Let’s explain each one of them in further detail.
This accent is only used on the letter e, and its pronunciation is the same all the time.
The pronunciation is very simple. It’s like pronouncing “clay” in English. Just drop the “y” at the end, and there you have the sound. Easy, right?
Examples: clé, télé, école.
It can be used on the letters a, e, and u.
When used on a the pronunciation doesn’t change. It’s only used to distinguish different words. Examples: la (the for feminine) vs là (here or there).
Now, when it’s used on e, the pronunciation does change. The difference between l’accent aigu and l’accent grave is that the latter has a more open sound. Examples: espèce, pièce, très.
The only French word that has this accent on u is où. However, the pronunciation is the same as ou.
Also known as le chapeau (the hat), this accent can be used on all vowels (except y).
In many cases, it indicates a letter has been dropped, usually the s. Examples: forêt (forest), hôpital (hospital), and arrêt (arrest). It’s a remnant of Old French.
In other cases, this accent can slightly change the pronunciation of some words. It can indicate a letter should be more open or closed. However, the differences are too subtle, so there’s no need to worry about that.
Finally, l’accent circonflexe also helps us to distinguish two words that are spelled the same way. Examples: du (some) vs dû (owed or due) and sur (on) vs sûr (sure).
Luckily for us, this mark has fallen out of use for the most part. There are still a few words that use it, mostly on the letters e, i, and u.
The most common use of this accent is to indicate to us that two vowels must be pronounced separately. Examples: Noël, Jamaïque, coïncidence.
Le tréma can also be found in loanwords from other languages, although their spelling without it is commonly accepted.
Watch the video below so you can practice your pronunciation of the different accent marks.
This symbol is used in French and several other languages. It looks like a c with a hook under it.
In French, it’s pronounced like an s, and you can find it before a, o, or u.
Examples: ça, garçon, déçu.
Æ and Œ
What in Heaven are these? They look like a mix of letters, right?
Don’t worry. For starters, you will rarely see æ since it’s practically fallen out of use. It’s only used in a few words like curriculum vitæ or et cætera. If you happen to see it somewhere, know that it’s pronounced as é.
Regarding œ, it’s still pretty common in French. Its pronunciation is somewhere between the letter e and eu. Examples: cœur, sœur, œuf.
That’s a Wrap!
There you have it. Today, you learned the French alphabet as well as some differences between it and the English alphabet. You also learned about French accents and symbols that either don’t exist or are rare in English.
Learning the French alphabet is your foundation for learning French. Think of letters and sounds as your building blocks.
If you keep practicing, you will soon master the French accent. Not only that, but you will be able to spell and improve your listening skills.
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