French Letters, Alphabet, & Pronunciation

Ah, French. Whenever you watch a romantic movie, chances are good it’s set in France, and you notice three things:

  1. The Eiffel Tower seems to be everywhere
  2. Accordion music must be popular
  3. Everyone is, of course, speaking French (or English with a French accent)

If your heart has ever led you to book a ticket and plan a trip to Paris, you probably noticed something else. French letters may look like English letters, but they are generally pronounced quite differently.

Before you can try to speak French, you’ll need to learn the French alphabet. “That’s not hard,” you may be saying to yourself, comparing French ABCs to English ABCs, “they look the same!”

True. But just because the letters look the same does not mean they sound the same, and there are some counterintuitive pronunciations you’ll need to watch for.

Just as you learn a language best by immersing yourself in the culture of native speakers, so too you will learn how to say the alphabet in French by hearing how the French pronounce their letters. Head to Youtube, look for French alphabet tutorials and listen carefully.

Is it difficult to Learn How to Pronounce French Alphabet Versions of Letters?

Not terribly, but it will take some getting used to. French letters are similar enough that your brain should be able to make the switch without too much effort. Of course, taking the French Alphabet and combining letters into words is an entirely different subject!

You’re probably familiar with how many silent French letters there are and may recognize when they’ve spilled into English, particularly in Louisiana where names like Boudreaux could throw someone off if they weren’t expecting a silent X.

Let’s list French letters and spell the French ABCs’ pronunciations phonetically:

Letter Pronunciation
A /ah/ — Open mouth, the sound like, “ah, I understand.”
B /beh/ — Somewhat in-between “bee” and “bay,” but shorter and more clipped
C /seh/ — Like B, in between “see” and “say”
D /deh/ — Like B, in between “dee” and “day”
E /uh/ — similar to the “oof” sound without the F, like the sound one would make landing hard on the ground.
F /eff/ — The same as in English
G /zheh/ — Think of the second G in “garage,” and in between “ee” and “ay” like B
H /ah-sh/ — Very similar to the word “ash,” but with a bit more “ah” sound in the A.
I /ee/ — Said like English letter E
J /zhee/ — Think of the second G in “garage,” rhymes with “bee”
K /kah/ — Rhymes with “La,” as in, “Fa la la la la”
L /ell/ — The same as in English
M /ehm/ — The same as in English
N /ehn/ — The same as in English
O /oh/ — The same as in English, but shorter and more clipped
P /peh/ — Like B, in between “pee” and “pay”
Q /keoo/ — Like “coo,” but shorter and more clipped
R /ehr/ — Like the word “air,” but slight grind in back of the throat at the end
S /ess/ — The same as in English
T /teh/ — Like B, in between “tee” and “tay”
U /eew/ — Somewhat like the “ooh” sound in “mood,” very much at the front of the mouth
V /veh/ — Like B, in between “vee” and “vay”
W /doobluh veh/ — The word “double” comes across as “doo-bluh,” and V is pronounced as it is above
X /eeks/ — Pronounced similar to “icks” rather than “ecks”
Y /ee grehk/ — Very close to “EE-guh-reck”
Z /zehd/ — Pronounced as it is in the UK, which is “zed” instead of “zee”

If you take some time to practice, you should be able to learn all these pronunciations.

What About French Letters with Accents?

Yes, of course, French is known for its accent marks. Just when you got used to the French alphabet sounds, we had to go ahead and make it more complicated.

Want to say a simple phrase in French? You can learn it, but it helps to understand how to say it when it’s written, as well. There are five main French accent marks or “diacritics”:

  • ç : the cedilla (la cédille)
  • é : the acute accent (l’accent aigu)
  • â/ê/î/ô/û : the circumflex (l’accent circonflexe)
  • à/è/ù : ​​the grave accent (l’accent grave)
  • ë/ï/ü : the trema (l’accent tréma)

Some of these may look familiar. You’ve seen the word “résumé” before, right? And if you’ve seen German, you would recognize the trema, which the Germans call the umlaut. Let’s discuss what these marks do to the pronunciations of these French letters.

The Cedilla

If you’ve seen a letter C with a small squiggle underneath it, you may have wondered how on earth to pronounce it. This squiggle is the cedilla. It always comes before specific French alphabet letters:

The cedilla is drawn a bit like the lower half of the number 5 tacked onto the bottom of the letter C. The cedilla transforms the C into an S sound. For example, if you see the word “garçon,” which means “waiter,” you know that the word has an S sound and will be pronounced, “gar-sahn.”

The Acute Accent

Some words have already prepared you a little for how to pronounce the French alphabet. The acute accent, which looks like a dash that angles from bottom left to top right, always goes over the letter E.

It transforms the E into more of the clipped “ay” sound you’re used to from the French letters B, C, D, T, and V. The word “café” illustrates this. It requires a wide mouth to pronounce properly.

The Circumflex

With the circumflex, we’ve given each vowel a little hat. A, E, I, O, U, but never Y. Let’s go over how to pronounce each French letter with a circumflex accent:

  • â: Makes the A rhyme with the word “bat”
  • ê: Makes the E rhyme with the word “met”
  • î: No pronunciation change, used to show it replaced a letter S
  • ô: Makes the O rhyme with “boat”
  • – Makes the U pronounced like the first syllable in “fewer”

For the î, it implies that the word had an S in it in that place at one point, but doesn’t have one any longer — like when the word “master” became “maître” in French.

The letter û makes the U sound similar to the German umlaut topped U, which is ü. Sûr, the French word for “sure,” is pronounced somewhat like “syoo-er.”

The Grave Accent

Looking similar to the acute accent, the grave accent is visually reversed, going from top left to bottom right. It is most commonly found above an E but can be found above A and U as well.

The trick is that it doesn’t affect the pronunciation of the A or U, but will affect the E. The grave accent gives the E more of a “meh” sound. The mouth is open more vertically than with a circumflex accent. The more you listen to French speakers, the more you’ll be able to identify the difference.

The Trema

Yes, the trema looks like the accent markings used by the band, Mötley Crüe. The way you say that name has nothing to do with French letters or how to pronounce the French alphabet. In the French alphabet, they are most commonly used about the letters E and I, but also sometimes U.

Where the trema changes pronunciation is not for a freestanding letter, but if there are two vowels next to each other and one has a trema accent, it changes the pronunciation of the entire word.

If you have two words that look similar except one has a vowel with a trema, it changes everything:

  • Maïs: Pronounced “mah-ice,” it means “sweetcorn” in English
  • Mais: Pronounced similar to “may,” and it means “but” in English

Because of the trema in the word “maïs,” the speaker knows to separate the two vowel sounds.

For the ë, a good example would be the word “canoe.” In English, you know that it’s pronounced “can-oo,” but the French word is “canoë,” which is pronounced closer to “can-oh-ay.”

As we mentioned earlier, the ü is quite rare. An example would be the word “aigüe,” which means “high-pitched. Aigüe is pronounced, “ay-gyoo,” though the transition from G to Y to the two O’s is rather soft, and is in between “ay-gyoo” and “ay-goo.”

Which French Letters Can Be Silent?

It’s almost a running joke that French silent letters can be confusing, but let’s discuss some you may encounter if you try reading some French. There are three categories of silent French letters:

E muet/Elision

“E muet” is the common term, but “e instable” is the correct one. It means “e mute” or “e unstable,” and elision translates to “omission of a sound.” To understand e stable, know the following rules:

  • It’s always unaccented, you will never see a silent é, è, ê, or ë
  • Not all unaccented e’s are instable
  • When pronouncing e instable, it sounds close to the oo in good
  • Might be part of assimilation (more on this in a second)
  • Phonetic symbol is the “schwa” or ə

To understand the e stable, you must:

  • Be able to identify the e instable
  • Know when the e stable can be/must be pronounced and when it is silent

Let’s touch on assimilation quickly. Assimilation has to do with adjacent consonants, and which are voiced and unvoiced. Think, “coup d’etat,” in which the P is silent.

Phina Pipia is a writer, educator, and performer. Her work can be found at phinapipia.com.

Phina Pipia

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