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French Letters, Alphabet, & Pronunciation

March 22, 2023

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. For more help try watching this helpful video

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:

  • ço…
  • çu…
  • ça…

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”
  • û: Makes the U pronounced like the first syllable in “fewer”

For the î, it implies that the word had an S in it in th