French uses accents on certain vowels for various reasons, and emphasis has nothing to do with it. An accent can change the sound of a vowel or help distinguish between two different words that would otherwise be spelled the same, like sur (on) and sûr (certain).

The cedilla is a funny-looking mark that always changes the sound of the letter c it gets attached to, from a k sound to a soft sound like the s in sea.

Different types of French accent marks

On the letter e, a different accent means a different sound. On other vowels, an accent mark does not modify the sound of that vowel, just its appearance, except for the diaeresis. French uses four accents:

  • The acute, which only goes on the e: é

  • The grave, which goes over e, a, or u like this: è, à, ù

  • The circumflex, which typically goes over the e (like this: ê), and occasionally over a (â), o (ô), and u (û)

  • The least-common accent, the diaeresis, which is only used in combinations of vowels like

The French acute accent

The acute can only sit over the e, and it changes its sound from uh, like the e of the, to the first e in the English word ceremony.

É is the accent of the past tense. All -er verbs form their past participle with an -Ž like this: il a mangé (he has eaten).

Examples of words ending in é are: liberté (lee-behr-tey) (freedom), ŽgalitŽ (ey-gah-lee-tey) (equality), and fraternité (frah-tehr-nee-tey) (brotherhood).

The French grave accent

The grave accent sits over the a when it is the prepostion à. It distinguishes it from its homonym a, which is the third person singular form of the verb avoir in present tense. For instance, Il a une belle voiture (He has a nice car) isn’t the same as Elle habite à Nice (She lives in Nice).

The accent doesn’t change the pronunciation of the a. Other words with ˆ are déjà (already) and voilà (here is).

The same is true for ù. The accent helps distinguish between homonyms like ou and (or and where), for example.

The grave accent does change the pronunciation of the e. Say the English word bet, which has an eh sound, and you’ll be close to the French è sound.

To get a good grip on the difference between the sounds of the é (the acute accent) and the è (the grave accent), practice saying the following pairs that end in é and è:

cuisinier-cusinière (kew-ee-zee-nee-ey – kew-zee-nee-ehr) (cookfemale cook)
berger-bergère (behr-zhey – behr-gehr) (shepherd shepherdess)
boulanger-boulangère (booh-lahN-zhey – booh-lahN-zhehr) (baker female baker)

The French circumflex accent

The circumflex accent is definitely a shy one. It doesn’t come out very often, and when it does, it is to mimic the sound of its brother the grave over the letter e. Here are some examples: bête (beht) (beast), forêt (fohh-reh) (forest), fête (feht) (party), même (mehm) (same).

Over a, o, and u, the circumflex has no sound effect! Here are some examples: mâle (mahl) (male), pâle (pahl) (pale), théâtre (tey-ah-tr) (theatre), sûr (sur) (certain), and tôt (toht) (early).

However, the circumflex comes in handy when distinguishing between nearly identical words! It makes the difference between du and (dew) (some and due), jeune and jeûne (zhuhn) (young and fast), and mur and mûr (mewr) (wall and ripe).

The French diaeresis accent

The diaeresis (called the tréma in French) is only a cousin of the three preceding accents because it affects the sound of a pair of vowels, not just one. When it sits above the second one of a pair, the diaeresis indicates that each vowel must be pronounced alone.

For instance in the word mais (meh) (but), the pair a + i make one single sound. Put the diaeresis over the i and you get a different word: maïs (mah-ees) (corn), where the a and the i are pronounced separately.

How to add the French cedilla

Once upon a time, sweet little c, which was on hard k sound duty, developed a soft spot for the letters e and i. Each time it saw them, c would curl up into a soft ç and whistle sssss (it couldn’t whistle very well).

And so now c had two different sounds: a hard k as in the English word cod in front of a, o, and u; and a soft s as in sofa in front of e and i!

If you want that soft s sound in front of a, o, and u, then you use a c with a cedilla. Garçon (gahr-sohN) (boy) and reçu (ruh-sew) (received) are examples of the ç in use. In these instances, the c sound isn’t hard like usual; it’s soft.