Which French accents, on which letters, how they affect pronunciation… This is certainly one the mysteries of the French Language that usually puzzles many students who speak a language in which accents do not exist! And yet, they are very important as they definitely change the pronunciation of the words, and can even change their meaning.
We also give a few details on the spelling reform in France, that affects the use of a few accent marks.
The various French accents
The acute accent
é: The acute accent (accent aigu) is only used on the vowel e and gives it the same sound that you find in the English word “hay”. Here is when you have to use it:
1) It can be found in many words, verbs, and some adjectives and adverbs.
Ex.: école = school; congé = vacation; découverte = discovery; écrire = to write; réparer = to repair; téléphoner = to give a phone call; agréable = pleasant; délicieux = delicious; léger = light; déjà = already; malgré = in spite of; immédiat = immediately.
2) It appears on the last letter of the part participle (participe passé) of verbs ending in “er”, especially when they are used in the conjugation of one of the main past tenses: passé composé.
Ex.: Aller = to go: Je suis allé. = I went. Marcher = to walk: Vous avez marché. = You walked. Manger = to eat: Les enfants ont mangé. = The children ate. Chanter = to sing: Ils ont chanté toute la nuit. = They sang the whole night.
3) It can also be used to replace the è in some words, adjectives or verbs that derivate from other words.
Ex.: —grève = strike; gréviste = striker.
—repère = landmark; repérer = to notice, to detect.
—fidèle = faithful; fidélité = loyalty.
—hygiène = hygiene; hygiénique = hygienic.
The grave accent
è: The grave accent (accent grave) can be also used with the e and changes the pronunciation to something similar to the “e” in the English word “bed”. Here is when you have to use it:
1) It can be also found in many words.
Ex.: père = father; collège = college; progrès = progress; scène = scene; après = after; très = very.
2) It can appear at the end of an adjective to mark the feminine, and also on an adverb that derives from an adjective.
Ex.: — complet (masc.) complète (fem.) = complete; complètement = completely.
Note that the infinitive of the verb carries a é: compléter.
—discret (masc.), discrète (fem.) = discrete; discrètement = discreetly
3) It can replace a é in some conjugations of verbs ending in “er”, or can be added to a simple e.
Ex.: —céder = to give up. Je cède = I give up. —protéger = to protect. Elle protège son bébé = She protects her baby. —se lever = to get up. Ils se lèvent = they get up. —amener = to bring. Il nous amène. = He brings us.
à, ù: The grave accent is also used on the vowels a and u. In this case, it doesn’t change the pronunciation, but it may distinguish between two different words with the same spelling or that are pronounced the same.
—la = the; là = there
—ou = or; où = where