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Pronuncation

Accents

Referring to accented characters

é
è
ë

ì
î
ï
ò
ô
ù
à
â
ç
So, what's the purpose of those accents?

Acute Accent

The acute accent (l'accent aigu) only appears above the letter e- é. Without the acute accent, the the letter e is normally pronounced [ɛ] or [ə]. With the acute accent it is pronounced [e] (see Vowel Sounds I).

Dieresis

The dieresis marks a vowel as being in a separate syllable from any neighboring vowel. For example the letter combination ai is normally pronounced [e] or [ɛ] . However with the dieresis over the i, it becomes [ai].

maïs
astéroïde
haïr
corn
asteroid
to hate

égoïste
Noël
coïncidence

selfish
Christmas
coincidence

Grave Accent

In most cases the grave accent (l'accent grave) has no effect on the pronunciation of a vowel. It is placed over the letter e when the next syllable is mute.

mère
très
secrète
mother
very
secret
je mènerais
ils conquièrent
I would lead
they conquered

It is also placed over a and u in a small number of words:

à
au delà
to
beyond
voilà

where

In a few cases, the grave accent serves to distinguish two words which otherwise would have the same spelling.

where ou or

There are a few cases when the grave accent does affect pronunciation - at least in some regions. In certain word endings, when it appears over the letter e, it causes the final syllable to be pronounced as [ɛ] as opposed to [e] (ie. dès vs des). (see Vowel Sounds I). This is true mostly for the northern region of France.

Circumflex

The circumflex, or the hat (î, â, ê) has absolutely no effect on pronunciation. All those advocating reform of the writing system are unanimously in favor of getting rid of it. There really aren't that many words that have the circumflex. Sometimes the circumflex marks the site of a lost s which existed in the original Latin version of the word, but over the centuries, as the language evolved and changed, was eventually dropped. English words that share the same Latin ancestor normally still have this s.

maître
pâte
bête
master
paste
beast
île
hôte
island
host
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