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French scrub here.

Can someone explain to me what the French diacritics denote? What do they change about pronunciation, are how consistent are they? And when, if ever, are they allow to be redacted from their character?

I've been searching but haven't found much. Whether that means there's little info on this or that I'm blind I cannot say.

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Diacritics are part of French orthography. To take one example, "dû" is the past participle of "devoir". If you remove the circumflex, it becomes "du", the contraction of "de" + "le".

Different diacritics denote different things. The circumflex over an vowel often marks where an "s" used to follow the vowel. So modern French "êtes" is "estes" in old French. The "s" in the middle was dropped, and a circumflex placed above the "e". English speakers can mentally insert an "s" after a circumflex and guess at a word:

  • forêt => forest
  • hôpital => hospital
  • tempête => tempest

Accent aigu changes the pronunciation. "parle" as in "elle parle" ("she talks") has one syllable and rhymes with the first name "Carl". But "parlé" as in "elle a parlé" ("she talked" or "she has talked") has two syllables; the first rhymes with "Carl", the second with "hay", like "parlay" (and yes, that's a cognate).

The cedilla makes a "c" soft where it would otherwise be hard, so "français" has a soft "c" in the middle, like an "s".

Search Wikipedia and you can learn about other diacritics and other uses for the diacritics I mentioned.

It is acceptable to omit diacritics from capitalized letters, but not from lowercase ones.

edit: As noted in the comments, while diacritics are often omitted from capital letters, this is considered non-standard by the Académie Française for precisely the reasons listed above: diacritics are part of French orthography, and removing them leads to ambiguity.

  • 11
    About your last statement see french.stackexchange.com/questions/60/… – jlliagre Mar 15 '17 at 1:12
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    @btrem - your last statement is incorrect. It happens, but it is not considered acceptable by the Académie Française (see jlliagre's link). – Frank Mar 15 '17 at 1:22
  • @Frank Prescriptivism vs descriptivism - the age-old argument. Technically, his statement is neither correct nor incorrect. L'Académie Française, aussi bien que les textes de grammaire, peuvent considérer un tel usage 'incorrecte', mais la majorité des francophones font cette 'faute', donc est-ce vraiment une faute? Le même truc se passe en anglais, mais personne s'en fiche à moins que c'est de langage très formel à l'écrit. – Chris Cirefice Mar 15 '17 at 3:32
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    @ChrisCirefice - oui bien sûr. I think a correct answer would state the position of the Académie, state the everyday practice, and leave it at that. In facts, words such as "acceptable" or "correct" should be proscribed, or at least presented with the appropriate context about who he saying it is "acceptable" or "correct" and why. – Frank Mar 15 '17 at 3:35
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    "It is acceptable to omit diacritics from capitalized letters, but not from lowercase ones.": it has been acceptable until the 90's. Nowadays we've got better computer software which handle diacritics on upper case letters. Please read what the Académie française have to say about this. (oops, dupe comment >_<) – YSC Mar 15 '17 at 13:39
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For reference, the usual diacritics are as follows.


Accent aigu: é

Pronunciation: Uniformly causes the vowel to be pronounced [e] (as in English "may").

There are some rare exceptions where it's pronounced [ɛ] (as in English "beg") instead, such as événement (recommended spelling changed to évènement in 1990) and in inversions like aimé-je.

Usage: Most notably on past participles of -er verbs, such as parlé. Many nouns end in it as well, such as musée. Besides that, it's simply to mark the "ay" sound in many words, such as présenter. One word that shows both cases is the surprising créé (past tense of créer).

Notes: An e without an accent sometimes disappears from pronunciation (the e muet). However, if it has any accent, this is not possible. An e with an accent other than é is generally pronounced [ɛ].


Cédille: ç

Pronunciation: Causes a hard c [k] to be pronounced as a soft c [s] instead.

Usage and notes: See this answer.


Tréma: ä ë ï ö ü ÿ

Pronunciation: Pronounce this and the preceding vowel as two distinct sounds.

Usage: Purely used in fixed forms, not triggered by any grammatical shift. Some examples are aïeux, ambiguë, and borrowed words from languages that use this more often, such as Hawaï.

Notes: ï is by far the most common, followed by ë.


Accent grave: à è ù

Pronunciation: This accent on à and ù does not change their pronunciation. However, è is pronounced [ɛ].

Usage: à and ù are only in fixed forms, such as "there" vs. la "the" and "where" vs. ou "or". However, è can appear not only in fixed forms, such as the common ending -ère (père, prière, bière), but also grammatically.

Specifically, it appears when an e that is normally caduc becomes obligatoire as a result of conjugation. For example, in the verb lever, the first vowel is reduced or even dropped. But in the present-tense conjugation lève, which has only one syllable, the stress has moved back to the first e and it is no longer optional. This is marked with the accent grave. (This is not 100% regular.)


Accent circonflexe: â, ê, î, ô, û

Pronunciation: The vowel usually becomes the variant it would have in an open/"long" syllable. The difference is negligible for î and û. For ê, the same note as above applies: if it has an accent, this letter can't be silent. For â, it becomes a back vowel [ɑ]; compare sache and lâche.

Usage: A few different purposes. One is to distinguish words, e.g. du "of the" vs. "had to" or jeune "young" vs. jeûne "a fast from food". Another is to signal historical letters that have disappeared, often s, as in fête, honnête, forêt (compare feast, honest, forest). It also regularly appears in certain conjugations, such as the passé simple and the past subjunctive.


Capital letters are often written without their accents. This leads to some amusing situations, like this sign I saw at the Eiffel Tower advertising some seemingly unappealing snacks:

BRETZELS SALES

(salé "salted" vs. sale "dirty")

Edit: As jlliagre and Frank point out, although it is common practice, omitting accents on capital letters is not considered correct French by the Académie.

P.S. Here are cross-platform instructions on typing all of them. Edit: Here is a script written in AutoHotkey that allows you to type French and Spanish accents on a PC as you would on a Mac.

  • 1
    See jlliagre's link in comment above: omitting diacritic marks, on capitals or anywhere else, is not acceptable for the Académie Française, which notes it was just a base and vile mercantile trick to lower impression costs, I suppose in olden times before computers would make adding the accents inexpensive :-) – Frank Mar 15 '17 at 1:24
  • @Frank Fair enough -- edited to clarify. Another theory that reverses the computer era hypothesis: it's already so dang hard to memorize one set of accent ALT codes, in PC environments, anyway. When the second one comes along, we throw up our hands. Why can't we all just adopt the generalized Apple method: choose accent, choose letter, not 30+ codes... – Luke Sawczak Mar 15 '17 at 2:04
  • You can change the keyboard layout setting to one that includes "dead" keys: these are keys that don't enter anything by themselves, but add an accent to the next letter typed. Also, in many Linux systems you can press the Compose key (whichever key you've configured that to be), then type a letter and an accent. – deltab Mar 15 '17 at 4:54
  • Better answer than the accepted one! For upper case and accents, it's extremely easy at least for Linux users : just use caps lock and write an accented letter to have its upper case equivalent. – Shautieh Mar 15 '17 at 7:37
  • The syllable containing ‹ô› is open (e.g. , in « pôle », « polynôme »), but the vowel itself is closed. It is pronounced [o], not [ↄ] (open « o »). Note that if the syllable is closed, the graphème ‹ô› usually (always ?) becomes ‹o›, but it is still pronounced [o], as in « polaire », « polynomial ». – Michel Fioc Mar 15 '17 at 9:35
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One thing is for sure: they cannot be redacted from their character, under any circumstance. This is just not an option if you want to write correct French. What's more, if you omit them, you might introduce ambiguities, because those diacritics sometimes distinguish important variations.

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As @btrem and Luke Sawczak have said in relation to ê, the circumflex placed above an e often denotes an obsolete adjacent s, as in forêt, hôpital and tempête. Similarly, é at the beginning of a word often also denotes an s found in English words: élève (slave), école (school), étudier (study) etc.

  • I'm pretty sure élève is derived from élever (elevare) without any former s. – Frenzie Mar 21 '17 at 19:45
  • Thanks, Frenzie. My apology - you're right. I'll swap you for écaler, écoper, écosse, écrivain, épice, éponge, étable, établir, étage, étal, état, étampe, étanche and étrangler. No doubt there are others. – Harry Audus Mar 22 '17 at 22:10

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