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Although they can be a pain in the backside to English speakers, accent marks in French are part of the spelling of French words, and are as important as any letter. In this article you will learn not only how each accent mark is used, but when it is used, how it can make a difference in the meaning of a word, how it can change a word's pronunciation, and how you may even be able to use an accent mark to figure out the meaning of a word. French uses the accent grave, accent aigu, accent circonflexe, the cedille, and the trema.
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The accent aigu is the most common of the French accents. If you know that there is an accent in a word you are trying to spell, your luck may be with you if you use the accent aigu.
The accent aigu can only be used on the letter "E.” It tells the speaker to pronounce the E as the sound "AY.”
For example: épée = ay pay
At the beginning of the word, It can also mean that there used to be an "S" at the beginning.
étable = stable
il étudie = he studies
étrangler = to strangle
At the end of a word, it is often is the equivalent of -ed, or the simple past tense
aimé = loved
dansé = danced
mangé = ate
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First and foremost, l'accent grave tells the speaker to pronounce the "E" as "eh,” and in the English words "get" and "jet.”
élève = ay lev
It is often used to distinguish two words that are spelled the same, but have different meaning with the inclusion of the accent mark when written above the letters "A" or "U.”
à (Preposition - at, in, to) vs. a (Third person singular present form of avoir)
là (there) vs. la (definite article, singular feminine noun)
où (where) vs. ou (or)
dù (past participle of verb devoir) vs. du (contraction of de and le)
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ç La cédille s the only accent to be used on a consonant, only the letter "C", and only underneath. It simply provides a pronunciation guide that the "C" should be pronounced as an "S".
garçon = gar son
comme ci*, comme ça* = kom see, kom sah
* a cédille is never used under a "c" before the letters "e" or "I", because French rules of pronunciation dictate that the "c" automatically becomes soft in front of those two letters.
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L'accent circonflexe can be helpful in determining the meaning of a word. It often means that in a previous version of the word, there used to be an "S.” Often the word is not a direct translation, but is similar in meaning
forêt = forest
hôpital = hospital
arrêt = arrest, stop
embûche = ambush, pitfall
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Le tréma is the least common accent mark in the French language. Still, it is important to know its function, as it affects the pronunciation of the word it contains.
Its function is to separate the sounds of 2 vowels placed side by side in a word.
naïve = nah eve (innocent)
maïs = mah ees (corn)
Noël = no ell (Christmas)