Should I learn the alphabet in French?
The alphabet is often considered the foundation of a language, and many foreign-language learning programs start students off by learning it. In reality, learning the French alphabet can be useful, but it’s not going to help you make conversation or expand your vocabulary.
That’s why French Together doesn’t particularly focus on the alphabet – and why you probably shouldn’t, either.
That’s not to say that you should never bother to learn to pronounce the French alphabet. But that should probably come after you get down essentials like core vocabulary, basic conjugations, and so on.
How the French use the alphabet in everyday life
Why learn the French alphabet at all? Well, like most cultures where a majority of the population is literate, letters are used in a number of ways here in France.
You might, for example, find yourself in a building like the Préfecture de Paris, whose wings are classified by letter.
Or maybe you’ll be visiting a friend and have to type in their digicode (door code) to get into the building. Not to mention various activities, like placing an order, fighting with the often unreliable Chronopost about where a package is, or booking a flight, where you’ll probably have to spell out your name or give an order ID or tracking number on the phone.
If you’re in France even for a short time, you’ll also come across letters in another way. The French love acronyms – making a word out of the first letter in a group of related words. One very common one you’ll see and hear, for example, is the SNCF (Société nationale des chemins de fer), the national train company.
All this to say, knowing how to pronounce the letters of the French alphabet isn’t essential, but it will come in handy, especially if you plan to visit or live in a French-speaking country.
So, let’s have a look at the alphabet in French.
Before we start, here is what you must know about the French alphabet
If you’re familiar with English, I’ve got some good news: the French alphabet has the same twenty-six letters, in the same order. Only their names and/or pronunciation are different.
As in English and in many other languages, as well, each French letter can be upper-case (majuscule) or lower-case (minuscule).
Of course, unlike in English, many letters in French also have variants – accents or other symbols added to them that (usually) affect their pronunciation. These are not included in the basic French alphabet, but they’re important to know, so I’ve included them in my list.
But please note: I’ve included the accented letters in lower-case, because this is how they’re most commonly used. Officially, it is correct French to use an accent over a letter in both its lower-case and upper-case form; however, in everyday French, many people omit the accent over the upper-case letter.
And now, without further ado…
How to pronounce the 26 letters of the French alphabet
Variants: à – On its own, a with an accent grave (grave accent) is the word for “to”. It can also be found in words like voilà, where it indicates that the letter’s sound is emphasized.
â –a with an accent circonflexe (circumflex) is found in the middle of many French words, including château. While it may not always make a huge difference in terms of sound, this letter and accent combination is a trace of the past: most words in which it’s found originally had the letters as there instead.
As in English, the sound made by c can vary depending on the letter that follows it. If it’s followed by an e, i, or y, it will generally sound like a soft s, as in the word ciel, as opposed to a hard c, as in the word capable. If it’s followed by an h, as in the word chat, it will make a sound similar to sh in English.
Variants: ç – The cédille (cedilla) is a way for the c to take on a soft (s-like) sound regardless of the letter that follows it – as in the word français.
Variants: é – e with an accent aigu (acute accent) can indicate a particular pronunciation, or the past participle or adjective form of a verb. For example, été.
è – e with an accent grave indicates a particular pronunciation, as in the word crème
ê – e with an accent circonflexe may either indicate pronunciation or be a sort of monument to an older version of a word, which had es there, instead. For example, fête.
ë – e with an accent tréma (diaresis) means that this letter must be pronounced apart from those around it, as in the word Noël.
As in English, the sound made by g can vary depending on the letter that follows it. If it’s followed by an e, i, or y, it will generally sound like a soft g, as in the word orange, as opposed to a hard g, as in the word garçon.
When it comes to pronunciation, h may be the trickiest letter in the French alphabet. There are two kinds of “h” in French: h aspiré and h muet.
As a general rule, if a word that starts with h has Latin origins, the h is muet – that is, it will glide into a preceding vowel, so you have to use l’ instead of le or la (for example, l’horloge) and when the word is pluralized, the s at the end of the article that precedes it combines with the word. For example, les horloges is pronounced “lezorloges.”
As a general rule, if a word that starts with h comes from any language other than Latin, the h is aspirated -that is, pronounced separately from any preceding words or vowels. Example: le homard; les homards is pronounced “lay homards”.
Of course, it’s not easy to know the origin of every word, and there are also exceptions. The only solution I’ve personally found is simply by using and memorizing h words, and even now I occasionally make mistakes or have doubts – as, it seems, so do some native French speakers from time to time.
Variants: ï – I with an accent tréma means that this letter must be pronounced apart from those around it, as in the word naïve.
Variants: ô – O with an accent circonflexe may either indicate pronunciation or be a sort of monument to an older version of a word, which had os there, instead. For example, hôtel.
Note that, as in English, ph is pronounced like an f.
As in English, q is always followed by u.
In French, s generally has a soft sound (sœur, surprise…), unless it is in the middle of a word followed by a vowel – then, it’s pronounced like z, as in réalisation. The z sound is also used for liaisons between an s and a word that starts with a vowel (or sometimes a silent letter) – for example les étoiles.
Variants: ù – U with an accent grave is only used to differentiate the words ou (or) and où (where). Pretty crazy, huh?
ü –U with an accent tréma is used very rarely, mostly in words borrowed from other languages. It means that this letter must be pronounced apart from those around it, as in the word Emmaüs (the place, as well as a movement to help the homeless and the eponymous chain of shops that sell used clothing and other items to benefit them)
û – U with an accent circonflexe is rarely used today, except to indicate the past participles of certain verbs, like dû (past participle of devoir).
W’s name translates to “double v”, rather than “double u” in English. In today’s common typography and handwriting styles, this makes a lot more sense!
As in English, y is often treated as a vowel when it comes to its effect on pronunciation or dropping other letters
Variants: Ÿ – You’ll see a Y with an accent tréma mostly in words borrowed from foreign languages or retained from older forms of French or local dialects. You’ll most often see this character used with the name of an old French village or town.
What about other French alphabetical characters?
Like many other languages, French will often allow for foreign words to be spelled with their original lettering, meaning that accents or characters that aren’t in the French alphabet will be included in these.
Additionally, there are also two ligatures (ligatures) that you’ll encounter in a number of French words. These typographically and phonetically linked pairs of letters indicate a certain pronunciation.
The two common French ligatures are:
æ, a blending of the letters a and e. It’s used in some words borrowed directly from Latin, like curriculum vitæ.
œ, a blending of the letters o and e. You’ve probably encountered it in common words like sœur and cœur.
Luckily, if you or the device you’re writing with can’t make these ligatures, French people will understand the word if you simply write the two letters separately.
Of course, if you’re writing a formal, official, or academic document, the ligature should be used (thank goodness for copy/paste!).
The most common letters in French
The letters most often used in French are e, a, i, s, and n.
The letters used the least often (not counting accented ones) are x, j, k, w, and z.
This information may not seem particularly useful, unless you’re trying to become a French Scrabble champion. But it can give insight into French vocabulary and sounds.
One of the biggest French alphabet pitfalls
If you’re a native or fluent English speaker, one of the most difficult things about the French alphabet is that the letter “j” is pronounced similarly to the letter “g” in English, and vice versa.
This is equally annoying for French-speakers who have to communicate in English. Gad Elmaleh, a French standup megastar who’s currently doing comedy in English in the US, has a very funny story about mixing up these two letters (start at the 40-second mark).
How to learn the French alphabet
If you decide that you want to learn the French alphabet, there are several ways to go about it. Here are just a few suggestions:
1. Learn the alphabet song in French
You may know this little ditty in your own native language, or in other languages you’ve learned. It exists in French, too, in that same catchy tune.
You can find different versions of the alphabet song in French by doing an online search.
This one is my personal favorite, and the one my son used to learn the French alphabet. The only downside is that what’s sung at the end isn’t the traditional verse, but something that ties into the animated characters’ names.
Still, it’s sung well and pronounced correctly, unlike some versions, which are too fast or use a singer who is not a native speaker. Check comments under the video to see if there are pronunciation issues. Once you’ve found a version you like, try to sing it several times a day.
2. Do a dictée.
Dictées (dictations) are popular in French schools for a reason. You can adapt them to learning letters in several ways.
For one, you can do online exercises like this one, where you hear a letter, then write it down. Another option is to write down some words, then make yourself spell them out in French. To check your work, do an online search for the pronunciation of each letter in French.
Other ways to learn the French alphabet include:
- Have a spelling bee. If you have other friends who are also learning French, challenge each other to spell words with French letters.
- Share secret messages. Another game to play is spelling out each letter of a secret message to your fellow French-learner, and then having them do the same for you.
Learning the alphabet may not be essential to learning French, but it can be helpful. Has knowing the French alphabet come in handy for you?