When you’re studying a language, it’s important to learn about words and culture, but what about individual letters?
The French language has an interesting relationship to some of them. French vowels, as you’ve probably noticed, are sometimes topped by accents. These can serve an important purpose, but sometimes…not so much. And while many French people find it extremely important to write correctly, others (at least in informal writing) can’t be bothered with including them.
Let’s look at one particular letter in French – the most frequently used one in the language: e. How is the letter e pronounced in French? What role does it play in French words? And what’s with the accent aigu (acute accent), accent grave, and accent circonflexe ?
E’s long history- and one of history’s few e-less books
The letter e has a very long history. It actually evolved from an Egyptian hieroglyphic! In its journey to the letter we know and use so much today, it’s also been a part of many alphabets, including the first known one, created by the Phoenicians in the 15th century BCE.
E is a useful letter, of course, but some people have tried to do without it. French author Georges Perec’s 1969 novel La disparition is notorious for being written without a single e…and still being pretty good!
On the other hand, ever the verbal acrobat (like all of his fellow Oulipo writers), a few years later, Perec wrote the novel Les Revenentes, which used the letter e as the only vowel in the entire book (some verbal trickery was involved)!
Why is the letter e so important in French?
The letter e is the most frequently used letter in a number of languages, including French.
In addition to representing sounds that appear in a majority of words, another reason for its predominance in French is because the letter e is used:
1. as the past participle ending for regular -er verbs. Examples: joué, écouté
2. as a way to indicate the feminine version of a word, an adjective or other part of speech modifying a feminine word, or, with some names and nouns, a female being or job (in this case, e is sometimes on its own or included in suffixes like -euse, -ienne, – esse, ice, -onne, etc.). Examples: une (the version of un used with a feminine word); présidente (a female president); intelligente (a female or feminine subject is intelligent); Simone (the feminine version of the name Simon).
Which French accents are used with the letter e?
As you’ve probably noticed, the letter e in French doesn’t always stand alone. Often, you’ll see an accent (also known as a diacritic mark) above it.
There are four diacritic marks that can be used with the letter e in French. These are:
Here’s what it means when you put one of them over the letter e in French:
L’accent aigu (acute accent) – é
e with an accent aigu can indicate a particular pronunciation, or the past participle or adjective form of a verb. For example, été.
L’accent grave (grave accent) : ` – è
e with an accent grave indicates a particular pronunciation, as in the word crème.
L’accent circonflexe (circumflex) : ̑ – ê
e with an accent circonflexe might indicate that you should briefly linger on a sound, but mostly it’s a sort of monument to an older version of a word, where an s once followed the e. For example, fête used to be written and pronounced feste in Old French.
Le tréma (diaeresis): ¨ – ë
e with a tréma (diaeresis) means that this letter must be pronounced apart from those around it, as in the word Noël.
Why are there accents in French?
Although they’re a major part of written French, accents came about a lot more recently than the letters they adorn. According to this source, accent marks over e’s started being used in the 16th century CE — so a very long time after the letter e itself appeared!
Here are three basic reasons why the French add accents to letters:
1. To indicate pronunciation.
Although it can be annoying (even for native French speakers) to have to remember to add them above a letter, accents in French are often just trying to help you out. They provide a way for speakers to know exactly how a letter should be pronounced.
For example, take the accent double whammy word élève. If there weren’t any accents on those first two e’s, you wouldn’t necessarily know they’re not both pronounced the same way,not to mention the subtle difference in how they should be pronounced.
This said, as French Together founder and native French speaker Benjamin pointed out in his article about the accent marks in French , it can be hard to hear the difference between different kinds of e’s, even for French people. He also writes that you probably don’t have to worry about not precisely pronouncing each letter as it’s indicated – although of course, in an ideal world, you’d nail it every time.
As a non-native French speaker, I can definitely attest to this. For example, although élève is one of the first words I learned in French class, which means I’ve heard and used it for far longer than I’d like to admit, I still sometimes slip and pronounce the first e much like the second one. Luckily, since people know I’m a foreigner, they’re not usually too thrown off by this and still understand me.
So, if you’re having a bit of trouble hearing the difference between the French e’s in words with multiple syllables, don’t worry. Try to improve, of course (more on that a little later), but don’t be afraid to speak.
2. To avoid confusion between words.
Most of us know someone who overexplains everything or completely states the obvious. Accents in French sometimes have this role. In most contexts, it would be pretty hard to confuse a (avoir in the third person present) and à (“to”), but that accent is there just in case!
3. As a historical marker.
Every time I come upon an accent circonflexe, my etymology-loving heart skips a beat. Sure, it’s annoying to have to remember to put that little hat on top of a vowel, especially since it has no bearing on the letter’s pronunciation, but it’s like a little step back in time.
Barring a few exceptions (like being used to avoid confusing du and dû), an accent circonflexe indicates that a long time ago, an “s” used to follow the accented letter. This is really fascinating because it gives us an easy way to image how early French speakers sounded.
You’ll notice cool things like the fact that être was once pronounced “estre” (which also gives some insight into why many of its present-tense conjugations include an “s” (tu es, il/elle/on est…). Or that la forêt was once la forest, making it easier to see how the word was borrowed into English in the early Middle Ages.
If this doesn’t excite and fascinate you the way it does me, no worries – just remember to stick the accent circonflexe over the right e’s and you’ll be fine.
Should you put an accent over a capital e in French?
You may have noticed that all of the e’s with accents in this article have been lowercase. That’s because many French people don’t put accents over capital e’s – or any other capital letter, for that matter.
Although French grammar has very strict and well-established rules, among everyday French people, there’s a lot of uncertainty about whether or not omitting an accent over a capital letter is correct.
According to this academic website, the Académie Française, the honored, official authority on the French language and its rules, dictates that you should add an accent to a capital letter, for the same reasons that you add accents to lowercase ones.
The article features some colorful (and somewhat extreme) examples of misunderstandings that might ensue if you didn’t put an accent on a capital letter. That being said, many French people still don’t do this, and most of the time everyone seems pretty clear about what’s going on.
Why the confusion about this rule? According to the article, before the days of computers, it was very hard to type accents over capital letters. I’ve never written anything in French with a typewriter, so I can’t say that it was any easier to make accents over lowercase letters, but there you go.
Additionally, the article concedes, before we were all typing and texting, writing out accents over letters slowed people down. For these reasons, many French people learned – even in institutions like schools – that it was okay to omit an accent over a capital letter.
So, to break it down: If you want to follow the rules and be writing 100% correct, Académie Française-approved French, add an accent to any capital letter that needs one. But if you forget to do this, most French people won’t notice and will still perfectly understand what you mean.
Other French e variants
Those four accents aren’t the only way e gets dressed up differently in French. You’re probably familiar with words like sœur (sister), cœur (heart), and œuf (egg). You may have also run into a term like curriculum vitæ.
In all of these examples, the letter e looks like it’s squished together with an o or a. This is called a ligature (ligature). Essentially, these blends are a holdover from Latin, which is the principal language that French evolved from. In fact, you’ll only see æ used with terms directly borrowed from Latin.
On the other hand, the ligature œ is used with many French words. It essentially means that the “o” and “e” have been combined together into one sound. You can hear it pronounced in cœur by clicking here.
Ligatures may look weird, but don’t worry. Since they’re in some French words you’ve already probably learned , you know that you can pronounce them. Just don’t overthink it.
E as an abbreviation and a prefix in French
The French love acronyms – that is, abbreviating a long term by using the first letter of each word. So you’ll find E in many French acronyms. You can see some examples on the list at the bottom of this page.
Aside from that, though, there are two common ways the letter e is used on its own in French:
1. As shorthand for the suffix “-ième” (th/nd).
A very frequent example of this is with floors of a building or arrondissements (districts) in cities like Paris and Lyon. For example: Elle habite au 2e étage d’un immeuble dans le 19e arrondissement. (She lives on the 2nd floor of a building in the 19th district.)
Note that, as with “th” in English, you may see this written as a letter that’s the same size as the number preceding it, or as a small e floating in the air just after the number. Example: 19e or 19e . Whether it’s small or regular size, when e has this meaning, it’s always pronounced like the suffix it’s abbreviating: –ième.
2. As an internet/technology-related prefix borrowed from English.
The most common of these is e-mail or email. (Note that while you might see this borrowed English word in writing, it’s even more commonly said or written in informal situations as mél.)
Most words using this form of e are directly taken from English, which makes them a bit controversial for French people who want to preserve their language (including the members of the Académie Française).
Additionally, older generations may simply not understand what you’re saying, due to not having studied English and being less exposed to technology, so it’s a good idea to know the purely French equivalent of these e words, even so (For instance, the “official” French word for “email” is courriel (short for courrier électronique)).
Do French people always put an accent on their e’s? Should you?
Most French people learned to use accents in their formative school years, but even they – or at least, younger generations – might skip some, especially less important ones like the accent circonflexe if they’re writing quickly online or a text message.
Still, phones nowadays use autocorrect, so even if a French person didn’t bother to take the time to put an accent above an e, their phone might just do it for them or easily give them that option to choose from. So, maybe French grammar and spelling are better than ever, despite the fact that French people have slang and text speak, too!
Should you include the accents on the e’s in French? Absolutely! It seems like not including those accents is a pet peeve of many French people! I’ve even seen museum labels that occasionally have a missing accent that a French person took the time to sneakily fill in with a pen.
That said, don’t let the fear of forgetting an accent make you afraid to communicate in written French. The most important thing is to put yourself out there. Although most French people don’t like accent mistakes, they will definitely be understanding if you make one – after all, you’re not a native speaker!
How can you tell when to put an accent on an e in French?
As you get used to French pronunciation, you may start to suspect that there should be an accent on an e in certain words. I know this has been the case for me. But it’s not always easy – and that’s normal, too. Remember that Benjamin says even native French speakers like him may have trouble differentiating certain e sounds at times.
If you’re finding it tricky to determine if you need an accent on an e based on sound alone, the best way is to read in French and observe. You’ll sometimes notice patterns.
One very easy example of this, which you may know already, is that if the e at the end of a word or just before the final e of a word is pronounced, it will have an accent aigu. Here are some examples: parlé, regardé, lycée.
So, if, like many of us, you don’t have an excellent ear, the best way to learn French accents is to be observant.
How to type French accents on Windows and Mac
So now you know all about the letter e in French – except maybe for one important thing. How do you type the accents that sometimes go along with it?
If you’re using a PC, here’s how to type accents with Windows and other options.
And here’s how to type French accents on a Mac.
If you feel at “ease” with all things e in French now, let’s finish with a Georges Perec-inspired challenge: Try to write a page in French without using the letter e – or using the letter e as the only vowel!