For me, an American with a unique lack of talent for learning languages, the five French accent marks (also referred to as the diacritics) can be confusing. I don’t remember being aware of them when I first studied French in college, but I must have been taught. Or maybe not? Did my typewriter even have a way of rendering accent marks? (Yes, we typed things back in the 1980s!)
Almost forty years later, I attempted the language again, in preparation for an international cultural exchange in Paris. This time I learned with Fluenz, an online learning program with practice exercises that can be answered in or out of “challenge mode.” Meaning you can be a stickler or a slacker when you type answers into the computer.
I chose stickler.
I’m a fussbudget about grammar and punctuation in English, so I intended to be the same in French, even though I only partially understood what the accent marks were for. Still, I dutifully memorized where they went, in the same way I memorized the gender of words. Which is to say: Either with difficulty or a foolish little mnemonic device.
I did get a few things, though. Like the purpose of the cedilla, i.e., that little squiggle under a “c.” It’s a head’s up that garçon is pronounced with an “s” sound instead of as “gar-kon.” Just as “façade” is not “fa-kad.” You don’t really need to be studying French to know this.
I also intuitively understood the tréma (the accent mark that consists of double dots over a vowel). I claim this only because, in the past, when I was feeling Christmas-y and sang, “Noël, Noël,” I managed to pronounce the word as “no-ell” and not “knoll.” I mean: I saw those two neighborly vowels and made two sounds. Turns out, the tréma over the “e” is there to remind us to do just that. It indicates that the vowel before the vowel with the tréma and the actual vowel crowned with the tréma are to be pronounced as two separate sounds.
The three remaining accents were where I ran into problems. They might announce their raison d’être to other language learners, but they didn’t to me, so I finally sat down and learned about the diacritics, thanks to my good friend, the Internet. Which only got me so far. Then, for clarification, I reached out to Artie Greenspan, professor emeritus of French at Colby College, in Maine.
First, as Greenspan quickly made me aware, your diacritics can be multi-taskers. I thought I had grasped the tréma’s purpose, but I had not. Not fully, as the tréma, which indicates a double vowel sound, is also used to mute a vowel. “Aigu” and “aiguë”—the male and female version of “acute” —are pronounced the same way. And, likewise, no need to vocalize the “e” on the end of ciguë (i.e., hemlock), but hopefully you won’t have too much cause to say, “Excuse me, while I swallow a little hemlock here.”
As for the other three accents. The easiest one to understand is the accent aigu (the accent mark that goes up on the right), as it is only used over an “e.” We need that é for the passé composé, of course, as when you write, “J’ai parlé avec mon mari.” “É” sounds like “ay.” But not really. Like “ay” but if you just pronounced the first part of “aaaaayyyy” and then cut off the last part of the extended “y” sound. Think of “déjà.” But, just to confuse things, sometimes the “accent aigu” doesn’t suggest that longer pronunciation—again, a multi-tasker—as with “école,” which we do not pronounce as ay-cole, but eh-cole, so what’s up?
It turns out that the accent aigu and, more often, that jaunty little hat (or upside-down “V”) of the circumflex, can indicate letters (often, though not exclusively, an “s”) that have disappeared from French over time, as with “école,” “hôpital,” and “forêt.” The “s” that isn’t in the French word is still in the English equivalent: “school,” “hospital,” and “forest.”
Though the accent aigu can only be used over an “e,” the circumflex can sit over any vowel. Makes it kind of an indiscriminate accent mark, don’t you think? When it’s not indicating a missing letter, it can change the pronunciation of “a,” “e,” and “o,” all of which may become somewhat longer when topped with a circumflex. The mark does not change the pronunciation when placed over an “i” or “u,” though. So the mark is not just indiscriminate but fickle. I try to stay away from men who are like this, so why keep company with this particular accent mark? (Tinder, sweep left!) Alas, the circumflex is simply too helpful to forswear, especially when distinguishing between homonyms like sur (which means “on”) and sûr (which means “sure.”)
I read somewhere that the circumflex is sometimes used to make a word sound grander. Could this be? I wanted to confirm, so I kept Googling “circumflex” and words like “grand” and “fancy,” but no luck. Just in case the information is accurate, I am changing my name to Dêbra Spark. If you have an urge to curtsey when you next see me, by all means…
OK, so what about that accent grave, which we know we need when we are going anywhere, i.e., “à la maison.” With an accent grave, the “à” means “to.” Without, it is a form of the verb avoir or “to have,” though both “a” and “à” are pronounced the same. In the case of “où,” the accent grave also indicates a change in definition, since “ou” is “or” and “où” means “where.”
As for the sound the accent grave gets: Over an “a” or “u,” there’s no change in pronunciation, but over the “e,” the vowel gets more of an “eh” sound than the longer “ay” you get with the accent aigu.
Since I don’t just want to use French accent marks correctly, I want to type them correctly, I recently foreswore my former method, which was to employ the “insert symbol” function on my Mac. That was a super-frustrating maneuver for someone like me who can otherwise type 100 words a minute. (Bad at languages, but good at something!) How nice to finally learn that I can just press on a keyboard letter for a little too long and the available accent marks will appear on the screen above the letter. I’ve also grasped some relatively easy computer commands. Like, on the Mac, for the accent aigu, you press “ALT” then “e” and for the cedilla, you press ALT then “c.” The accent aigu command is easy to remember, because only the “e” takes the accent aigu. The cedilla command is easy to remember, because “cedilla” starts with a “c” and is used for a “c.”
As with these computer commands, the diacritics make sense. Or some sense. Or enough sense. Which means, I don’t need to spend endless time inventing elaborate explanations to remember accent marks in the way I do with gender, as in “La réunion is feminine, because the word means ‘meeting,’ and I am a woman, and I go to a lot of meetings.”
Or I don’t try to do what I did before, which was to avoid using accent marks altogether by coming up with sentences in which they were not required. Lines like, “J’en ai fini avec cet article.”
Debra Spark’s 11th book, the novel Discipline, will be published in 2024. She teaches at Colby College and in Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers. She co-edited Breaking Bread: Writers from New England on Food, Hunger and Family, which came out in the spring of 2022. She writes a monthly book review column for Frenchly called “Bouquin.”