French orthography

French orthography encompasses the spelling and punctuation of the French language. It is based on a combination of phonemic and historical principles. The spelling of words is largely based on the pronunciation of Old French c. 1100–1200 CE and has stayed more or less the same since then, despite enormous changes to the pronunciation of the language in the intervening years. This has resulted in a complicated relationship between spelling and sound, especially for vowels, a multitude of silent letters, and a large number of homophones (e.g., saint/sein/sain/seing/ceins/ceint, sang/sans/cent). Later attempts to respell some words in accordance with their Latin etymologies further increased the number of silent letters (e.g., temps vs. older tens – compare English "tense", which reflects the original spelling – and vingt vs. older vint). Nevertheless, there are rules governing French orthography which allow for a reasonable degree of accuracy when producing French words from their written forms. The reverse operation, producing written forms from a pronunciation, fails with a higher frequency.


The French alphabet is based on the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet, uppercase and lowercase, with five diacritics and two orthographic ligatures.

Letter Name Name (IPA) Diacritics and ligatures
A a /ɑ/ Àà, Ââ, Ææ
B /be/
C /se/ Çç
D /de/
E e /ə/ Éé, Èè, Êê, Ëë
F effe /ɛf/
G /ʒe/
H ache /aʃ/
I i /i/ Îî, Ïï
J ji /ʒi/
K ka /kɑ/
L elle /ɛl/
M emme /ɛm/
N enne /ɛn/
O o /o/ Ôô, Œœ
P /pe/
Q qu /ky/
R erre /ɛʁ/
S esse /ɛs/
T /te/
U u /y/ Ùù, Ûû, Üü
V /ve/
W double vé /dubləve/
X ixe /iks/
Y i grec /iɡʁɛk/ Ÿÿ
Z zède /zɛd/

The letters w and k are rarely used except in loanwords or regional words. The phoneme /w/ sound is usually written ou; the /k/ sound is usually written c anywhere but before e, i, qu before e, i, and que at the ends of words. However, k is common in the metric prefix kilo- (originally from Greek χίλια khilia "a thousand"): kilogramme, kilomètre, kilowatt, kilohertz, etc.


The usual diacritics are the acute (´, accent aigu), the grave (`, accent grave), the circumflex (ˆ, accent circonflexe), the diaeresis (¨, tréma), and the cedilla (¸, cédille). Diacritics have no impact on the primary alphabetical order.

The tilde diacritical mark ( ˜ ) above n is occasionally used in French for words and names of Spanish origin that have been incorporated into the language (e.g., cañon, El Niño). Like the other diacritics, the tilde has no impact on the primary alphabetical order.

Diacritics are often omitted on capital letters, mainly for technical reasons. It is widely believed that they are not required; however both the Académie française and the Office québécois de la langue française reject this usage and confirm that "in French, the accent has full orthographic value",[1] except for acronyms but not for abbreviations (e.g., CEE, ALENA, but É.-U.).[2] Nevertheless, diacritics are often ignored in word games, including crosswords, Scrabble, and Des chiffres et des lettres.


The two ligatures œ and æ, have orthographic value. For determining alphabetical order, these ligatures are treated like the sequences oe and ae.


(French: o, e dans l'o or o, e collés/liés) This ligature is a mandatory contraction of oe in certain words. Some of these are native French words, with the pronunciation /œ/ or /ø/, e.g., sœur "sister" /sœʁ/, œuvre "work (of art)" /œvʁ/. Note that it usually appears in the combination œu; œil "eye" is an exception. Many of these words were originally written with the digraph eu; the o in the ligature represents a sometimes artificial attempt to imitate the Latin spelling: Latin bovem > Old French buef/beuf > Modern French bœuf.

Œ is also used in words of Greek origin, as the Latin rendering of the Greek diphthong οι, e.g., cœlacanthe "coelacanth". These words used to be pronounced with the vowel /e/, but in recent years a spelling pronunciation with /ø/ has taken hold, e.g., œsophage /ezɔfaʒ/ or /øzɔfaʒ/, Œdipe /edip/ or /ødip/ etc. The pronunciation with /e/ is often seen to be more correct.

When œ is found after the letter c, the c can be pronounced /k/ in some cases (cœur), or /s/ in others (cœlacanthe).

The ligature œ is not used when both letters contribute different sounds. For example, when o is part of a prefix (coexister), or when e is part of a suffix (minoen), or in the word moelle and its derivatives.[3]


(French: a, e dans l'a or a, e collés/liés) This ligature is rare, appearing only in some words of Latin and Greek origin like tænia, ex æquo, cæcum, æthuse (as named dog’s parsley).[4] It generally represents the vowel /e/, like é.

The sequence ae appears in loanwords where both sounds are heard, as in maestro and paella.[5]

Digraphs and trigraphs

French digraphs and trigraphs have both historical and phonological origins. In the first case, it is a vestige of the spelling in the word's original language (usually Latin or Greek) maintained in modern French, for example, the use of ph in words like téléphone, th in words like théorème, or ch in chaotique. In the second case, a digraph is due to an archaic pronunciation, such as eu, au, oi, ai, and œu, or is merely a convenient way to expand the twenty-six-letter alphabet to cover all relevant phonemes, as in ch, on, an, ou, un, and in. Some cases are a mixture of these or are used for purely pragmatic reasons, such as ge for /ʒ/ in il mangeait ('he ate'), where the e serves to indicate a "soft" g inherent in the verb's root.

Sound to spelling correspondences

Note: Some exceptions apply to the rules governing the pronunciation of word-final consonants. See Liaison (French) for more details.

Consonants and combinations of consonant letters

Spelling Major value
Examples of major value Minor values
Examples of minor value Exceptions
-bs, -cs (in the plural of words ending in
silent b or c), -ds, -fs (in œufs and bœufs,
and words ending with silent -f in the singular), ‑gs, -ps, -ts
Ø plombs, blancs, prends, œufs, cerfs, longs, draps, achats
b, bb elsewhere /b/ ballon, abbé
finally Ø plomb, Colomb /b/ Jacob
ç /s/ ça, garçon, reçu
c before e, i, y /s/ cyclone, loquace, douce, ciel, ceux
initially/medially elsewhere /k/ cabas, crasse, cœur, sac /s/ cœlacanthe /ɡ/ second
finally /k/ lac, donc Ø tabac, blanc, caoutchouc
cc before e, i, y /ks/ accès
elsewhere /k/ accord
ch /ʃ/ chat, douche /k/ chaotique, chlore, varech Ø yacht, almanach
-ct elsewhere /kt/ direct, correct Ø respect, suspect
after a nasal vowel Ø instinct, succinct
d, dd elsewhere /d/ doux, adresse, addition
finally Ø pied, accord /d/ David
f, ff /f/ fait, affoler, soif Ø clef, cerf, nerf
g before e, i, y /ʒ/ gens, manger
initially/medially elsewhere /ɡ/ gain, glacier
finally Ø joug, long, sang /ɡ/ zigzag
gg before e, i, y /ɡʒ/ suggérer
elsewhere /ɡ/ aggraver
gn /ɲ/ montagne, agneau /ɡn/ cognitif, gnose, gnou
h Ø habite, hiver
j /ʒ/ joue, jeter // jean, jazz
/x/ jota
k /k/ alkyler, kilomètre, bifteck Ø skunks
l, ll /l/ lait, allier, il, royal, matériel Ø (occasionally finally) cul, fusil, saoul Ø fils, aulx
m, mm /m/ mou, pomme Ø automne, condamner
n, nn /n/ nouvel, panne
ng (in loanwords) /ŋ/ parking, camping
p, pp elsewhere /p/ pain, appel
finally Ø coup, trop /p/ cap, cep
ph /f/ téléphone, photo
-pt /pt/ concept /t/ sept, compter, baptême
q (see also qu) /k/ coq, cinq, piqûre, Qatar
r, rr /ʁ/ rat, barre Ø monsieur (see also -er)
s initially
medially next to a consonant
or after a nasal vowel
/s/ sacre, estime, penser, instituer /z/ transat, transiter
elsewhere between two vowels /z/ rose, paysage
finally Ø dans, repas /s/ fils
sc before e, i, y /s/ science
elsewhere /sk/ script
ss /s/ baisser, passer
t, tt elsewhere /t/ tout, attente
finally Ø tant, raffut /t/ est (direction), brut, yaourt
th /t/ thème, thermique, aneth Ø asthme, bizuth
v /v/ ville, vanne
w /w/ kiwi, week-end, whisky /v/ wagon
x initially /ks/ xylophone /ɡz/ xénophobie /k/ or /ks/ xérès, xhosa
next to
a voiceless consonant
/ks/ expansion
medially elsewhere /ɡz/ exigence, exulter /s/
galaxie, maximum
phonologically finally /ks/ sexe, ixe, connexe
finally Ø paix, deux /ks/ index, pharynx /s/ six, dix, coccyx
xc before e, i, y /ks/ exciter
elsewhere /ksk/ excavation
z elsewhere /z/ zain, gazette
finally Ø chez /z/ gaz

Vowels and combinations of vowel letters

Spelling Major value
Examples of major value Minor values
Examples of minor value Exceptions
a, à /ɡ/ patte, arable, là, déjà /ɑ/ araser, base /ɔ/ yacht
â /ɑ/ château
ae, æ /e/ ex-æquo, cæcum, tænia /ɡɛ/ maestro
/ɡe/ paella
ai /ɛ/
vrai, faite
baisser, aiguille
/ə/ faisons,[6] and all other conjugated forms of faire which are spelt fais- and followed by a vowel.
/ɛ/ mtre, chne
/ɡi/ nf, hr /ɡj/ e, he
aie /ɛ/ baie, monnaie /ɛj/ paie
aou, aoû /ɡu/ caoutchouc, aoûtien, yaourt /u/ saoul, août
au /o/ haut, augure /ɔ/ restaurant, sauropode, dinosaure
ay elsewhere /ɛj/ ayons, essayer /ei/ pays (also /ɛi/)
/ɡj/ mayonnaise, papaye, ayoye
finally /ɛ/ Gamay, margay, railway /e/ okay
aye /ɛi/ abbaye /ɛj/ paye /ɛ/ La Haye
/ɡj/ baye
e elsewhere /ə/ repeser, genoux /ɡ/ femme, fréquemment,[7] solennel
before two or more consonants
(including double consonants),
x (in all cases), or
a final consonant (silent or pronounced)
/ɛ/ est, estival, voyelle, examiner, exécuter, quel, chalet /e/essence, effet, henné /e/ mangez, and any form of a verb in the second person plural that ends in -ez.
in monosyllabic words before a silent consonant /e/ et, les, nez, clef /ɛ/ es
in a position where
it can be easily elided
Ø caisse, unique, acheter, franchement /ə/ (finally in monosyllabic words) que, de, je
é, ée /e/ clé, échapper, idée /ɛ/ événement, céderai, vénerie
è /ɛ/ relève, zèle
ê /ɛ/ tête, crêpe, forêt, prêt
eau /o/ eau, oiseaux
ei /ɛ/ neige, reine
/ɛ/ rtre
eoi /wɡ/ asseoir
eu phonologically finally
before /z/
/ø/ heureux, peu, chanteuse /y/ eu, and any conjugated form of avoir spelt with an eu-.
elsewhere /œ/ beurre, jeune /ø/ feutre, neutre, maïeutique
/ø/ jne /y/, t, and any conjugated form of avoir spelt with an eû-.
i elsewhere /i/ ici, proscrire
before vowel /j/ fief, ionique, rien
î /i/ gîte, épître
ï (initially or between vowels) /j/ ïambe, aïeul, païen /i/ ouïe
-ie /i/ régie
o phonologically finally
before /z/
/o/ pro, mot, chose, déposes /ɔ/ sosie
elsewhere /ɔ/ carotte, offre /o/ cyclone, fosse, tome
ô /o/ tôt, cône
œ /œ/ œil /e/ œsophage, fœtus
oe /ɔe/ coefficient /wɡ/ moelle, moellon
/wɛ/ moelleux
/wɡ/ ple
/ɔɛ/ Nl /ɔe/ can, gmon
/wɛ/ fne
œu phonologically finally /ø/ nœud, œufs, bœufs, vœu
elsewhere /œ/ sœur, cœur, œuf, bœuf
oi, oie /wɡ/ roi, oiseau, foie, trois, noix /ɔ/ oignon
/oi/ ct, astérde
ou, où elsewhere /u/ ouvrir, sous,
before vowel /w/ ouest, couiner, oui
/u/ ct, gt
-oue /u/ roue
oy /wɡj/ moyen, royaume /ɔj/ goyave, cow-boy, ayoye
u elsewhere /y/ tu, juge /u/ tofu
before vowel /e/ huit, tuer /w/ cacahuète
û /y/ sûr, flûte
ue elsewhere /eɛ/ actuel /œ/ (see below) orgueil, cueillir
finally /y/ rue
y elsewhere /i/ cyclone, style
initially before vowel /j/ yeux, yole

Combinations of vowel and consonant letters

Spelling Major value
Examples of major value Minor values
Examples of minor value Exceptions
am, an (before consonant or finally) /ɑ̃/ ambiance, France /ɡm/ Viêt-Nam
aen (before consonant or finally) /ɑ̃/ Caen
aim, ain (before consonant or finally) /ɛ̃/ faim, saint, bains
aon (before consonant or finally) /ɑ̃/ paon /ɡɔ̃/ pharaon
cqu /k/ acquit, acquéreur
-cte (as the feminine adjective ending for words ending in a silent "ct" (see above)) /t/ succincte
em, en (before consonant or finally elsewhere) /ɑ̃/ embaucher, vent /ɛ̃/ examen, ben /ɛn/ week-end
/ɛm/ totem
em, en (before consonant or finally after é, i, or y) /ɛ̃/ européen, bien, doyen /ɑ̃/ (before t or soft c) patient, quotient, science, audience
ein (before consonant or finally) /ɛ̃/ plein, sein
-ent (3rd person plural ending) Ø parlent, finissaient
-er /e/ aller, transporter /ɛʁ/ hiver, super, éther
-es Ø Nantes, faites /e/, /ɛ/
/ez/ (in liaison)
les, des, es
les attaques
eun (before consonant or finally) /œ̃/ jeun
ge (before vowel) /ʒ/ geai, mangea
gu (before e, i, y) /ɡ/ guerre, dingue /ɡy/, /ɡe/ argue, aiguille, linguistique, ambiguïté
-il (after some vowels) 1 /j/ ail, conseil
-il (not after vowel) /il/ il, fil /i/ outil, fils, fusil
-ill- (after some vowels) 1 /j/ paille, nouille
-ill- (not after vowel) /ij/ grillage, bille /il/ mille, million, billion, ville, villa, village, tranquille[8]
im, in (before consonant or finally) /ɛ̃/ importer, vin /in/ sprint
oin (before consonant or finally) /wɛ̃/ point
om, on (before consonant or finally) /ɔ̃/ ombre, bon /ɔn/ canyon
/ə/ monsieur
ow /o/ cow-boy, show /u/ clown
qu /k/ quand, pourquoi /ke/
aquarium, loquace, quatuor
/ky/ piqure, qu
ti + vowel (initially or after s or x) /tj/ 2 bastion, gestionnaire, tiens, aquae-sextien
ti + vowel (medially elsewhere) /sj/ 2 fonctionnaire, initiation, Croatie, haïtien /tj/ pitié, augmentions, partiez,
and all conjugated forms of verbs with
a radical ending in -t or derived from tenir 2
um, un (before consonant or finally) /œ̃/ parfum, brun /ɔm/ album, maximum /ɔ̃/ punch
ym, yn (before consonant or finally) /ɛ̃/ sympa, syndrome /im/ gymnase, hymne
^1 These combinations are pronounced /j/ after a, e, eu, œ, ou, and ue, all but the last of which are pronounced normally and are not influenced by the i. For example, in rail, the a is pronounced /a/; in mouiller, the ou is pronounced /u/. Ue, however, which only occurs in such combinations after c and g, is pronounced /œ/ as opposed to /ɥɛ/: orgueil, cueillir, accueil, etc. These combinations are never pronounced /j/ after o or u; in that case, the vowel + i combination as well as the l is pronounced normally, although as usual, the pronunciation of u after g and q is somewhat unpredictable: poil, huile, équilibre [ekilibʁ] but équilatéral [ekɥilateʁal], etc.
^2 These rules about the pronunciation of the letter t in French might be more complex: words portions [pɔʁsjɔ̃] (noun, 'portions') and portions [pɔʁtjɔ̃] (conjugated form of the verb porter, 'to carry') are some examples of this complexity. The best way to know how to pronounce it would be to check in a dictionary.

Words from Greek

The spelling of French words of Greek origin is complicated by a number of digraphs which originated in the Latin transcriptions. The digraphs ph, th, and ch normally represent /f/, /t/, and /k/ in Greek loanwords, respectively; and the ligatures æ and œ in Greek loanwords represent the same vowel as é (/e/). Further, many words in the international scientific vocabulary were constructed in French from Greek roots and have kept their digraphs (e.g., stratosphère, photographie).

History of French orthography

The Oaths of Strasbourg from 842 is the earliest text written in the early form of French called Romance or Gallo-Romance.


The Gaulish language of the inhabitants of Gaul disappeared progressively over the course of the Roman conquest as the Latin languages began to replace them: written (Classic) Latin and spoken (vulgar) Latin. Classic Latin, taught in schools, remained the language of religious services, of scientific works, of legislative acts and of certain literary works. Vulgar Latin, spoken by the Roman soldiers and merchants, and adopted by the natives, evolved slowly, taking the forms of different spoken Roman vernaculars according to the region of the country. These vernaculars divided into two branches in the Gallo-Romance language family, the langues d'oïl north of the Loire and the langues d'oc in the south.[9]

Old French

In the 9th century, the Romance vernaculars were already quite far from Latin. For example, to understand the Bible, written in Latin, footnotes were necessary. With consolidation of the royal powers, beginning in the 13th century, the Francien vernacular, in usage then on the Île-de-France, brought it little by little to the other languages and evolved toward Classic French.

The languages found in the manuscripts dating from the 9th century to the 13th century form what is known as Old French or ancien français. These languages continued to evolve until, in the 14th century to the 16th century, Middle French (moyen français) emerged.[9]

Middle French

During the Middle French period (c. 1300–1600), modern spelling practices were largely established. This happened especially during the 16th century, under the influence of printers. The overall trend was towards continuity with Old French spelling, although some changes were made under the influence of changed pronunciation habits; for example, the Old French distinction between the diphthongs eu and ue was eliminated in favor of consistent eu,[lower-alpha 1] as both diphthongs had come to be pronounced /ø/ or /œ/ (depending on the surrounding sounds). However, many other distinctions that had become equally superfluous were maintained, e.g. between s and soft c or between ai and ei. It is likely that etymology was the guiding factor here: the distinction between s/c and ai/ei reflects corresponding distinctions in the spelling of the underlying Latin words, whereas no such distinction exists in the case of eu/ue.

This period also saw the development of some explicitly etymological spellings, e.g. temps "time", vingt "twenty" and poids "weight" (note that in many cases, the etymologizing was sloppy or occasionally completely incorrect. For example, vingt reflects Latin VIGINTI, with the g in wrong place, and poids actually reflects Latin PENSUM, with no d at all; the spelling poids is due to an incorrect derivation from Latin PONDUS). The trend towards etymologizing sometimes produced absurd (and generally rejected) spellings such as sçapvoir for normal savoir "to know", which attempted to combine Latin SAPERE "to be wise" (the correct origin of savoir) with SCIRE "to know".

Classical French

Modern French spelling was codified in the late 17th century by the Académie française, based largely on previously established spelling conventions. Some reforms have occurred since then, but most have been fairly minor. The most significant changes have been:

Modern French

In October 1989, Michel Rocard, then-Prime Minister of France, established the Superior Council of the French Language (Conseil supérieur de la langue française) in Paris. He designated experts — among them linguists, representatives of the Académie française and lexicographers — to propose standardizing several points, a few of those points being:

i.e. trente-et-un
For example un après-midi, des après-midis
As in coût (cost) → cout, abîme (abyss) → abime but sûr (sure) because of sur (on)
elle s'est laissée mourir → elle s'est laissé mourir

Quickly, the experts set to work. Their conclusions were submitted to Belgian and Québécois linguistic political organizations. They were likewise submitted to the Académie française, which endorsed them unanimously, saying: "Current orthography remains that of usage, and the 'recommendations' of the High Council of the French language only enter into play with words that may be written in a different manner without being considered as incorrect or as faults."

The changes were published in the Journal officiel de la République française in December 1990.

See also


  1. Except in a few words such as accueil, where the ue spelling was necessary to retain the hard /k/ pronunciation of the c.



External links

This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 12/1/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.