French orthography

French orthography
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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 homonyms (e.g. saint/sein/sain/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.


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 Celtic vernaculars 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 langue d'oïl in the north of the Loire River, and the langue d'oc in the south.

Translated from the French Évolution de la langue française du Ve au XVe siècle See also in French Romance Languages and in English Romance languages

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.

Source: Ibid (See previous section).

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,[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 PESUM, 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:

  • Adoption of j and v to represent consonants, in place of former i and u.
  • Addition of a circumflex accent to reflect historically long vowels. During the Middle French period, a distinction developed between long and short vowels, with long vowels largely stemming from a lost /s/ before a consonant, as in même (cf. Spanish mismo), but sometimes from the coalescence of similar vowels, as in âge from earlier aage, eage (early Old French *edage < Vulgar Latin *AETATICUM, cf. Spanish edad < *AETATE). Prior to this, such words continued to be spelled historically (e.g. mesme and age). Ironically, by the time this convention was adopted in the 19th century, the former distinction between short and long vowels had largely disappeared in all but the most conservative pronunciations, with vowels automatically pronounced long or short depending on the phonological context (see French phonology).
  • Use of ai in place of oi where pronounced /ɛ/ rather than /wa/. The most significant effect of this was to change the spelling of all imperfect verbs (formerly spelled -ois, -oit, -oient rather than -ais, -ait, -aient).

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:

  • The uniting hyphen in all compound numerals
i.e. trente-et-un
  • The plural of compound words, the second element always takes the plural s
For example un après-midi, des après-midis
  • The circumflex accent ⟨ˆ⟩ disappears on all the u and i except for words for which it is needed for differentiation
As in coût (cost) --> cout, abîme (abyss) --> abime but sûr (sure) because of sur (on)
  • The past participle of laisser followed by an infinitive verb is invariable (works now the same way as the verb faire)
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 l'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 Official Journal of the French Republic (Journal officiel de la République française) in December 1990.


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


French makes use of five diacritics that can modify certain letters. Unlike in some languages, letters with diacritics are not considered to be separate letters; for example, the diacritics are ignored when alphabetizing a list of words. Further, the diacritics are often omitted from capital letters (with capital ⟨é⟩ being written as ⟨E⟩, and so on), though strictly speaking, this is not considered correct, as it is merely a remnant of non-computerized printing that could not accommodate accented capital letters.

There are no letters that always need a diacritic to produce a given sound; rather, where a given letter has multiple possible sounds, a diacritic indicates that the sound that might be expected from the context is not the one that is used.

The acute accent (l'accent aigu) ⟨´⟩ is used only on ⟨e⟩. It normally indicates that the vowel represents /e/, as in épaule ('shoulder') and détail ('detail'), when ⟨e⟩ without an accent might represent /ɛ/ or /ə/. In certain syllables, however, ⟨é⟩ is written while the pronunciation in most dialects is /ɛ/, as in céderai ('I will give up') and réglementaire ('regulatory'); the 1990 spelling reform (see below) declared that in these cases, ⟨è⟩ should be used instead, but this spelling reform is not yet widely adopted.

The grave accent (l'accent grave) ⟨`⟩ is used on ⟨e⟩ to indicate that it represents /ɛ/, as in manière (way) and après (after), when it is followed by a single consonant. It is also used on ⟨a⟩ and ⟨u⟩ to distinguish certain homophones, such as ou ('or') and ('where'), and la ('the') and ('there').

The cedilla (la cédille) ⟨¸⟩ is used only on ⟨c⟩, and only when it is followed by ⟨a⟩, ⟨o⟩, or ⟨u⟩; it indicates that the ⟨c⟩ represents a soft /s/ (the pronunciation that ordinarily occurs before ⟨e⟩, ⟨i⟩, and ⟨y⟩) rather than /k/.

The circumflex (l'accent circonflexe) ⟨ˆ⟩ can be used on any of the letters ⟨a⟩, ⟨e⟩, ⟨i⟩, ⟨o⟩, and ⟨u⟩. It does not indicate a different pronunciation of ⟨i⟩ or ⟨u⟩, and does not affect the pronunciation of ⟨a⟩ in most dialects (though in some, it roughly indicates a contrast between /a/ and /ɑ/). On ⟨o⟩, it indicates /o/ (contrasting with /ɔ/), and on ⟨e⟩, it indicates /ɛ/, duplicating the function of the grave accent. The circumflex is chiefly of historical relevance; it was added in the 18th or 19th century to certain words with an unpronounced ⟨s⟩ (e.g. forestforêt) or another unpronounced letter (e.g. aageâge).

The diaeresis (le tréma) ⟨¨⟩ shows that two vowels are pronounced separately (i.e., that the vowel pair belong to separate syllables), compare the forms of the verb haïr /a.iʁ/ ('to hate'): je hais ('I hate') /ɛ/, nous haïssons ('we hate') /a.i.sɔ̃/). It is normally written on the second vowel. It is also added above the feminine adjectival ending -e when the masculine form ends in -gu: aigu, ambiguaiguë, ambiguë. The same practice is not followed, however, for verbs whose stem ends in -gu. For example, the forms of the verb arguer are exact visual rhymes with those of targuer, even though the two verbs are pronounced very differently (/aʁɡɥe/ vs. /taʁɡe/, j'argue /ʒaʁɡy/ vs. je targue /ʒətaʁɡ/).

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

Combinations of vowel letters

Spelling Major value
Examples of major value Minor values
Examples of minor value Exceptions
a, à /a/ patte, arable, là /ɑ/ araser, base
ai /ɛ/
caisse, faite
baisser, aiguille
aie /ɛ/ baie
aou /u/ saoul, Août
au /o/ haut, augure /ɔ/ sauropode
ay /ei/ pays
e non-finally /e/ essence /ɛ/
est, estival
/a/ solennel
finally Ø caisse, unique /ə/ que
é, ée /e/ clé, échapper, idée
è /ɛ/ relève, zèle
eau /o/ eau, oiseaux
ei /ɛ/ neige, reine
eu /ø/ ceux, peu /œ/ jeune
i elsewhere /i/ ici, proscrire
before vowel /j/ fief, ionique, rien
-ie /i/ régie
o /ɔ/ opter, offre
œ /œ/ œil /e/ œsophage
œu /œ/ sœur, cœur
oi, oie /wa/ roi, oiseau, foie /ɔ/ oignon
ou elsewhere /u/ ouvrir, sous
before vowel /w/ ouest, couiner, oui
-oue /u/ roue
oy /waj/ moyen, royaume
u elsewhere /y/ tu, juge
before vowel /ɥ/ huit, tuer
-ue /y/ rue
y /i/ cyclone, style

Combinations of consonant letters

Spelling Major value
Examples of major value Minor values
Examples of minor value Exceptions
-ps, -ts, etc. Ø draps, achats
b, bb elsewhere /b/ ballon, abbé
next to voiceless consonant /p/ absolu
ç /s/ ça, garçon
c before e, i, y /s/ cyclone, loquace, accès
elsewhere /k/ cabas, crasse, accord, lac Ø tabac
cc before e, i, y /ks/ accès
elsewhere /k/ accord
ch /ʃ/ chat, douche /k/ chaotique, chlore
cqu /k/ acquit, acquéreur
d, dd non-finally /d/ doux, adresse, addition
finally Ø pied, accord
f, ff /f/ fait, affoler
g, gg before e, i, y /ʒ/ gens, manger, suggérer
elsewhere /ɡ/ gain, glacier, aggravé
gn /ɲ/ montagne, agneau
h Ø habite, hiver
j /ʒ/ joue, jeter
l, ll non-finally /l/ lait, allier
finally Ø fusil,
m, mm /m/ mou, pomme
n, nn /n/ nouvel, panne
ng /ŋ/ parking, camping
p, pp non-finally /p/ pain, appel
finally Ø corp, trop
ph /f/ téléphone, photo
r, rr /ʁ/ rat, barre
s initially or next to
a voiceless consonant
/s/ sacre, estime
medially elsewhere /z/ rose, paysage
finally Ø dans, repas
sc before e, i, y /s/ science
elsewhere /sk/ script
ss /s/ baisser, passer
t, tt non-finally /t/ tout, attente
finally Ø tant, raffut /t/ est (direction)
th /t/ thème, thermique
v /v/ ville, vanne
x next to
a voiceless consonant
/ks/ expansion
medially elsewhere /ɡz/ exigence, exulter /s/
finally Ø paix, deux /s/ six, dix
xc before e, i, y /ks/ exciter
elsewhere /ksk/ excavation
y /j/ yeux, yole
z non-finally /z/ zain, gazette
finally Ø chez /z/ gaz

Combinations of vowel and consonant letters

Spelling Major value
Examples of major value Minor values
Examples of minor value Exceptions
aim, ain (before consonant or finally) /ɛ̃/ faim, saint, bains
am, an, ang (before consonant or finally) /ɑ̃/ ambiance, France, sang
aon (before consonant or finally) /ɑ̃/ paon
ein (before consonant or finally) /ɛ̃/ plein, vin, vingt
em, en (before consonant or finally) /ɑ̃/ embaucher, vent
-er /e/ aller, transporter /ɛʁ/ hiver
-es Ø Nantes, faites
ge /ʒ/ geai, mangea
gu /ɡ/ guerre
ien (before consonant or finally) /jɛ̃/ rien, chien
-il (after vowel) /j/ ail, conseil
-il (not after vowel) /il/ il, fil /i/ outil, fils, fusil
-ill- (after vowel) /j/ paille, nouille
-ill- (not after vowel) /ij/ grillage, bille /il/ million, village, ville
im, in, ing (before consonant or finally) /ɛ̃/ importer, vin, vingt
oin, oing (before consonant or finally) /wɛ̃/ point, poing
om, on (before consonant or finally) /ɔ̃/ ombre, bon
qu /k/ quand, pourquoi
um, un (before consonant or finally) /œ̃/ parfum, brun
ym, yn (before consonant or finally) /ɛ̃/ sympa, syndrome


  • ⟨ge⟩ for /ʒ/ as in mangea ('ate')
  • ⟨gu⟩ for /ɡ/ as in langue ('tongue')
  • ⟨ss⟩ for /s/ as in baisser (to lower)

Trigraphs and perhaps more

  • ⟨aon⟩ for /ɑ̃/ as in faon ('fawn)
  • ⟨aou⟩ for /u/ as in saoul ('drunk)
  • ⟨aoû⟩ for /u/ as in août ('August)
  • ⟨oin⟩ for /wɛ̃/ as in point ('point')

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 digraphs ⟨ae⟩ and ⟨oe⟩ in Greek loanwords generally represent the same vowel as ⟨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).

French spelling reforms


  • Fouché, Pierre (1956). Traité de prononciation française. Paris: Klincksieck. 
  • Tranel, Bernard (1987). The Sounds of French: An Introduction. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-31510-7. 

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.

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