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Lesson Transcript

Michael: Is the French alphabet the same as the English alphabet?
Aurore: And what are the differences?
Michael: At FrenchPod101.com, we hear these questions often. In the following situation, Philippine Petit, a kindergarten student, is studying the alphabet with her mum, Pauline Petit. She sees an unfamiliar letter and asks,
"Mommy, why is this ‘E’ weird?"
Philippine Petit: Maman, pourquoi le « Ë » est bizarre ?
Philippine Petit: Maman, pourquoi le « Ë » est bizarre ?
Pauline Petit: C'est un « E » avec un tréma.
Michael: Once more with the English translation.
Philippine Petit: Maman, pourquoi le « Ë » est bizarre ?
Michael: "Mommy, why is this ‘E’ weird?"
Pauline Petit: C'est un « E » avec un tréma.
Michael: "It's an E with a diaeresis."

Lesson focus

Michael: In this conversation, we hear Philippine Petit say,
Aurore: Maman, pourquoi le « Ë » est bizarre ?
Michael: which means, "Mommy, why is this ‘E’ weird?" The response is
Aurore: C'est un « E » avec un tréma,
Michael: which means, "It's an E with a diaeresis."
Michael: In this lesson, we’ll explore the French alphabet and how it may be similar to or different from the English alphabet.
To begin, just like in English, the French alphabet is based on the Latin script and contains 26 letters. However, unlike in English, the French language also utilizes diacritics, or accent marks above and below letters. While in some languages, accent marks can simply dictate which syllable of a word to stress, the diacritics in French however can also change the sound of the letter itself. In French, the five diacritics are the circumflex, the acute accent, grave accent, diaeresis, and the cedilla, which appears as the letter
Aurore: ç.
Michael: The cedilla, like most accents, completely changes the pronunciation of a word. Take, for example, the word "this,"
Aurore: ça.
Michael: Without a cedilla, this word would sound like "case,"
Aurore: cas.
Michael: This is why accent marks are important in French, and why it’s essential that you learn how to use them and what they sound like! In addition, French also makes use of ligatures, which occur when two letters are fused together to form a singular sound. In French, this happens with the letters
Aurore: œ,
Michael: which is sometimes pronounced like a deep "eu," as in the plural form of "eggs"
Aurore: œufs,
Michael: or sometimes like the basic "eu" sound that is pronounced much more lightly, as in the singular form of "egg"
Aurore: œuf.
Michael: There’s also
Aurore: æ,
Michael: whose ligature is actually quite rare in French as you’ll only find it in Latin-derived words, and it is pronounced like
Aurore : é.
Michael: For example, you’ll find it in
Aurore: Curriculum vitæ.
Michael: In the dialogue, we hear
Aurore: Pauline Petit
Michael: explain the letter
Aurore: « Ë »
Aurore: C'est un « E » avec un tréma.
Michael: "It's an E with a diaeresis." We can think of the name
Aurore: Noël
Michael: that contains a diaeresis. The word for "school,"
Aurore: école,
Michael: includes the acute accent, whereas the word
Aurore: élève
Michael: meaning "student," contains a grave accent. We can see a circumflex in the word
Aurore: forêt
Michael: meaning "forest," and a cedilla in the word
Aurore: garçon,
Michael: meaning "boy."
Michael: While the base alphabet is the same between English and French, it’s important to consider that these diacritics can change the written form, pronunciation, and even the meaning of a word.
The acute and grave accents on "e" change the pronunciation. Let’s listen to them:
Aurore: É /e/
Michael: and then we have
Aurore: È /ɛ/.
Michael: The grave accents can also be found on the letters "A" and "U", but they do not change the pronunciation. They are used to distinguish between homonyms. Examples include
Aurore: à
Michael: meaning "at" versus
Aurore: a
Michael: meaning "has" or
Aurore: où
Michael: meaning "where" versus
Aurore: ou
Michael: meaning "or." The circumflex accent can be found on "E" and "O." The
Aurore: ê
Michael: usually has the same pronunciation of
Aurore: è (/ɛ/),
Michael: while the
Aurore: ô
Michael: usually has the same pronunciation as "O" without a diacritic / circumflex . The role of the circumflex accent is actually an historical one: it reminds us that, some centuries ago, the word used to be written with an "S" that has since disappeared. Interestingly, this "S" is still found and pronounced in some English words. For example, compare the English word "hospital" and the French word
Aurore: hôpital
Michael: or "forest"
Aurore: forêt.
Michael: It’s not uncommon for French learners to find accents frustrating, though, thankfully, their pronunciation is actually quite easy to learn! You’ll probably have a much harder time learning the French "R", which has a very unique pronunciation. Take, for example, "rare" in English, and
Aurore: rare
Michael: in French. The French "U" is another sound you might have trouble with as it doesn’t exist in English. Again, though this letter looks the same in French and in English, each language has its own unique way of pronouncing it. Take the English word "pure," for example. In French, this is pronounced…
Aurore: pure.
Michael: This just goes to show that learning the alphabet in each language is essential, so that you can improve your pronunciation drastically!
Cultural Insight/Expansion
Michael: It seems that French people have strong feelings towards the orthographic rules, and accents are part of these rules. The reforms of French orthography led to fierce battles between those who think that orthography carries with itself the history of a word and should therefore not be changed, and those who think that orthography should evolve with the language. This reform, which dates back to 1990, is not mandatory. This is why you can sometimes see the same word written in different ways. This is, for example, the case of the word "event"…
Aurore: évènement
Michael:...which was changed from
Aurore: événement
Michael: to follow the pronunciation, or of the word "cost"…
Aurore: cout,
Michael: which was changed from
Aurore: coût.


Michael: Do you have any more questions? We’re here to answer them!
Aurore: À bientôt!
Michael: See you soon!

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