The dieresis, le tréma, is a French accent found on only three vowels: ë, ï, and ü. The dieresis usually indicates that the accented vowel must be pronounced distinctly from the vowel that precedes it; in other words, the two vowels are not pronounced as a single sound (like ei) or as a diphthong (like io).
|maïs||corn||mais (but) is pronounced [mɛ]|
|caraïbe||Caribbean||"caraibe" would be pronounced [ka rɛb]|
|naïf||naive||"naif" would be pronounced [nɛf]|
|canoë||canoe||"canoe" would be pronounced [ka no]|
|Noël||Christmas||"noel" would be pronounced [nɔl]|
In two words, the tréma works differently, specifying that uë is to be pronounced as a single sound: [u]. Without the accent, both letters would be silent.
|aiguë||feminine of aigu (acute)||"aigue" would be pronounced [ɛg]|
|ciguë||hemlock||"cigue" would be pronounced [sig]|
The 1990 French spelling reform recommended that the tréma be placed on the u rather than the e for these words, resulting in these alternate spellings:
In words borrowed from from Germanic and Nordic languages, like führer, länder, and rösti, the accent is not a tréma but rather an umlaut. Many people (including me, for a long time) use these words interchangeably—and incorrectly. Though they both refer to the two dots found on top of vowels, their purpose is different. Rather than indicating that the accented vowel is pronounced separately as the tréma does, the umlaut marks a historical sound shift.
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