How to pronounce French names: Anaïs, Étienne, Guillaume, Hélène

Lavender field in France

At first glance, Guillaume always looks like gobbledygook to me. It’s the French form of William — that much I know — but it takes a few seconds for me to remember that it’s pronounced ghee-ohm, not not gwill-awm or gwee-awm.

And it’s not just Guillaume that trips me up. I find many other French names (Étienne, Edwige, Anaïs, etc.) equally tricky to pronounce.

So for those of us who struggle with French names, here are some simplified rules of French pronunciation, plus names to illustrate each rule.

This list is far from comprehensive, and my pronunciations are just approximations, but hopefully my fellow non-French speakers out there will find it helpful nonetheless.

French Pronunciation + French Names

AU: The vowel combination “AU” is pronounced like a long o.

  • Paul, in French, is pronounced pohl.
  • Margaux, a French form of Margaret, is pronounced mar-goh.

CH: The letter combination “CH” is typically pronounced sh.

  • Charles, in French, is pronounced shahrl.

D, P, S, T, X, Z: The six consonants “D,” “P,” “S,” “T,” “X” and “Z,” when at the end of a word, are typically silent.

  • Arnaud, the French form of Arnold, is pronounced ar-noh.
  • Denis, the French form of Dennis, is pronounced de-nee (remember that Blondie song?).
  • Lucas, in French, is pronounced loo-kah.
  • Louis, in French, is pronounced loo-ee (think Louis Vuitton).

…They’re not always silent, though. Here are some exceptions:

  • Alois, the French form of Aloysius, is pronounced ah-loh-ees.
  • Anaïs, a French form of Anna, is pronounced ah-nah-ees.
  • David, in French, is pronounced dah-veed.

Ë: The pronunciation of “Ë” (E with a trema) is like the e in the English word “bet.”

  • Gaël and Gaëlle are pronounced gah-el or gai-el.
  • Joël and Joëlle are pronounced zhoh-el.
  • Maël and Maëlle are pronounced mah-el or mai-el.
  • Noël and Noëlle are pronounced noh-el.

É: The pronunciation of “É” (E with an acute accent) is somewhere between the ee in “see” and the e in “bet.”

  • Noé, the French masculine form of Noah, is pronounced noh-ee.
  • Salomé, in French, is pronounced sah-loh-mee.

G: The consonant “G” is soft (zh) when followed by “E” or “I” but hard (gh) otherwise.

  • Georges, the French form of George, is pronounced zhorzh.
  • Guy, in French, is pronounced ghee.

H: The consonant “H” is silent.

  • Hélène, the French form of Helen, is pronounced eh-lehn.

I: The vowel “I,” and the forms Ï, and Î, are all pronounced ee.

  • Loïc, a French form of Louis, is pronounced loh-eek.

J: The consonant “J” is pronounced zh.

  • Jacques, the French form of Jacob, is pronounced zhahk.

LL: The letter combination “LL” is typically pronounced like an l.

  • Achille, the French form of Achilles, is pronounced ah-sheel.
  • Lucille, the French form of Lucilla, is pronounced loo-seel.

…But in some cases “LL” is pronounced like a y.

  • Guillaume, the French form of William, is pronounced ghee-yohm or ghee-ohm.

OI: The vowel combination “OI” is pronounced wah.

  • Antoine, the French form of Antony, is pronounced an-twahn.
  • Grégoire, the French form of Gregory, is pronounced gre-gwahr.

OU: The vowel combination “OU” is pronounced oo.

  • Lilou is pronounced lee-loo.

R: The consonant “R,” when at the end of a word, is typically pronounced.

  • Clair, the French masculine form of Claire, is pronounced kler.
  • Edgar, in French, is pronounced ed-gahr.

…When the “R” is preceded by an “E,” though, it is not pronounced.

  • Gauthier, the French form of Walter, is pronounced goh-tee-yay or goh-tyay (remember Gotye?).
  • Olivier, the French form of Oliver, is pronounced oh-lee-vee-yay or oh-lee-vyay (think Laurence Olivier).

TH: The letter combination “TH” is typically pronounced like a t (which makes sense, since “H” is silent).

  • Thibault, the French form of Theobald, is pronounced tee-boh.

TI: The letter combination “TI” is sometimes pronounced like an s or sy.

  • Laëtitia is pronounced lay-tee-sya.

W: The consonant “W” is pronounced like a v.

  • Edwige, the French form of Hedwig, is pronounced ed-veezh.

And finally, just a few more French names that I tend to have trouble with.

  • Anatole is pronounced ah-nah-tohl.
  • Étienne, the French form of Stephen, is pronounced eh-tyen.
  • Geoffroy, the French form of Geoffrey, is pronounced zho-fwah.
  • Ghislain and Ghislaine are pronounced either ghee-len or zheez-len.
  • Ignace, the French form of Ignatius, is pronounced ee-nyas.


Those aren’t too hard, right?

That’s what I tell myself…and then I come across Guillaume in the wild and my mind goes blank all over again. :)

If you know French and would like to add to the above (either another rule of pronunciation or a more precise pronunciation for a particular name) please leave a comment.

If you’re not a French speaker, here’s my question: Which French name gives you the most trouble?

P.S. Interested in seeing how popular the French names above are in the U.S.? Here are some popularity graphs: Alois, Achille, Anaïs, Anatole, Antoine, Arnaud, Clair, Denis, Edwige, Étienne, Gaël/Gaëlle, Georges, Grégoire, Guillaume, Guy, Hélène, Ignace, Jacques, Laëtitia, Lilou, Loïc, Lucille, Maël/Maëlle, Margaux, Noé, Olivier, Salomé, Thibault.

Sources: Beginning French Pronunciation, French e, è, é, ê, ë – what’s the difference?, Google Translate

Image: Adapted from Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque, 2022 by Chris Down under CC BY 4.0.

[Latest update: July 2023]

12 thoughts on “How to pronounce French names: Anaïs, Étienne, Guillaume, Hélène

  1. Great post Nancy! I don’t speak French but art history classes taught me to pronounce it somewhat. Here are some I’ve had to look up the pronunciation for in the past: Adélaïde, Thierry, Berthe, Mireille.

  2. My French is primarily high school based, but I was very serious about it at the time. Most of this seems right, but I think you’re somewhat understating the importance of the “ay” sound. “É” is consistently pronounced as “ay” –thus Étienne is not eh-tyen but ay-teeyehn (with the ay rising to the tee and the tee syllable sort of falling off a cliff and colliding with the eh so that it mostly sounds like a “y” but sort of a two-part “y”) and Hélène is not eh-lehn but ay-lehn.

    Also, the “r” at the end of of a name like Olivier is not so much silent as a modifier of the “e”–the er combination at the end of a word is always pronounced “ay” whereas an “e” without the “r” acts differently.

    Becca, while I can make educated guesses at your list of names, Mireille is the only one I’ve heard actual French people say often enough to feel entirely confident of and I’m having trouble describing it. The “r” is actually rolled a little bit, so it’s almost as if there’s a tiny little pause right in the middle of the letter when the word sort of changes directions. I think probably the best way to think of it in English is to take the first syllable of “Mirror” and change the ending to a rather long drawn out “ray”–“Mirray” or even “Miraaeaay.”

  3. Here are two more — the French equivalents of Benedict and Benedicta:

    • Benoît (masc), roughly ben-wah
    • Benoîte (fem), roughly ben-waht
  4. Here’s a helpful hint on Guillaume: think guillotine. Macabre association, sure, but the word guillotine was derived from the French surname Guillotin, which is a double diminutive of Guillaume.

  5. I always have trouble with Thibault. My brain immediately sees it as Tybalt from Romeo & Juliet.

    Whenever I see Guillaume it makes me think of actor Robert Guillaume, so that one never trips me up.

  6. If you’re old enough to remember the reference, é and É in French are *always* pronounced like the noise “The Fonz” made when he put his thumb up. ???? And most people remember the name Renée because it’s fairly popular – yeah, like that.

    And è È, with the accent mark pointing the other way, sound like “e as in bed” – as long as you’re not from the US South, where “bed” can sound quite different.

  7. Please help…I have a friend whose surname I’d Huggernot and I find myself avoiding saying it . I really would like to be able to pronounce it correctly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.