As any pupil of French is all too conscious, realizing what sound is represented by a given letter in a selected phrase or context shouldn’t be all the time a simple matter. On this article, we give attention to one particular and deceptively tough space of issue: deciding which sound to pronounce for the letter ‘e’ in French.
The (comparatively) simple case: ‘e’ with a written accent
French has two ‘e’ sounds which are typically distinguished with a written accent. In these instances, the duty of deciding how you can pronounce ‘e’ is often simpler. When written with a so-called grave accent (è), the letter represents an “open” ‘e’ sound. That’s, an ‘e’ sound pronounced with the mouth comparatively broad open and the tongue comparatively low within the mouth, much like the ‘e’ sound of the English phrase “set”. This identical open ‘e’ sound additionally tends to be the one used when the ‘e’ is written with a circumflex (as in fête).
When written with a so-called “acute” accent (é), this often signifies a “shut” e: that’s an ‘e’ sound pronounced with the mouth much less open and the tongue comparatively excessive within the mouth. It’s much like the English “ay” vowel (as in “say”, “pay”) as pronounced in Northern English accents. (Not like the “ay” vowel of many different English accents, nonetheless, it isn’t a diphthong.)
Tougher instances: ‘e’ with out a written accent
The tougher instances happen when ‘e’ seems with out a written accent. Relying on the context, the letter ‘e’ might then symbolize both the open or shut ‘e’, a unique vowel totally, or no vowel in any respect.
Circumstances the place the vowel is often the “shut” e vowel, as if written é, embrace the phrase endings -ez and -er (the place the ‘r’ shouldn’t be pronounced, similar to dernier or the infinitives of -er verbs) or earlier than -ss- or -sc- (as in dessin, descendre). In “useful” phrases: et plus plural articles (les, des, mes, and so forth.), the ‘e’ vowel is sort of all the time pronounced é.
Circumstances the place the vowel is often the “open” e vowel (as if written è) are usually earlier than a double consonant apart from “ss” (jette, appelle) or two consonants (e.g. festival). When an unaccented ‘e’ is the primary letter of a phrase (as in examen), it’s also usually pronounced è.
Then, there are instances, usually on the tip of a phrase, the place the selection of vowel shouldn’t be really fastened. One of many two pronunciations (é or è) is used, however both will be chosen. A standard case is the -et ending of effet or livret. A extra conservative pronunciation has the open è vowel. Nonetheless, many audio system would use the shut é vowel these days. (This really extends to different instances the place an ‘e’ vowel happens in pronunciation, however within the spelling one other mixture of letters is used, e.g. the -ais of anglais, or the -aie of craie.)
The case of the schwa or “impartial” vowel
Arguably essentially the most complicated case is that of the so-called schwa. This can be a kind of ‘e’ vowel that’s usually pronounced with the tongue in a central or “impartial” place, much like the English phrase “the”. It’s usually unstressed and you discover it within the French phrase le amongst different instances.
(In addition to when to pronounce it, the precise pronunciation of this vowel can also be a fancy difficulty. In actuality, many audio system these days pronounce this vowel as a French ‘eu’ vowel (both rounded or unrounded), or pronounce it in another way beneath completely different circumstances. For the needs of this text, we gloss over these particulars and assume that it’s a central vowel much like the vowel of the English phrase “the”.)
This “impartial” vowel is mostly pronounced for a letter ‘e’ in instances not talked about above. So the place:
- the ‘e’ has no written accent;
- it doesn’t happen earlier than a double consonant or a number of consonants;
- it isn’t a part of one of many different letter mixtures (e.g. -ez, -et) that imply it’s pronounced as both é or è.
Examples of an ‘e’ representing a schwa are the ‘e’ vowels of seprimarye, deprimary, (il) mange, (nous) venons, presque and certainly the ‘e’ vowels of le and je.
What is especially complicated concerning the schwa vowel is that it isn’t all the time pronounced (or, put one other method, that it’s generally “deleted”). It’s past the scope of this article- and certainly, can be past the scope of a PhD thesis on the subject- to enter all the particulars. However listed below are some guidelines of thumb:
- the schwa is all the time deleted after one other vowel (so within the phrases vie, crient or allée, there is no such thing as a chance of saying the ‘e’);
- it’s usually deleted earlier than one other vowel too, which is partly why you say l’homme as a substitute of *le homme, but in addition implies that presque un an is pronounced “presqu’ un an”, or that comme un frère is pronounced “comm’ un frère”;
- in any other case on the finish of a phrase or phrase (il donne, le ministre), a remaining -e is virtually all the time deleted, however could also be saved or “partially” pronounced for emphasis.
- within the very first syllable of a sentence or phrase, a schwa is typically deleted in bizarre speech, even when that creates some “uncommon” sound mixtures: so e.g. je t’aime is often pronounced “j’t’aime” or “ch’t’aime”;
- in lots of different instances in the course of a phrase, sentence or phrase, audio system preserve or delete the schwa to be able to keep away from “akward mixtures of sounds” or make issues “simpler to pronounce”. So, for instance, they might are inclined to delete the schwa in la semaine (they understand the phrase as “flowing” a bit higher that method) however preserve it in neuf semaines (they understand it as “awkward” to have two consonants ‘f’ and ‘s’ collectively with out then having a schwa earlier than the subsequent consonant).
We’re clearly glossing over varied particulars right here: e.g. about what makes an “akward” mixture of sounds in French (or extra formally, what linguists confer with because the phonotactics of the language). A part of changing into fluent in French means getting used to those varied complicated patterns. However the above guidelines of thumb are nonetheless a place to begin.