As any pupil of French is all too conscious, understanding what sound is represented by a given letter in a selected phrase or context just isn’t at all times an easy matter. On this article, we give attention to one particular and deceptively difficult 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 learn how to 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 vast open and the tongue comparatively low within the mouth, much like the ‘e’ sound of the English phrase “set”. This similar 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, nevertheless, it isn’t a diphthong.)
Tougher instances: ‘e’ with no written accent
The tougher instances happen when ‘e’ seems with no written accent. Relying on the context, the letter ‘e’ could then symbolize both the open or shut ‘e’, a unique vowel totally, or no vowel in any respect.
Instances the place the vowel is often the “shut” e vowel, as if written é, embody the phrase endings -ez and -er (the place the ‘r’ just isn’t pronounced, similar to dernier or the infinitives of -er verbs) or earlier than -ss- or -sc- (as in dessin, descendre). In “purposeful” phrases: et plus plural articles (les, des, mes, and so on.), the ‘e’ vowel is sort of at all times pronounced é.
Instances the place the vowel is often the “open” e vowel (as if written è) are sometimes 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), additionally it is typically pronounced è.
Then, there are instances, sometimes on the top of a phrase, the place the selection of vowel just isn’t truly mounted. One of many two pronunciations (é or è) is used, however both could 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 truly 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 advanced case is that of the so-called schwa. This can be a sort of ‘e’ vowel that’s sometimes pronounced with the tongue in a central or “impartial” place, much like the English phrase “the”. It’s typically 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 posh concern. 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 below totally 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 seprincipale, deprincipal, (il) mange, (nous) venons, presque and certainly the ‘e’ vowels of le and je.
What is especially advanced in regards to the schwa vowel is that it isn’t at all times pronounced (or, put one other approach, 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 here are some guidelines of thumb:
- the schwa is at all times deleted after one other vowel (so within the phrases vie, crient or allée, there isn’t any chance of saying the ‘e’);
- it’s typically deleted earlier than one other vowel too, which is partially why you say l’homme as an alternative of *le homme, but in addition signifies 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 at all times 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 peculiar 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 midst of a phrase, sentence or phrase, audio system maintain or delete the schwa in an effort 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 approach) however maintain 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 following consonant).
We’re clearly glossing over numerous particulars right here: e.g. about what makes an “akward” mixture of sounds in French (or extra formally, what linguists check with because the phonotactics of the language). A part of turning into fluent in French means getting used to those numerous advanced patterns. However the above guidelines of thumb are nonetheless a place to begin.