As any student of French is all too aware, knowing what sound is represented by a given letter in a particular word or context is not always a straightforward matter. In this article, we focus on one specific and deceptively tricky area of difficulty: deciding which sound to pronounce for the letter ‘e’ in French.
The (relatively) easy case: ‘e’ with a written accent
French has two ‘e’ sounds that are often distinguished with a written accent. In these cases, the task of deciding how to pronounce ‘e’ is usually easier. When written with a so-called grave accent (è), the letter represents an “open” ‘e’ sound. That is, an ‘e’ sound pronounced with the mouth relatively wide open and the tongue relatively low in the mouth, similar to the ‘e’ sound of the English word “set”. This same open ‘e’ sound also 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 usually indicates a “close” e: that is an ‘e’ sound pronounced with the mouth less open and the tongue relatively high in the mouth. It is similar to the English “ay” vowel (as in “say”, “pay”) as pronounced in Northern English accents. (Unlike the “ay” vowel of many other English accents, however, it is not a diphthong.)
More difficult cases: ‘e’ without a written accent
The more difficult cases occur when ‘e’ appears without a written accent. Depending on the context, the letter ‘e’ may then represent either the open or close ‘e’, a different vowel entirely, or no vowel at all.
Cases where the vowel is usually the “close” e vowel, as though written é, include the word endings -ez and -er (where the ‘r’ is not pronounced, such as dernier or the infinitives of -er verbs) or before -ss- or -sc- (as in dessin, descendre). In “functional” words: et plus plural articles (les, des, mes, etc.), the ‘e’ vowel is almost always pronounced é.
Cases where the vowel is usually the “open” e vowel (as though written è) are typically before a double consonant other than “ss” (jette, appelle) or two consonants (e.g. festival). When an unaccented ‘e’ is the first letter of a word (as in examen), it is also generally pronounced è.
Then, there are cases, typically on the end of a word, where the choice of vowel is not actually fixed. One of the two pronunciations (é or è) is used, but either can be chosen. A common case is the -et ending of effet or livret. A more conservative pronunciation has the open è vowel. However, many speakers would use the close é vowel nowadays. (This actually extends to other cases where an ‘e’ vowel occurs in pronunciation, but in the spelling another combination of letters is used, e.g. the -ais of anglais, or the -aie of craie.)
The case of the schwa or “neutral” vowel
Arguably the most complex case is that of the so-called schwa. This is a type of ‘e’ vowel that is typically pronounced with the tongue in a central or “neutral” position, similar to the English word “the”. It is generally unstressed and you find it in the French word le among other cases.
(As well as when to pronounce it, the actual pronunciation of this vowel is also a complex issue. In reality, many speakers nowadays pronounce this vowel as a French ‘eu’ vowel (either rounded or unrounded), or pronounce it differently under different circumstances. For the purposes of this article, we gloss over these details and assume that it is a central vowel similar to the vowel of the English word “the”.)
This “neutral” vowel is generally pronounced for a letter ‘e’ in cases not mentioned above. So where:
- the ‘e’ has no written accent;
- it does not occur before a double consonant or multiple consonants;
- it is not part of one of the other letter combinations (e.g. -ez, -et) that mean it is pronounced as either é or è.
Examples of an ‘e’ representing a schwa are the ‘e’ vowels of semaine, demain, (il) mange, (nous) venons, presque and indeed the ‘e’ vowels of le and je.
What is particularly complex about the schwa vowel is that it is not always pronounced (or, put another way, that it is sometimes “deleted”). It is beyond the scope of this article- and indeed, would be beyond the scope of a PhD thesis on the subject- to go into all of the details. But here are some rules of thumb:
- the schwa is always deleted after another vowel (so in the words vie, crient or allée, there is no possibility of pronouncing the ‘e’);
- it is generally deleted before another vowel too, which is in part why you say l’homme instead of *le homme, but also means that presque un an is pronounced “presqu’ un an”, or that comme un frère is pronounced “comm’ un frère”;
- otherwise on the end of a word or phrase (il donne, le ministre), a final -e is practically always deleted, but may be kept or “partially” pronounced for emphasis.
- in the very first syllable of a sentence or phrase, a schwa is often deleted in ordinary speech, even if that creates some “unusual” sound combinations: so e.g. je t’aime is usually pronounced “j’t’aime” or “ch’t’aime”;
- in many other cases in the middle of a word, sentence or phrase, speakers keep or delete the schwa in order to avoid “akward combinations of sounds” or make things “easier to pronounce”. So, for example, they would tend to delete the schwa in la semaine (they perceive the phrase as “flowing” a bit better that way) but keep it in neuf semaines (they perceive it as “awkward” to have two consonants ‘f’ and ‘s’ together without then having a schwa before the next consonant).
We are obviously glossing over various details here: e.g. about what makes an “akward” combination of sounds in French (or more formally, what linguists refer to as the phonotactics of the language). Part of becoming fluent in French means getting used to these various complex patterns. But the above rules of thumb are nonetheless a starting point.