Pronunciation of the two French e's

In this article we discuss the pronunciation of the 'e'-like sounds in French. Just like in the case of 'o's, it also makes sense to analyze them together, given that they are highly related in the minds of native speakers. The distinction between these two phonemes, /e/ and //, is probably one of the largest sources of discussion among French speakers, which do not generally agree on when to pronounce each of them.

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Learning the pronunciation of French 'e's

Similarly to the English 'e' of 'bed', the two French sounds are unrounded front vowels. This means that lips do not form a circle and that the tongue is placed forward (in the direction of the teeth). This should not surprise an English speaker.

The two 'e's in French differ in the height , the vertical distance between tongue and palate. There is a mid-close phoneme, represented by /e/, and a mid-open phoneme, represented by //. You can think of mid-close as "quite close", in the sense the tongue is quite up (but not extremely up), approaching the palate. The mid-open is a "quite open" one, with the tongue going down away from the palate (but not so far from it). Notice that this is analogous to the case of French 'o's, as we discussed in the previous lesson.

We can use the 'e' of English word 'bed' as a departure point to learn the pronunciation of French 'e's:

To produce the mid-close /e/ you should make an effort to further close(i.e. approach tongue and palate by lifting the jaw) the 'e' of 'b e d'. On the contrary, to pronounce the mid-open // you should depart from the 'e' of 'b e d' and drop the jaw a bit more than usual.

You can listen to the contrast between /e/ and // in the following words: mes , pronounced with /e/, and mais , pronounced with //:

  • Mes (my, plural)
  • Mais (but)Check out the following diagram to see the articulation points of the e vowels in French:

    You can see in the chart that the 'e' of 'b e d' lies somewhere in the middle between the two French 'e's

    Other examples of /e/

    • Ai m er (to love)
    • Des (of the)
    • D sol (sorry)
    • S es sion (to love)
    • Et (and)

      Other examples of //

      • Proj et (project)
      • Faire (to do)
      • Terre (earth)
      • Sel (salt)
      • Peine (pity)
      • C'est (it is)

Please, note that not all French speakers will choose the same sound in the words of the examples above. I simply classified them based on which one was the one selected by the speaker in the audio sample.

When /e/, when //?

This might be one of the most controversial questions. So, let us start by the only universal rule.

In the previous lesson we talked about checked and unchecked syllables. A checked syllable has something else after the vowel, e.g., fer is a checked syllable because the 'r' is "checking" it. On the contrary, fe is unchecked (nothing is pronounced after the vowel). This is evaluated strictly from a pronunciation point of view and not from the spelling, so a syllable like fait is also unchecked because we do not count the mute 't' (which we spell but do not pronounce).

Universal rule: Checked syllables always take //

This is very simple indeed. Check out the sound samples above: words like sel , faire could not ever take /e/. They are pronounced with // in every case.

Notice that these unchecked syllables could be spelled in many ways, mostly:

ai (e.g., faire )

ei (e.g., peine ) is

(e.g., mre )

(e.g., bte )




Unchecked syllables

Analyzing unchecked syllables becomes a bit more complicated. Let us outline a few general rules:

1) The spellings '', final 'es', 'er' and 'ez' (with mute s/r/z) correspond to /e/

This applies to infinitive forms (e.g., parl er ), verbs in vous conjugation (e.g. vous parl ez ), participle forms (e.g., il a parl ) or simply words with (e.g., th ). All speakers agree on these rules , so you should make an effort to produce these sounds correctly. In addition, the word et (and) is also released as an /e/.

2) The spellings '', '', 'aie', 'et' correspond to //

This applies to a few unchecked syllables that are pronounced with the opener vowel, including ds (notice the contrast with des ), prt , projet , baie . This is also the case for vowels before 'x', as in lexique or examen , but there are not so many of them.

This rule might not be followed by some (or many) speakers which will always say /e/.

3) The spelling 'ai' might take both /e/ or // quite variably

The standard and traditional pronunciation uses /e/ for verbs conjugated with final 'ai', and // for verbs conjugated with final 'ais'/'ait'. This way the conditional form je parler ai (I will talk) and je parler ais (I would talk) are distinguished. For other words, i.e. apart from verbal inflections, always // is the traditional way (e.g., mais , mai , vrai ).

Far from speaking the traditional way, most speakers will always choose /e/ in any of these cases, while others will always choose //. This way, the distinction between je parlerai and je parlerais is totally lost.

The truth is that the distinction is mostly kept by newsreaders. Non-professional speakers (who are the majority of French speakers!) do not follow this rule at all. It is up to you!

Some additional remarks

As you can imagine at this point, people will understand you even if you freely alternate between both 'e'-like phonemes, because not even native French people agree about this, but they still communicate. However, try to at least respect the universal rule of pronouncing open // in checked syllables.

If you take a closer look at the previous rules, you can see that there is a number of speakers that always use /e/ for unchecked syllables and // for checked ones. For these speakers, /e/ and // are then in a so-called complimentary distribution : the selection of each of them is exclusive from the other one.

A second group of speakers will use /e/ for unchecked syllables that follow Rule 1 (e.g., parler) but will move to // for any other unchecked syllables (which might sound pretty traditional anyway).

Finally, a third very small group will be careful enough to alternate between /e/ and // according to the verbal tense. Let us remark that this is quite tiring and unnaturally influenced by the spelling.

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