Pronunciation of the letter e in French is ambiguous. There are four ways to pronounce it: /e/ (as “a” in “jail”), /ɛ/ (as “e” in “get”), /ə/ (as “a” in the name “Tina”), or it can remain silent; however, it may also form a part of a larger group of letters where the pronunciation may be different (for a tool to learn pronunciation in context, check out LingQ). In this post, we shall learn some basic rules you have to know if you want to be understood and sound natural in French.
Pronunciation of ë, è, é, and ê
The diacritical marks (i.e. the accents) exist only to distinguish cases where the pronunciation differs from the one established by the rules for the plain “e”, which you can find in the next section (and in order to be able to pronounce French properly, you also have to learn the rules explained there).
Ë with diaeresis is the easiest case to deal with. The diaeresis (the two dots) signify that the underlying “e” is pronounced as /ε/ (as “e” in “get”), no matter what is around it, and is used in groups of vowels that would otherwise change the pronunciation. For example Noël (Christmas) is pronounced /nɔεl/, whereas “noel” (a non-existing word) would be pronounced /nœl/ (well, probably). This accent can appear also above other vowels for the very same purpose; for example, naïve is pronounced /naiv/, whereas naive (a non-existing word) would be pronounced /nεv/.
È with the grave accent denotes the pronunciation /ε/ (as “e” in “get”). For example, in the word père (father), “pe” is an open syllable (see the next section), so if the word were written as “pere”, it would be pronounced as /pəʁ/. Père, on the other hand, is pronounced /pεʁ/, and that’s why we have to use “è”. The letter “è” also appears in some verb conjugations; for example acheter (to buy) is pronounced /aʃəte/ or /aʃte/, but achete (which one would expect to be the first person singular of acheter, i.e. “I buy”) would, according to the rules, be pronounced /aʃt/. French generally doesn’t like stacking of consonants at the end of a syllable; to avoid that, the correct form is achète /aʃεt/.
É with the acute accent denotes the pronunciation /e/ (as “a” in “jail”). It used wherever the pronunciation requires the /e/ sound, but the rules would dictate otherwise if plain “e” were written. You have to remember where this sound is used; there is no general rule to tell you that. Just remember not to write “é” when the pronunciation is already established by the rules, such as in the endings “-ez”, “-er” (for infinitives) etc.
Ê with the circumflex accent marks an “e” after which originally some other letter was written (usually s), but it is no longer so in modern French. For example, être (to be) was originally written estre, which is the link to its Latin origin, esse, which you can still see in English words like “essential”. Anyway, since “ê” is basically just a form of writing “es” which makes the syllable closed (see the next section), “ê” is usually pronounced /ε/ (as “e” in “get”). By imagining “es” instead of “ê”, you can often deduce the meaning of unknown words; for example, forêt = forest, fête = “feste” = fest(ival); intérêt = interest and many other. The circumflex accent is used in the very same meaning also for other vowels, for example île = isle, hôte = “hoste” = host, hâte = haste.