Pronunciation of the letter e in French is ambiguous. There are four ways to pronounce it: /e/ (as “e” in “hey”, called “closed e”), /ɛ/ (as “e” in “bet”, called “open e”), /ə/ (as “a” in the name “Tina”, called “schwa”), or it can remain silent; however, it may also form part of a larger group of letters where the pronunciation may be different.
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 (accents) exist only to distinguish cases where the pronunciation differs from the one established by the standard rules for the letter “e” (you can find these in the next section). Here they are:
Ë with diaeresis is the easiest case to deal with. The diaeresis (the two dots) signifies that the underlying “e” is pronounced as /ɛ/ (as “e” in “bet”, i.e. the open e), no matter what comes around it, and is used in groups of vowels that would otherwise be pronounced differently.
For example Noël (Christmas) is pronounced /nɔɛl/ (naw-ell), whereas “noel” (a non-existing word) would be pronounced /nœl/ (/œ/ sounds approximately like “ir” in “bird” in British English with lips rounded or like German “ö”). This diacritical mark can appear also above other vowels. For instance, naïve is pronounced /naiv/ (nah-eev), whereas naive (a non-existing word) would be pronounced /nɛv/ (nev).
È with the grave accent denotes the pronunciation /ɛ/ (as “e” in “bet”, that is, the open e). It is used to make it clear that an “e” is not silent and isn’t reduced to /ə/ (uh). For example, in the word père (father), “pè” is an open syllable (it ends with a vowel), so if the word were spelled “pere”, the expected pronunciation would be /pəʁ/ (puhr). To denote the correct pronunciation /pɛʁ/ (perr), we have to use an “è”.
The letter “è” also commonly appears in verb conjugation. For example, acheter (to buy) is pronounced /aʃəte/ (ah-shuh-teh) or /aʃte/ (ash-teh); the middle “e” is reduced because it is the last letter of the syllable (the syllables are a-che-ter). However, when the verb is conjugated in the singular, it is pronounced /aʃɛt/ (ah-shet). The grave accent has to be used here to mark the correct pronunciation; hence we have j’achète, tu achètes, il achète, not “j’achete, tu achetes, il achete”.
This happens with many other verbs, eg. amener – j’amène (“take”), lever – je lève (“lift”), peler – je pèle (“peel”).
É with the acute accent denotes the pronunciation /e/ (as “e” in “hey”; somewhere between “e” in “bet” and “ee” in “see”). It used wherever the pronunciation requires this sound, but the general rules would dictate otherwise if no accent were used. Remember not to write “é” when the pronunciation is already established by the rules, most importantly the endings “-ez” (e.g. vous avez) and “-er” in infinitives (e.g. aimer).
Ê with the circumflex accent marks an “e” after which originally some other letter was written (usually an S), but this letter is no longer present in its modern spelling. 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 /ɛ/ (as “e” in “bet”). By imagining “es” instead of “ê”, we can often deduce the meaning of unknown words; for example, forêt = forest, fête = “feste” = fest(ival); intérêt = interest and many others. The circumflex accent is used in the very same sense also for other vowels, for example île = isle, hôte = “hoste” = host, hâte = haste.