Pronunciation of the letter e in French is ambiguous. There are four ways to pronounce it: /e/ (as “e” in “hey”), /ɛ/ (as “e” in “bet”), /ə/ (as “a” in the name “Tina”), 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.
Ë with diaeresis is the easiest case to deal with. The diaeresis (the two dots) signify that the underlying “e” is pronounced as /ɛ/ (as “e” in “bet”), 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 /nɔɛl/ (naw-ell), whereas “noel” (a non-existing word) would be pronounced /nœl/ (/œ/ sounds like “ir” in “bird” in British English with lips rounded). This accent can appear also above other vowels for the very same purpose; for example, naïve is pronounced /naiv/ (nah-eev), whereas naive (a non-existing word) would be pronounced /nɛv/.
È with the grave accent denotes the pronunciation /ɛ/ (as “e” in “bet”). 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/ (puhr). To denote the correct pronunciation /pɛʁ/ (pehr), we have to use an “è”. The letter “è” also appears in some verb conjugations; for example acheter (to buy) is pronounced /aʃəte/ or /aʃte/ (ash-teh), 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/ (asht). French generally doesn’t like stacking of consonants at the end of a syllable; to avoid that, the correct form is achète /aʃɛt/ (ah-shet).
É with the acute accent denotes the pronunciation /e/ (as “a” in “jail”; somewhere between “ee” in “see” and “e” in “bet”). It used wherever the pronunciation requires this sound, but the general rules would dictate otherwise if plain “e” were used. Remember not to write “é” when the pronunciation is already established by the rules, such as in the endings “-ez” (e.g. vous avez), “-er” in infinitives (e.g. aimer), and others.
Ê with the circumflex accent marks an “e” after which originally some other letter was written (usually an 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 /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.