Sometimes we read a new grammar rule and think "yeah, easy, I got that" and carry on, only to discover much later that we didn't get it at all. The letter E in French falls into this unfortunate bracket. As it's the most common letter in the French language, I'm sure this little refresher would be a good investment of your time.
Did You Know
The letter E is found twice as much as any other vowel and up to ten times more than any consonant?
La disparition, a three hundred page novel written by Georges Perec, may be the only ever book to not contain a single letter E. It was published in 1969. That must have been quite tricky to write!
Pay attention: it's not going to be a smooth ride!
- If you have to spell it, the letter E is called [UH] in French, not [EE] like in English!
- When reading, E is also pronounced like [UH], not [EE], but if it's followed by: an f, l, r, s, or t. Then very likely it will sound like [È] (like the e in the word 'jet') so be extra aware when reading new words.
- E at the end of a word should not be pronounced at all. Resist. But do pronounce the consonant before! It's like breaking hard: that last consonant should be a neat audible skid mark of sorts before resolutely stopping one letter short.
P.S. It's not actually forbidden to say the final E, but you should say them in the least pronounced way possible.
Their sound is closer to the English [AY] sound, so not [EE] nor [UH]. Got it?
- The E at the end of a word should not be pronounced at all. Picture it as a Red Light, meaning STOP!
- Picture the plain E as an Amber Light, meaning BE CAREFUL!
- É, È, and Ê have a Green Light: you should always pronounce them, regardless of their position in a word.
*This means a word with more than three letters. For words like le, de, une, que, les and des, picture the Amber Light, i.e. pronounce it as [UH] unless it's followed with one of the transformer letters (F, L, R, S, or T).
The Small Print
This is a well-kept secret in French: not all letters count.
When a word finishes with an S for plural purposes, that S should be ignored. The Amber Light rule should apply if it's a three letter word (like mes, tes, ses), and the Red Light rule applies in all other cases. For example:
- Ville and villes are pronounced the same [VEEL]. The e is silent, but the l sound must be heard clearly.
The same rule applies to the letters NT at the end of a verb. They are just there to differentiate the third person singular from the third person plural, so don’t pronounce them! For example:
- Je pense, tu penses, ils pensent (I think, you think, they think) are all pronounced the same way. If you want to try it, all three verbs should sound like a cross between [PONSS] and [PANSS] depending on regional accents. The important bit is to drop the E and the plural markers NT.
Many feminine words (and some verbs) finish with the ending ÉE. Make sure you pronounce the É [AY], but not the plain E at the end. For example:
- une pensée (a thought), elle est allée (she went).
The letters ER, at the end of a verb, are pronounced like the letter É [AY] - so no R sound here!
- parler (to talk)
Frequently Asked Questions
- But why is this so important to get the letter E right?
Well, aside from the fact that they are completely unavoidable, it's as basic as respecting driving laws when driving: it should go without saying.
I know you have a million other things to worry about when you speak in French, but making an effort to pronounce the alphabet right should be on top of your list. Using English pronunciation rules when speaking French is like driving on the wrong side of the road when traveling abroad. It will end badly one day or another.
- What if I try but don't pronounce it right?
Mispronouncing the letter E will make all your verbs sound like they are in the past tense, a bit like always signalling a left turn, regardless of the direction you actually intend to turn. Let's use the verb regarder (to look, to watch) to illustrate this. Compare the following:
- Je regarde, j'ai regardé, je regardais.
A complete beginner would mangle all three verbs and read them as one awful [JAY RAY GAR DAY]. Now you try! Answers are just below.
- The present tense should be pronounced [JUH RUH GARD-],
- Passé composé should be read [JAY RUH GAR DAY]
- And imparfait: [JUH RUH GAR DAY]
A Little Test
Now, let's try a simple sentence.
(This means "the book you ordered arrives tomorrow")
A beginner would probably read it like this: [LAY LEE VRAY QUAY TOO A KO MAN DAY A REE VAY DAY MAN], but the correct pronunciation is closer to: [LUH leevr- kUH tu a komandAY areev- dUHman].
Now, notice the differences when the noun and verb are pluralised.
- If you are doing it right, le [LUH] and les [LAY] should sound different
- livre and livres are pronounced the same. So are commandé and commandés
- arrive and arrivent sound the same
If you can remember these pitfalls, you are ahead of the game.
One Last Word of Advice
Don't mix up que (that) and qui (who/whom). Cheeky students often mispronounce them both as a weird, vaguely Mediterranean sound [KAY]. That's like driving bang in the middle of the road. Que is pronounced [KUH] whereas qui is pronounced [KEE].
The Real Test
Now, it's time to practice with more French material.
A loose translation:
On Friday at eleven o'clock the telephone rang. People looked at each other but no one dared to answer. A heavy silence was in the room. I knew who was calling so I moved to the exit, hoping to delay the bad news. On the staircase, I met a colleague who was coming from the bank. I waved to her and continued on my way. When I exited, I turned on the first avenue which was crowded. On the right-hand side, a black car was parked next to an ambulance. On the left stood a Police officer and a soldier. Further on men in uniform were waiting, strange! From behind me someone shouted my name. I turned to see it was my brother. But what is going on today?
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In-text images by Caroline Levesque-Bartlett