AI and AIS

French pronunciation

The letter combination ai has two different pronunciations.

1) At the end of a verb, ai is pronounced like é.

j’ai present tense of avoir
je serai future tense of être
je donnai passé simple of donner

2) Otherwise, ai is pronounced like è.

j’aime present tense of aimer
je serais conditional of être
je donnais imperfect of donner

Note how the s changes the pronunciation so that you can hear the difference between the future and conditional, as well as between the passé simple and the imperfect.

In words that are not verbs, ai is almost always pronounced è.

Par exemple…
é sound   è sound
j’ai I have   je t’aime I love you
je serai I will be   je serais I would be
je donnai I gave   je donnais I was giving
      anglais English
      frais fresh, cool
      lait milk

  AI is pronounced differently in other letter combinations: AIL | AIN

  The pronunciation of the letter combination ai is a matter of some debate among French speakers. This lesson is based on my personal experience and extensive research, but there are regional variations and opposing viewpoints: some say that there is a difference between ai and ais at the end of verbs, some recognize it but don’t pronounce it themselves, and others insist it simply doesn’t exist. If you leave a comment, please mention where you’re from to put your pronunciation into context.

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4 Responses

  1. ayszhang 26 October 2018 / 18:50

    In Quebec, the distinction is quite clearly made by the majority of speakers between the simple future and imperfect! 🙂

  2. FrenchHoneyBadger 22 October 2018 / 23:40

    I am French from the south-eastern part of France, my accent is not very distinguishable (except when I’m angry or for the pronunciation of certain “e” that French people of other parts of France do not pronounce like the “e” in the middle of carte-bleu) and that’s the first time I hear that there are two pronunciations of “ai.” I always thought that the proper pronunciation was like “è” but I just pronounced it “é” most of the time “wrongly” (according to some other French accent).

    However, the examples you gave made me realize that I do not pronounce “ai” the same way all the time, indeed “j’ai” to me is pronounced “j’é” while “je t’aime” is pronounced “je t’èm” just as you say. I didn’t realize that that I was actually making that distinction and trying to pronounce them differently sounds really weird to me.

    On the other hand, I do not distinguish the pronunciations of “je serais” and “je serai”, I feel like I can use é and è interchangeably in this case, and use the context to distinguish them. In the same vein I can use either sounds for anglais, lait, frais, but I would only pronounce “je t’aime” with é if I was making a funny accent.

  3. lisalu 8 July 2015 / 10:07

    I’ve had native speakers tell me different things about this. One friend, a native Parisien, tells me “there is no difference” between how you said “je serai” and “je serais”. Another native speaker from Benin tells me there is a very distinct difference with the conditional form sounding more like “eh” and the future form sounding more like the long “a” sound. I suspect that the Parisien friend is just so used to hearing the distinction, as slight as it is, that he doesn’t notice the difference. (The other friend is a French teacher and therefore is probably more attuned to pronunciation.)

  4. Kristen Kim 22 October 2014 / 12:07

    I’ve been a high school French teacher for over 20 years. I’m not a native speaker, but I have studied and worked in France and have several French friends from different parts of France. I also have a few native speakers in my classes. From my experience, the distinction between ai/ais tends to be more observed in the Paris region, and in other parts of France not as much, if at all. I was told by a Parisian friend that I don’t make the distinction, whereas I really should. I have been making a more conscious effort to do so, but I know I don’t always do. I don’t hear that distinction made by my native speakers, and none of them are from Paris. One of them is from Nice. I studied in Strasbourg.

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