French vowel

The letter E has several different pronunciations in French. The explanation and equivalents provided here are based on the closest sounds that exist in American English, which are sometimes not very close at all. IPA symbols are provided in [brackets].

1. The unstressed e, called a "schwa" in both French and English, is commonly found in French at the beginning of multi-syllable words as well as in single-syllable words. It’s also known as e muet or e instable and its pronunciation is often optional. Phonetic symbol: [ə]

French sound files Par exemple…
schwa sound
le   the
debout   standing
samedi   Saturday

  In English, the schwa can be spelled with any vowel: pencil, pollen, about, etc.

2. The closed e sound is always found in open syllables.* The nearest sound in English is the long a as in "name," but that’s a diphthong: [eI] which starts out like the French [e] but ends in a sort of y sound. In contrast, the French closed e sound is just the first part: [e]. It may be spelled é (e accent aigu) anywhere within a word, but there are numerous other spellings, especially at the end of a word. Phonetic symbol: [e]

French sound files Par exemple…
closed e sound
été   summer
vous avez   you have
freiner   to brake

3. The open e sound is found mainly in closed syllables.* It may be spelled e,  è (e accent grave), or  ê (e accent circonflexe) and is equivalent to English’s short e sound, as in "set." Phonetic symbol: [ɛ]

French sound files Par exemple…
open e sound
elle   she
sept   seven
la tête   head
très   very

  * Lesson: Open / closed vowels and open / closed syllables

E is the only French vowel that can take all four accents.

 Related lessons

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French pronunciation

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2 Responses

  1. Claudia 8 August 2014 / 13:29

    I live in Montreal, QC, and have noticed that ê can often have a different pronunciation. Fête sounds like “fight”, fenêtre sounds like fenaïtre. I think it may depend on where in Quebec the speaker came from. Is this also true for some areas in France?

    • lkl 8 August 2014 / 13:55

      The pronunciation I teach is based on so-called “standard” French, which includes Paris and most major French cities. I can’t comment on any other variety of French.

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