French Corrective Phonetics Guide

The Vowels /e/ and /ɛ/ (e.g.: aller and allait)

/e/ and /ɛ/

The vowels /e/ and /ɛ/ are characterized by the following features:

/e/ is mid-closed, front, unrounded and oral, e.g.: aller [ale] , mangé [mãʒe] , fée [fe] , léger [leʒe] .

/ɛ/ is mid-open, front, unrounded and oral, e.g.: belle [bɛl] , mettre [mɛtʁ] , est /ɛ/ , vienne [vjɛn] .

As you can see, these vowels are identical, except that the tongue is a little higher for /e/ than it is for /ɛ/.

Articulation of /e/ and /ɛ/

Like all French vowels, /e/ and /ɛ/ are short and tense. When articulating, avoid adding a /j/ or an /i/ at the end. While English does have similar vowels, they are not the same. Compare, for example, the following word pairs.

Word pair French English
"ses/say" [se] [sei]
"très/tray" [tʁɛ] [tɺei]
"les/lay" [le] [lei]

 

 

As these examples suggest, it is important to ensure that you do not produce a diphthong when articulating these French vowels. Keeping the vowel short and tense should help ensure a correct pronunciation.

The problem of pronouncing English [ei] is particularly challenging in French words where /ɛ/ is followed by /j/, e.g.: abeille [abɛj] . While this is similar to the English diphthong, French uses a short semi-consonant at the end.

Distribution

The vowels /e/ and /ɛ/ tend to follow the Loi de position, i.e.: /e/ is always found in open syllables (aller = [ale]) and /ɛ/ is often found in closed syllables (belle = [bɛl]). However, there are exceptions. These exceptions involve the presence of /ɛ/ in open syllables. For the most part, spelling conventions will help (see below).

Spelling of /e/

The vowel /e/ is represented by the letter(s) "e" or "ai" in certain contexts. Namely:

a) words written with "é", e.g.: allé [ale], fée [fe]. This is true for all word positions.

b) words ending in a silent consonant other that "T" or "N", e.g.: manger [mãʒe], nez, [ne], pied [pje], etc.

c) in the conjunction et [e] (meaning "and")

d) in verb forms ending in "ai(e)", e.g.: j'aie], j'irai [ʒiʁe].

e) "e" followed by a double letter, e.g.: dessert [desɛʁ], effet [efɛ].

 

Spelling of /ɛ/

The vowel /ɛ/ is represented by the letter(s) "e" or "ai" in certain contexts. Namely:

a) "e" in closed syllables, e.g.: belle [bɛl], mettent [mɛt].

b) words written with "è" or "ê", e.g.: très [tʁɛ], bête [bɛt].

c) "ai" + a silent non-nasal consonant letter, e.g.: j'irais [ʒiʁɛ], il parlait [ilpaʁlɛ].

d) in nouns and adjectives ending in "ai(e)", e.g.: mai [mɛ], vrai [vʁɛ].

e) "e" + "t", "st" or "ct", e.g.: jouet [ʒwɛ], billet [bijɛ], respect [ʁəspɛ].

 

The following table summarizes the main spelling conventions for /e/ versus /ɛ/ in final open syllables:

Vowel Context
  accented ai (word final) ai + silent consonant e + word ending in -t e + word ending in other consonant
/e/ é, e.g.: allé [ale] verb, e.g.: j'ai [ʒe]     nez [ne], mes [me], pied [pje], aller [ale], clef [cle]
/ɛ/ è, ê noun, e.g.: mai [mɛ] allait [alɛ], mais [mɛ] jouet [ʒwɛ], aspect [aspɛ]  
Exception        et = [e]  

 

When the letter "E" is used in non-final open syllables, the vowel used is usually "unstable E" (see here for more information).

 

Image result for heads up

  • The verb form est is pronounced [ɛ]; the conjunction et is pronounced [e].
  • Make sure you do not diphthongize either of these vowels, especially at the end of a word.
 
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