The letter "e" in French can represent three sounds: /e/ as in aller, /ɛ/ as in belle, and /ə/ or "unstable E". Each of these sounds is found in slightly different word positions.
a) the 1st sound, /e/, is found at the very end of a stressed syllable (i.e.: no pronounced consonant follows it), e.g.: parler, parlé.
b) the 2nd sound, /ɛ/, occurs when there is a following pronounced consonant at the end of a syllable; e.g.: mer, sec.
c) the 3rd sound is "unstable E", represented by /ə/, and occurs when the letter "E" is not at the end of a word and not followed by a pronounced consonant, e.g.: samedi, médecin,vendredi, simplement. In other words it is found in unstressed, open syllables.
The word refermer provides an example of all three vowels:
1 2 3
1 2 3
The 1st "E" is unaccented and in an open syllable ([ʁə-fɛʁ-me]), so it is /ə/; the 2nd is unstressed in a closed syllable, so it is /ɛ/; the 3rd "E" is in an stressed, open syllable, so it is /e/.
When pronounced, the vowel /ə/ , is mid-closed, front, round and oral. In other words, it is articulated the same as the vowel /ø/ in the word feu . We represent it with a different symbol though to underscore its variable presence/absence (see below). There are some speakers who do pronounce /ə/ as an unrounded vowel, i.e.: they distinguish ce and ceux. However, most empirical studies have found unstable E to be pronounced as a front rounded vowel.
Spelling of /ə/
The vowel /ə/ is represented by the letter "E" in open, unaccented syllables. It is never represented by "E" in combination with another vowel letter, nor is it represented by "E" with an accent mark of any kind. It is also found in forms of the verb faire that are more than one syllable (e.g.: faisons) ).
Note also that when "E" appears at the end of a word (with the exception of function words, e.g.: le, je, de) it is not really considered "unstable E" since it is always silent, e.g.: rapide [ʁapid], pense [pãs] , boîte [bwat] , etc.
The challenge for students is to know when "unstable E" actually represents a pronounced vowel and when it is silent (or deleted). The basic rule to keep in mind is as follows:
Rule: if dropping the "unstable E" creates a sequence of three consonants within a word, then it must be pronounced. Otherwise, it must be deleted.
Consider the following words: samedi [samdi] , médecin [medsɛ̃] , vendredi [vãdʁədi] , simplement [sɛ̃pləmã] . In the first two words, the dropping of the /ə/ does not result in three consecutive consonants, only two, so it must be dropped. In other words, samedi is actually pronounced as if it were written samdi and médecin is pronounced as if it were written médcin. What happens if we try to drop the /ə/ in the other two words (vendredi, simplement)? Here, the result would be a sequence of three consonants: "drd" and "plm". As such, the /ə/ must be pronounced to break up the string: vendredi, simplement.
The notion that French doesn't like three consonants in a row is so strong that it even includes the semi-consonants /j/ and /w/ in come cases. In other words, even the string "Consonant + consonant + semi-consonant" is avoided if it appears within the same syllable. Consider the following two words which both contain "unstable E": chandelier [ʃãdəlje] and cimetière [simtjɛʁ] .
Let's divide these into syllables. The basic rules for division are: a) a single consonant belongs to the following syllable; b) consecutive consonants are split into different syllables; and c) a consonant + "R" or "L", go together in the following syllable. This produces the following divisions:
ʃã-də-lje (chan de lier)
si-mə-tjɛʁ (ci me tière)
Let's now drop the "unstable E" and see what the syllables look like:
ʃã-dlje (chan dlier)
sim-tjɛʁ (cim tière)
In the first word, we find the sequence Consonant + consonant + semi-consonant in the same syllable! As such, we cannot drop the /ə/ and the word must be pronounced with the vowel [ʃãdəlje] (chandelier). However, in the word cimetière, the "m" and the "t" end up in different syllables, so the "unstable E" is deleted.
While there is some variation in what happens with compound words, a tendency has been noted:
a) if the second part of the compound is more than one syllable, delete the /ə/ (even though it creates a string of three consonants!), e.g.: garde-malade [[gaʁdmalad] , porte-monnaie [pɔʁtmɔnɛ] .
b) if the second part of the compound is only one syllable, keep the /ə/, e.g.: garde-fou [gaʁdəfu] , porte-clé [pɔʁtəkle] .
This pattern is thought to be related to a rhythmic constraint in French.
Let's now consider what happens to "unstable E" within the rhythm group. To determine whether or not it will be deleted, ask yourself the following: does /ə/ follow a fricative consonant at the very beginning of the group (e.g.: /s/ or /ʒ/)? If not, then "unstable E" must be retained, e.g.: De temps en temps [dətãzãtã] . If it does come right after a fricative consonant at the very beginning, then deletion is optional, e.g.: Ce camion est rapide could be transcribed as [səkamjõɛʁapid] or as [skamjõɛʁapid] .
For instances of "unstable E" that are found in non-initial syllables within the rhythm group, apply the same rules as for individual words. Consider for example the sentence Je te le demande, which could initially be transcribed as follows:
1 2 3 4
Since it begins with a fricative (/ʒ/), the 1st /ə/ can be deleted, but this has consequences for subsequent instances of /ə/ e.g.:
The second instance must now be retained since its absence would create a string of three consonants ([ʒtl]). Having kept the 2nd instance, the 3rd one (of the word le) must be deleted. Finally, since we delete the /ə/ from le, the 4th one must be retained, otherwise it would create a string of three consonants ([ldm]).
Now since deletion of the 1st /ə/ is optional, we could also retain it. The consequences for the remaining instances of /ə/ are represented in the following transcription.
The description we have provided for "unstable E" reflects common usage in everyday (natural) speech. In more formal registers, some speakers do retain /ə/ even if when its absence doesn't result in three consecutive consonants. For example, while one would normally pronounce maintenant as [mɛ̃tnã] , it would not be surprising to hear the pronunciation [mɛ̃tənã] in a formal setting.
• the letter "E" followed by a double consonant usually represents /e/, e.g.: effet [efɛ], dessert [desɛʁ], intelligent [ɛ̃teliʒã]. This is in spite of being in an unstressed open syllable.
• unstable E is found in the forms faisons, faisions, faisiez and faisant.
• word final "e" is always dropped (e.g.: rime).
• if dropping the /ə/ creates a string of three consonants, it needs to be retained.