Hot Tip: Pronouncing The French ‘E’

One vowel, so many diacritical marks.
bakery shop employee in an apron handing a pastry to a customer french e

French doesn’t exactly make it to the worldwide hall of fame for straightforward languages. This is especially true when it comes to pronunciation. It seems like half the letters aren’t even pronounced, and the vowels that are are peppered with quixotic-looking accent marks that probably all sound the same to the untrained ear but will definitely make you stick out as a bumbling foreigner. Take the French e for example: you have the e, è, é, ê and ë. So what’s the difference?

Babbel Live teacher Vivianne says her students often complain about the many accent marks of French, but they tend to appreciate them more when they realize that accents have the function of guiding you to the correct pronunciation. A typical example Vivianne uses to illustrate the differences: Je préfère. In this verb, there are three different expressions of the French e, and it’s easier to hear the differences when the sounds are all juxtaposed together.

“To show the pronunciation, I approach the camera and show the position of my mouth,” says Vivianne. “It’s a pretty funny moment, and they love to imitate ‘the French beak.'”

Her quick breakdown of the sounds is as follows:

  • é indicates a half-open sound
  • è indicates an open sound
  • e indicates a half-closed sound

There are two other diacritical marks you’ll see placed over the French e:

  • ê indicates an open sound as well (like the e in “bed”), but often appears where there was once another letter following the e that is no longer used in modern spelling
  • ë indicates an open sound that is distinct from the vowel sounds next to it (this is usually used to separate the e sound as a distinct syllable when it’s placed next to other vowels)
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