How to decide what the accent on the “e” in French should be.
“E” French Accents (è,é,ê and ë)
The most frustrating thing for anyone learning a language is to be presented with something for which there appears to be no rule. Take English spelling, for instance. Try to negotiate the phonetics of English; for those who have learnt it from a very young age, it may come naturally, but for those who try to write it as they learn it as a new language, they will definitely experience its idiosyncracies.
So it may be with French; or is it? Even though some may doubt it, French is more of a phonetic language than English. Letters, or sets of letters have given sounds and generally never change. But what appears to trouble many learners is where to put the accents on the “e”. From my study and experience, I believe that I can give some answers to this problem.
The Two Dots and The Hat
Let us start with the less troublesome ones. These are “ë” and “ê”. Consider first of all “ë”. Sometimes two vowels are put next to each other to convey a particular sound (example, “ai” as in said “oi” as “wah”, “oe” as “eh”). However, when we wish to pronounce a vowel apart from the one preceeding it, we use the two dots (trema or diaeresis) on the second vowel. Therefore, in order for the word Noel (Christmas) to have two vowel sounds, that is, two syllables, then the “e” must be written as “ë”, as in “Noël”. Otherwise, it will simply sound as “nel”.
The circumflex accent (“ê”) usually represents a lost “s” after the vowel. The older form of the word would have had an “s” after the vowel but this would have been assimilated into that vowel. The best thing in this case is to learn the word as it is written. Examples include “fête” (feast, notice the “s”), “prêtre” (priest) and “enquête” (inquest).
The above rules do not only apply to “e” but other vowels as well.
Three Simple Rules
Now that we have explained a way the simpler accents, we shall now focus on the other two accents on the “e”, namely the “accent aigu (é)” and the “accent grave (è)”. As we have been doing, we shall continue to focus on the pronounciation of words and then attempt to write the word as it is pronounced.
The French “e” is either voiced (sounded) or unvoiced (silent). At this point we must look at words not as whole units, but being made up of syllables. And here I believe that what follows is very important:
Rule 1. All “e’s” which are at the end of a syllable are silent; they are voiced if at the beginning or in the middle.
Examples of silent “e”: le (the) and de (of). Words of more than one syllable: ar/bre (tree) and ap/pe/ler (to call).
Examples of voiced “e”: les (the) and des (of the). Words of more than one syllable: es/prit (mind) and mar/cher (to walk).
Rule 2. In order to turn a silent “e” into a voiced “e”, then an “accent aigu” must be placed on the “e”.
Examples include the words: pré (meadow), clé (key), mar/ché (market), é/co/le (school) pé/né/trer (to penetrate).
Rule 3. However, if the syllable with the voiced “e” at the end (as above), is followed by a syllable which contains a silent “e”, then the “accent aigu” is replaced by the “accent grave”.
Examples: pè/re (father), mè/re (mother), j’ap/pè/le (I call), bo/hè/me (bohemian), é/lè/ve (pupil), cé/lè/bre (famous).
Sometimes accents are just used to disinguish the spelling of one word from another, for example, des (of the) and dès (from).
Perhaps an exception is the word “près” with its prefixes.
But three simple rules solve one insurmountable (but not now) problem. Now everyone can get their French accents right.