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I've encountered the rule on writing accents:

  • When at the end of a syllable and not at the end of a word, a vowel gets an accent.

Examples:

épître (é-pî-tre) ; pénétrer (pé-né-trer) ; été (é-té) ; célèbre (cé-lè-bre)

But also there are the same cases (end of a syllable) where accent is not set and ‘e muet’ is pronounced

Examples:

secret (se-cret) ; petit (pe-tit) ; fenêtre (fe-nê-tre) ; samedi (sa-me-di) ; leçon (le-çon)

What is the general rule that governs accent writing for e and ‘e muet‘?

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actually those grave and acute accents indicate how to pronounce the word, they are not there because of a rule : f*e*nêtre : ø, p*é*nétrer : e. –  Benoit Sep 30 '11 at 9:10
    
ok, does it need to memorize the spelling of all the French words then? if there is no rule to govern when to set accent? –  Chesnokov Yuriy Sep 30 '11 at 10:03
2  
@Chesnokov Yuriy: yes, you need to memorize accents, they are part of the word and convey sense. –  Benoit Sep 30 '11 at 11:34
1  
I wonder if accent isn't used here with the meaning of stress instead of diacritic mark. But for most practical purpose French has no stress. –  Un francophone Sep 30 '11 at 11:45
4  
Could you indicate where you encountered that rule ? (If it was in a shady bar, maybe she was lying about being a rule at all) –  Joubarc Sep 30 '11 at 15:47

1 Answer 1

up vote 6 down vote accepted

First, note that French spelling is primarily based on pronunciation, but secondarily based on etymology. There are many words for which the pronunciation allows many different spellings, and the choice of an actual spelling reflects the word's etymology. For example, most silent letters reflect a sound that existed in Old French or Latin.

I think I see what rule you're thinking of. It's easier to understand if you look at how to go from the spelling to the pronunciation rather than the other way round.

First, if the letter e has an accent, it dictates the pronunciation: é is always¹ pronounced with the half-closed sound /e/ while è and ê are pronounced with the half-open sound /ɛ/. For the unadorned letter e, there are three cases (which have a few exceptions):

  • At the end of a syllable, e is pronounced /ə/; this sound is unstressed and often omitted in speech (more or less often depending on how hard it is to pronounce the resulting sequence of consonants). If the e is not sounded, then any preceding consonant is thrown into the preceding syllable. Examples: secret /sə.kʁɛ/, samedi /sam.di/ or /sa.mə.di/.
    At the end of a word², e is almost always not sounded (“e muet”) in most dialects of French.
  • When there is a subsequent consonant in the syllable, e is pronounced /ɛ/. Common cases are e followed by a double consonant, and e followed by a single consonant at the end of a word when the consonant is sounded. Examples: belle /bɛl/, sec /sɛk/, secteur /sɛktœʁ/.
  • Words ending in -et are pronounced /ɛ/, and words ending in -er are pronounced /e/. Examples: secret /sə.kʁɛ/, parler /paʁ.le/.
    Note that single-syllable words ending in -er usually sound the r (and by the rule above the e is pronounced with an open sound): cher /ʃɛʁ/, mer /mɛʁ/.
    Single-syllable articles ending in -es have a pronunciation that varies between [e] and [ɛ] depending on the sentence and the speaker: ces, des, les, mes, tes.

Note that the rules above, in addition to having exceptions, do not give a complete key to the pronunciation of a word because you need to know where to break up the syllables.

To go from pronunciation to spelling: /ə/ is spelled e and /e/ is spelled é (except in the -er final). As for the open sound /ɛ/:

  • If there is a subsequent consonant in the same syllable, then an unadorned e is pronounced /ɛ/ already, and therefore the word is spelled without an accent. Examples: belle /bɛl/, sec /sɛk/, secteur /sɛktœʁ/.
  • If there used to be a subsequent consonant but that consonant disappeared at some point in Old French, then the consonant is replaced by circumflex mark. The consonant is usually an s, and there are often related words that have kept the s. Examples: être (distantly related to essence), fête (related to festival), forêt (related to forestier).
  • Otherwise the spelling is è (grave accent), though sometimes ê is used for purely arbitrary reasons.

Note that the sounds /e/ and /ɛ/ can also be written -ai-. This is purely based on etymology: -ai- derives from a root that had both a and i, usually separated by a consonant that was eroded but may still be found in related words. For example, faire comes from the Latin facio (related to factuel, from a pre-Latin root taci(t)-), maire (from maior), taire (from tacio, related to taciturne). Etymology can be tricky to trace sometimes, due to the way different words evolved at different times and in different directions: constrast chair from carnis (now associated with the root carn-) with cher from carus (related to caritas, with an i still present in French words like charité and caritatif).

¹ Well, almost always.
² Or when the e is followed by a silent letter: mainly this covers words ending in -es, and there is also -ent in the specific case of a third person plural conjugated verb.
³ As opposed to mer, related to maritime, where it's the a alone that became e and not a plus a following consonant.

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thank you very much for extensive reply, let me have some time to digest it –  Chesnokov Yuriy Oct 2 '11 at 15:03
2  
It is mildly counter-intuitive to have silent letters in 'spelling which is primarily based on pronunciation' :) –  Benjol Oct 3 '11 at 7:33

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