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I'm trying to understand French by listening, but how does a real Frenchman hear the difference between 'et les gants' and 'élégant'?

As far as I (can) understand, both are pronounced as: ee-lee-gan.

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2 Answers 2

up vote 4 down vote accepted

A native speaker will distinguish these most often simply by context. In the rare cases when the context is not useful, the pronunciation is slightly different, so it will still be possible to understand which one was intended.

  • élégant is pronounced [e.le.gɑ̃]
  • et les gants is pronounced [e.lɛ.gɑ̃]

Note that the pronunciation of les might differ in some regions. In that case, both phrases might sound exactly the same indeed. But again, the context of the conversation is key here.

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I would say that et les gants is usually pronounced [èlégan] where I live. –  biozic Oct 9 '13 at 15:45
    
Would you happen to know how to write these two pronunciations in IPA? I often have a hard time understanding the difference between é and è (sometimes they sound very distinct to me and other times, such as in this case, they sound exactly the same to me), so perhaps the IPA would be useful to make the distinction clear. –  bronxbomber92 Oct 9 '13 at 19:55
    
@bronxbomber92 I absolutely have no knowledge of phonetic notation, so I shamelessly copied them from Gilles' answer and edited my question. –  Alexis Pigeon Oct 10 '13 at 8:00
    
@biozic Just out of curiosity, where do you live? –  Alexis Pigeon Oct 10 '13 at 8:03
1  
@biozic Oh? Most dictionaries only list the pronounciation [e] for et (unlike est which is usually pronounced [ɛ]). If anything I would expect [ɛlɛgɑ̃] rather than [elegɑ̃] due to the difficulty of e/ɛ proximity. –  Gilles Oct 10 '13 at 12:11

They are homophones. Most languages have homophones, French is no exception. The pronunciation is the same: [e.le.gɑ̃]. (Sometimes les may be pronounced [lɛ], i.e. with an open è sound instead of the semi-open é sound, but the proximity of the word et which is always pronunced with the semi-open sound tends to force les to [le].) Usually you can tell from the context.

If you're speaking and you absolutely need to make the difference audible, you can make a slight pause between the words and stress gants to indicate et les gants, and make a slight pause before the word and stress the first syllable or the first two syllables to indicate élégant.

Sometimes, when the phonetic ambiguity is really problematic, French people may resort to spelling orally. For example, la symétrie and l'asymétrie are antonyms; if there is a risk of confusion, then we could go as far as saying “la, plus loin, symétrie” (but more often we would just make a clear pause between la and symétrie) and “el apostrophe asymétrie” (but more often pronouncing [l], then a pause, then asymétrie).

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It seems to me that the frequency of [lɛ] is higher than what you imply. But such estimation are hard to make, first we tend to meet people using the same variants, and then those who make a difference tend to ear it even when it is not done, and those who don't make it tend not to ear it even when it is done. –  Un francophone Oct 10 '13 at 8:45
    
@Unfrancophone Le français tend à éviter /ɛ/ suivi de /e/. Mais c'est vrai qu'ici on a l'inverse, et /e/ suivi de /ɛ/ est plus facile. –  Gilles Oct 10 '13 at 9:18

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