I recently found out that collège and collégien have different accents (accent grave and accent aigu respectively). But since collégien is from collège, I feel like they should have the same accent. Is there any reason for those words to have different accents? Or is it just because of phonetics?

  • The pronunciation is different (in these words there are no pronunciation tricks: è is pronounced as usual, like in père or mère or approximatively in English like in head or fetch, and é is pronounced as usual, like in café or approximatively in English like in sit or fish). I'm not sure why the pronunciation diverged in those words though, good question! – Suzanne Soy Feb 9 '19 at 10:00
  • 'é' is more pronounced like the 'ey' in 'grey' or 'stanley' though – Nino Filiu Feb 9 '19 at 21:13
  • "é" could not be pronounced as the "ey" in "grey" but as the first component vowel of the diphthong "ei" , which one is the pronunciation of "ey" in "grey"; moreover, the French "é" is higher than this component vowel ; see the diagram. You could say that the French "é" is between /i:/, as in "weed" (but short) and /e/, as in "head", and somewhat closer to /e/. – LPH Feb 10 '19 at 13:07
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    The switch from "è" to "é" when a word gets a suffix is very common. It's most likely because it's easier to pronounce. – Teleporting Goat Feb 11 '19 at 10:17

French's orthography is based on a dialect that only distinguishes /e/ and /ɛ/ in word-final position and otherwise uses [e] in open syllables (that don't end in a consonant) and [ɛ] in closed syllables (that do end in a consonant) and that always drops /ə/ (the mute e) between two consonants or at the end of a word.

This means that the same root will appear with both <é> and <è> depending on the suffixes that follow:

Collège /kɔ.lɛʒ/ - Collégien /kɔ.le.ʒjɛ̃/ (The orthography changes to reflect the change in syllabification between /lɛʒ/ and /le/)

pète /re.pɛt/ - réter /re.pe.te/ - répètera /re.pɛt.ra/ - rétition /re.pe.ti.sjõ/. (Again, the orthography is adapted depending on whether the syllable is pé or pèt.

This is somewhat muddled by an older orthographic principle that kept <é> throughout a word's inflexional and derivational paradigm, hence why orthographic reforms often involve changing <é>s to <è>. For example:

  • "Collége" and "siége" were reformed to "collège" and "siège" in 1878.
  • "Céleri" and "événement" were reformed to "cèleri" and "évènement" in 1990.

Despite those reforms, some words remain of the ancient paradigm. In particular the prefixes dé- and pré- are never written dè- or prè-: hence the spellings prévenu and détenu, instead of the expected prèvenu and dètenu.

Note that this is only a question of spelling, not of pronunciation. There is a tendency in most dialects toward having /ɛ/ in closed syllables and /e/ in open ones, but it isn't absolute for most of them. Any French speaker may depart from the above rules when speaking by pronouncing the /ə/ in the middle of a word and keeping the previous /E/ as a closed [e], by keeping the same vowel in a root whatever its syllabic structure may be, or by letting the height of the vowel in the final syllable influence that of the previous ones (so that "vous cèderez" might be pronounced vous [vu.se:d̪.ʀ̥̝e] and "il cèderait" [i.sɛːd̪.ʀ̥̝ɛ], which is what I do).

As an aside, I'm a speaker of dialect that distinguishes /ɛ/ and /e/ in all syllables, whatever their position in a word or their structure and this orthographic convention caused me no end of trouble as a schoolkid until I understood -in college- the rules applied by the spelling authorities and how their phonological system differed from mine.

  • I second that and would like to add that our famous "J'ai" (I have) used to be pronounced /ɛ/ but is pronounced /e/ by most native French speakers nowadays. Evolution of pronunciation... ;) – Mat Feb 11 '19 at 17:56
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    @Mat That's a common misconception, but the pronunciation with /e/ is in fact closer to the classical standard. There seems to have been a lot of variation in the pronunciation of the old <ai> diphthong in the 16th Century, but they eventually settled on /ɛ/ usually, except in verbs where <ai> or <ay> (as they mostly spelled it) was /e/ in j'ay, je sçay (=le je sais moderne), and the 1st person singular suffixes of the simple past and the future. That's still more or less the standard applied in Belgium and Canada, the ai=always /ɛ/ stuff is spelling pronunciation – Eau qui dort Feb 11 '19 at 19:07
  • Of course, that doesn't mean some dialects didn't go from /e/ to /ɛ/ then back to /e/ for j'ai. – Eau qui dort Feb 11 '19 at 19:08
  • Oh, and <aie> at the end of words could be either /ɛ:/ or /ɛj/, which we can still see in the double pronunciation (and spelling) of words like essaie/essaye or paie/paye. – Eau qui dort Feb 11 '19 at 19:10
  • True for Belgium and Canada. Apart from northern France (for Chtis...^^), I don't know any native French speaker (from France) who uses it with an /ɛ/ sound. However, if some do, I'd deduce that they have a northern accent. So, as far as I'm concerned, Je sais ="Ché" or "Je s/e/" . "Je s/ɛ/ " (forgive me for not writing all the phonetics properly...) goes as well but in south of France I hardly ever hear it. About the words you mentioned, I'd pronounce them like that: essai (for the noun): /e/s/e/, essaye : /e/s/ɛj/, and paye :p/ɛj/ (never p/e/ for that one or it'd sound like pet) – Mat Feb 12 '19 at 11:12

When forming a derivative word in which the è is no longer followed by a mute e, the letter è is changed to é".

Lors de la formation d’un dérivé dans lequel l’e accent grave n’est plus suivi d'un e caduc, la lettre e reçoit un accent aigu :

thème → thématique

arène → arénicole

collège → collégien

https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accent_grave_en_fran%C3%A7ais (French)

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    Another way of looking at it: it's an underyling é /e/, but because this can't occur in a closed syllable (I believe), it manifests as è /ɛ/ instead in "collège". – Luke Sawczak Feb 9 '19 at 16:54
  • @LukeSawczakThe "é" in "blé" is not the the "e" in "bed" (/e/); vowel diagrams dont show that. "To manifest" in the context you use it, is a pronominal verb (or is that Canadian English?). – LPH Feb 10 '19 at 13:20
  • @LPH The "e" in "bed" is not /e/ but /ɛ/, but I'm not sure how that's relevant. (Eau qui dort's note on the conflation of /e/ and /ɛ/ in French may be relevant if you mean I shouldn't differentiate the sounds in collège ~ collégien.) As for an intransitive "manifest", it is a little odd but I find it dated to the 19th century in the OED, which identifies it as originating in spiritual language. Googling "it manifests as" or "they manifest as" I find to my surprise that most uses are indeed spiritual. Maybe the broader domain is an innovation, though I don't think it's specifically Canadian. – Luke Sawczak Feb 10 '19 at 18:54
  • @LukeSawczak Do you mean that according to your sources the e in "bed" is the same as the vowel sound of in "where" which I find noted /ɛ/ sometimes? But the vowel for this sound is traditionally a diphthong. Is that rather some kind of international English with a pronunciation departing from British English, the vowel of "where" being now a plain phonetic vowel? Are you using "to manifest" according to the definition "to appear, to become noticeable"? – LPH Feb 10 '19 at 21:15
  • @LPH The audio samples and transcription here capture my "bed" vowel. "Where" is indeed a diphthong, not the same vowel as "bed" on either side of the pond. And your gloss of "manifest" is pretty good, but I wouldn't separate the phrasal element: "manifest as" meaning "take the form of, be realized as". – Luke Sawczak Feb 10 '19 at 21:26

Complément de réponse ; comparaison de la prononciation des voyelles en français et en anglais selon la prononciation « RP » du Longman Pronunciation dictionary

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