I was watching a series Au service de la France and I've noticed that the colonel is sometimes pronouncing the letter 'e' at the end of words. An example could be season 1, episode 12, where he says:

Cette mission est classée "très secret défense".

Other words that he says are: ombre, France. Sometimes the 'e' has got a more "swallowed" sound: taupe, grabuge, personne.

This also got me thinking about a song Douce France of Charles Trenet where 'e' is sometimes pronounced at the end of words: douce, France, enfance, village.

Since the song is from the '40s and the action of the series takes place in the '60s, I wonder if that is the "old style" of pronunciation? Or is there any other reason for that?

  • There is in that song, even to my hear that is quite used to numerous variants of the language, something without explanation; in "Mon village au clocher aux maisons sages/ Où les enfants de mon âge", "ge" is pronounced "gé"; I wondered whether that is an extravagant choice meant to rhyme with the "é" of "clocher"; nevertheless, it must be something particular only to singing; I never heard it nor even heard of it; it sounds very extravagant.
    – LPH
    Feb 17 '19 at 12:45
  • @LPH, wow, good to know! I was wondering if this isn't perhaps just his singing style, fitting the pronunciation to make the words rhyme, etc. Feb 17 '19 at 20:16
  • @camillejr Beware about LPH's peculiar comment. Millions of real native French people listened to that song many times without noticing anything particular about Charles Trenet's pronunciation of village. The final e might indeed sounds a little like an é, but that doesn't matter. It might also have been close to an a but anyway, an unstressed vowel at the end of a word is always considered to be an e in French.
    – jlliagre
    Feb 17 '19 at 21:39

There's several contexts where a /ə/ might appear at the end of a word:

1. Wherever an historic /ə/ was present

Unlike English that added ⟨e⟩ at the end of some words to indicate the previous vowel was long (O.E. mus, mys to modern mouse, mice), a graphical ⟨e⟩ in French always correlates with a vowel that used to be pronounced.

Because the loss of word-final /ə/ was relatively recent, and didn't affect all dialects (nor all dialects in the same way), you can still find many modern speakers that will pronounce those /ə/, either all or most of the time (this is particularly frequent in the Southern half of France) or sporadically, especially in elevated registers or when reading aloud.

In songs and poetry, those /ə/ can get pronounced or skipped as fits the metric, and for older compositions because they date from a period where they'd almost always been pronounced. For example, there's a nursery rhyme that's still taught in kindergarten that starts by repeating "Frère Jacques" in 4 syllables, even here in Belgium when those vowels would be systematically skipped in normal speech. You're right that this would be more common in the past, but songs can break the rules.

There's also a few words, usually not used at the end of sentences, whose final /ə/ has stabilised, and is now often or always pronounced at the end of a sentence: the object pronoun -le in imperatives, ce in locutions like "sur ce" and "et ce", and prepositions and particles like "est-ce que", "parce que", "jusque" or "entre".

2. To break up consonant clusters

In careful speech, word-final consonant clusters are reinforced by a /ə/ when followed by a consonant: double consonne, "piste cyclable". In casual speech, the cluster often get simplified instead (doub' consonne, pis' cyclable). In France French, this can extend to words that didn't etymologically end with a vowel like "ours blanc" prounonced "ours[ə] blanc".

3. Prepausal schwa

A relatively recent tendency in the central dialects of France French is to insert a vowel (this can be [ə], but also [œ, ø, ɐ̃]) at the end of sentences or phrases, especially those that end in a consonant. This is probably responsible for the majority of apparent ⟨e⟩ you hear pronounced (although it has no relationship to the orthography of the word and can potentiallly appear after arrives, paris, taf, mal and loger in the following sentence: "Quant t'arrives à Paris sans taf, t'as du mal à te loger")

  • 2
    "Quand" has a "d" : "Quand t'arrives à Paris sans taf, t'as du mal à te loger". "Quant" means "regarding" : "Quant à l'espagnol, toutes les lettres se prononcent". Though it is a common mistake in French to write "Quand à moi,...". Feb 18 '19 at 13:01
  • Re prepausal schwa: very commonly after donc - dõ-kə. Feb 24 '19 at 5:58

I think more simply that you just have to know that in the third South of France (Toulouse, Montpellier, Marseille...) the final "e" are pronounced, and in the two northern thirds, they are not pronounced. That just means that in the series you watched, the colonel came from southern France.

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