4

I was taught that ê is pronounced /ɛ/, but the ê in dépêcher seems to be pronounced as /e/. Curiously, the ê in "je me dépêche" clearly sounds as /ɛ/.

Is "dépêcher" an exception of that pronunciation rule? If so, are there more exceptions to this rule in other usual words?

5

I don't think it's an exception so much as a way of pronouncing as /eXe/ the end of certain words that can also be pronounced as /ɛXe/, where X stands for some consonant sound.

The same pronunciation is observed, for example, for all the verbs in -êter that I've found in wiktionary, such as

  • Prêter / Apprêter

  • Enquêter

  • Arrêter

  • S'entêter

  • Étêter

  • Embêter

In all of these cases, the pronunciation of the end of the word can be /ete/ or /ɛte/; both will be understood just as well. Frequencies of each option may vary between words and regions, but I don't have any data about that. The same flexibility in pronunciation options exists for other conjugations that end in /te/, such as the second person plural indicative present (vous prêtez) or the participe passé (j'ai enquêté)

In all of these cases, /ɛ/ must be used in conjugations that end with /tə/, such as the singular present indicative. Using /e/ would be characterized as a mispronunciation, e.g. to pronounce the ê in il m'embête or j'arrête, one must use /ɛ/, not /e/.

I'm not sure about cases like "nous arrêtons, vous enquêtiez". My sense is that /e/ is OK here too.

Finally, it's not specific to verbs ending in -êter or -êcher, the same possibility of sliding from /ɛXe/ to /eXe/ happens also at the end of words like aimer, baisser, mêler, laisser, errer, etc.

(Thanks Gilles ♦ for helping me see that it is a more general phenomenon than my first response.)

  • I suppose this is restricted to verbs? The answers does not explicitly say it, but I see only verbs as examples. – Alan Evangelista Jun 7 at 0:35
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    @AlanEvangelista No, it isn't specific to verbs. The examples tend to be verbs because the sound /-e/ is a very common ending for verbs (or adjectives or nouns made from a past participle), and also because the example in your question was a verb so people tend to think of verbs when they're looking for other examples. Here's a non-verb example: araignée /a.ʁɛ.ɲe/ or /a.ʁe.ɲe/. – Gilles 'SO nous est hostile' Jun 7 at 21:48
  • Thanks for the "araignée" example. I thought that its only correct pronunciation was /a.ʁe.ɲe/ . Anyway, I was asking before if there are examples of non-verbs with "ê" (vowel E with a circumflex accent) in which it is pronounced as /e/. – Alan Evangelista Jul 25 at 20:49
  • @AlanEvangelista that's true, though verbs I'd say are interesting because conjugation changes the set of acceptable pronunciations away from the conjugation ending proper – qoba Jul 25 at 23:30
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It's part of a more general phenomenon. Standard French makes a phonemic distinction between /e/ and /ɛ/, but in practice there are considerable phonetic variations between [e] and [ɛ], some regional, some depending on the speaker, and some free variations (where the same speaker might randomly pronounce the same phrase in one way or the other). A majority of French speakers (excluding the South-West of France where both are systematically realized as as [e] in open syllables and as [ɛ] in closed syllables) would probably tell you that /e/ and /ɛ/ are clearly different sounds, but the reality says otherwise, and many scholarly articles have been written on the topic.

French has a general rule that /ɛ/ (the semi-open vowel) occurs in closed syllables, i.e. when the vowel is followed by a consonant, and /e/ (the semi-close vowel) occurs in open syllables, i.e. when the syllable ends with the vowel, except that both /e/ and /ɛ/ can occur at the end of a word. There are similar pairings between /ɔ/ and /o/, and between /œ/ and /ø/. For example : pétrifier /pe.tʁi.fje/ vs certifier /cɛʁ.ti.fje/, élève [e.lɛv] vs élevé [e.lə.ve].

This general rule has a lot of exceptions, however. One of the exceptions is a form of assimilation called vowel harmony. Vowel harmony is not a driving principle in French the way it is in some other languages, but it does exist a little, and I think this is the main example. A lot of words in fact contain /ɛ/ in an open syllable, and it is realized as [ɛ] most of the time. But if the following vowel is /e/, then the first vowel is realized as [e] far more often. For example:

  • aimable /ɛ.mabl/, caisson /kɛ.sɔ̃/, traitable /tʁɛ.tabl/, repêchage /ʁə.pɛ.ʃaʒ/ are rarely pronounced with /e/.
  • aimer /ɛ.me/ or /e.me/, laisser /lɛ.se/ or /le.se/, traiter /tʁɛ.te/ or /tre.te/, repêcher /ʁə.pe.ʃe/ ou /ʁə.pɛ.ʃe/ are free variations for many speakers.
  • Once again, this is only if the first syllable is open. Otherwise it stays /ɛ/. French somewhat dislikes /ɛ/ in non-final open syllables, but hates /e/ in closed syllables.

/e/ before /ɛ/ normally has no impact. For example prétraitement /pʁe.tʁɛ.t(e.)mɑ̃/ is not pronounced /pʁe.tʁe.t(e.)mɑ̃/ much more often than prétraitement /tʁɛ.t(e.)mɑ̃/ is pronounced /tʁe.t(e.)mɑ̃/, which is to say, rarely (but not never). However, the succession /e/-/ɛ/-/e/ is an exception. The succession /e/-/ɛ/-/e/ where the middle syllable is open is really hard, and the middle syllable is almost always realized with a semi-close vowel. Where /ʁə.pe.ʃe/ vs /ʁə.pɛ.ʃe/ for repêcher is mostly free variation, dépêcher is almost systematically pronounced /de.pe.ʃe/.

This tends to bleed into other tenses of the verb where the harmony rule wouldn't otherwise happen. For example je dépêche is /ʒə.de.pɛʃ/ because the last syllable is closed, but nous dépêchons is usually /nu.de.pɛ.ʃɔ̃/ even though there's no /ɛ/-/e/ succession.

I couldn't find a reference specifically on /e/-/ɛ/-/e/. Here are a few references regarding [ɛ] vs [e] in general.

  • Peut-être que ce genre de carte peut intéresser éventuellement. Merci à Mitch sur ELU. – 0ne1 Jun 7 at 21:34
2

I don't think it's an exception, arrêter follows the same pattern.

The circumflex accent is more historical (or for breaking ambiguity) than about pronunciation.


To clarify, I said I don't think it's an exception, not because there are other words like it (arrêter is the only one I can think of) but because there is no real rule about pronunciation with a circumflex.

0

Pronunciation has changed as time went by and the ê in "dépêcher" is really pronounced /e/; however, this word hasn't been the object of the 1990 reform which resulted in "événement" becoming "évènement" precisely because the é in "événement" was not pronounced /e/ anymore but /ɛ/.

The TLFi still carries the form /de pɛ ʃe/ and explains that the form /de pe ʃe/ is used for "vocalisation harmonique", but I never heard anything else than the form /de pe ʃe/.

( reverso) harmonisation
nf (phonétique) fait d'harmoniser, de rendre conforme aux lois des accords en musique, ou de mettre les différentes parties d'un ensemble en accord parfait

 

(encyclopédie libre) : L'harmonie vocalique est une modification phonétique concernant les voyelles d'un même mot ou syntagme ; il s'agit d'un type d'assimilation à distance (ou dilation) des timbres vocaliques entre eux : les syllabes d'une même unité (comme le mot ou le syntagme) doivent toutes présenter à la suite des voyelles « compatibles », c'est-à-dire appartenant à la même « classe » que celle de la voyelle précédente, laquelle classe varie selon les langues.

The pronunciation given here, Larousse en ligne, is only /de pe ʃe/ (you can listen to it).

  • J'allais aussi parler de l'harmonisation, mais j'ai remarqué qu'on disait "énerver" sans problème, ce n'est donc pas un problème qui vient de la suite "é-è-é". Est-ce que dépècher est vraiment moins harmonieux et facile à prononcer qu' énerver? Sûrement quelque chose à voir avec les consonnes. – Teleporting Goat Jun 6 at 15:43
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    @TeleportingGoat « énerver », fait partie d'une catégorie : déversé, émergé, hébergé, … Apparemment il y a un changement systématique : ébène/ébéniste, hellène/helléniste, système/systémique, problème/problématique, avec des exceptions : pérenne/pérennité (en fait je trouve plus naturel « perénité»), brèche/ébréché, sèche/sécher, mèche/émécher, … Il est donc possible qu'une assimilation inconsciente prenne place pour des mots qui font défaut au principe. Il n'existe pas de critère sûr d'harmonie dans le langage : (champ 1) – LPH Jun 6 at 16:55
  • @TeleportingGoat on peut tout aussi bien dire que la répétition d'un même son amène de la monotonie. Il me semble qu'il est plus difficile de prononcer « dépècher » mais ce n'est qu'une impression ; en matière de langue la formation est quelque chose qui marque, et donc en fonctions des habitudes acquises, oui ça serait plus difficile, mais ça pourrait ne pas l'être après avoir pris une habitude. – LPH Jun 6 at 17:13
  • Historiquement évènement n'était pas prononcé /e/ : c'est une hypercorrection due à l'orthographe qui n'a commencé qu'avec la généralisation de l'alphabétisme. Pour dépêcher, il s'agit bien d'une harmonisation. @TeleportingGoat Cette haromnisation n'a lieu que lorsqu'il y a une consonne simple entre le /ɛ/ et le /e/. Je ne sais pas si on la faisait déjà (et peut-être seulement dans certaines régions ?) à l'époque où l'orthographe a été fixée. – Gilles 'SO nous est hostile' Jun 6 at 21:25

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