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I always have the impression that -ai and -ais/-ait are pronounced differently, such that -ai = é while -ais/-ait = è. However, I've recently been told that they make no practical difference, which to be honest is what I've always heard, that both of them sound like é (e.g. voulaisvoulé). I rarely hear -ais/-ait pronounced the same way as I was taught (when voulais should sound like voulè), and sometimes this leads to misunderstanding (e.g. je serai vs je serais).

Is it a common phenomenon that the pronunciation for -ai and -ais/-ait are mixed together?

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The matter of "é" vs. "è" is time-dependent and accent/region-dependent.

In the south of France, many occurences of "è" are changed to "é".

In the north, the difference is more marked, but the various ways of spelling do not necessarily map to a single pronunciation, although 'ai' does map to "è" in all cases I can think of.

This is not the case for "et" which, nowadays, is commonly pronounced "é" in the conjunction meaning "and" and can be pronounced "è" in other context (e.g. "un filet"). This has changed over time, and as far as I know there is no real rule besides usage...

(disclaimer: I'm a French native speaker from Savoie, without a marked local accent from this area) :)

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    Do you mean that "peuchère" is actually pronounced "peuchére"? Sorry but that's the first thing coming to my mind trying to imagine someone from south of France pronouncing "è". I also had the impression that the tendency to pronounce milk "lé" rather than "lè" was rather in the North than the South. Quid? – Laurent S. Jan 23 at 8:47
  • "rare", not inexistant :) "Avant le déjeuner, j'ai sorti les poulets, j'ai trait les vaches et porté le lait à la ferme de Saint Bénazet" -> my grandmother (who lived in Ardèche) would have said "è" only in "ferme". There's certainly a "rule" in there, but you'll have to get the opinion of a linguist ;) – gurney alex Jan 24 at 13:27
  • I must admit I've probably never been attentive enough to notice this but I can't go against a real-life testimony :-) So "poulets" she would also have pronounced "poulé"? – Laurent S. Jan 24 at 13:51
  • see the interesting charts done on basis of surveys here: francaisdenosregions.com/2017/07/06/… – Greg Jan 24 at 14:28
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    The rule is that Midi French has é /e/ (also /o/ and /ø/) in open syllables (not ending in a pronounced consonant. and è /ɛ/ (and /ɔ/ and /œ/) in closed syllables (those ending in one or several consonants), with the added rule that syllables with schwa seem to loan their starting consonant to the preceding syllable for the purpose of this rule. So lait or laitue have é because their syllables are open (/le/, /le.tu/) while leg or allaite have è because their relevant syllables are closed (/lɛ/, /a.lɛt.ə/). See also the contrast between laisse, laissait and laisser (/lɛs.ə/, /le.se/, /le.se/) – Eau qui dort Jan 28 at 10:51
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Both should not sound the same, but it is indeed often the case. As an example I will take what is probably the most common occurrence of words ending in -ai, the future tense:

Je serai à l'heure au rendez-vous

J'aurai des vêtements de rechange

In these cases, it should be pronounced a bit like "é", but indeed there's a tendency to pronounce it "è". While in most cases there is no ambiguïty (people will still understand this is the future), still it is not the correct pronunciation. I also think this induces spelling mistakes as you would be tempted to add an "s" in the end (if you pronounce it the same, why not write it the same after all)

I will compare with the same verbs in the conditional tense:

Je serais bien parti en vacances, mais je n'ai pas d'argent

J'aurais bien voulu partir en vacances

In these cases, it should indeed be pronounced "è", and usually it is.

In the other direction, words that should be pronounced "è" but are pronounced "é" (poulet, lait,...), the pronunciation is depending on the region where you are. On this, I can't refrain from thinking about this (well-known) advertising:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Mk-eag2IdE

Note: I'm a native from central Belgium and always lived there.

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    I wouldn't qualify and poulé pronunciations mistakes, especially when millions of people (including myself) always pronounce these words that way. Do you consider saying houit instead of huit or even using septante and nonante mistakes? – jlliagre Jan 25 at 1:01
  • To answer your question I consider "houit" a mistake yes even though many belgian pronounce it that way (afaik this is a difference in language not many know about though unlike other ones). Septante and nonante are not about pronounciation, just specificities like chicon or essui instead of torchon so no I don't consider it mistakes. But your remark had me thinking and I will update my answer. – Laurent S. Jan 26 at 9:51
  • I never met a native Belgian who didn't say houit, even one with otherwise an unnoticeable regional accent. Same for bé-èm-oué, vé-oué, ouagon, Brusselles, Anverss... You shouldn't consider any of these pronunciations mistakes. They have the same legitimity than the other ones. A regionalism is not a mistake. – jlliagre Jan 26 at 11:08
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    I updated my answer so that there's no mention of "mistake" anymore. I'll be more careful on this from now on. – Laurent S. Jan 28 at 9:20

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