At 2:18 of this video, it is noted that the "ai" in "aime" and "aimer" are not pronounced the same (/ɛm/ and /eme/). Wiktionary lists both /eme/ and /ɛme/ for "aimer," but only /ɛm/ for "aime" and its other conjugations.

What is the reason why "aimer" deviates from the general rule that "ai" makes the /ɛ/ sound? Are there other examples of this?

I have seen elsewhere about how the pronunciation of "ai" becomes /e/ at the end of verbs (e.g., here and here), but that even this varies from region to region; for instance the video above suggests "j'ai" is /jɛ/ at 2:00, but the pages I just linked say it should be /je/ because it is a verb ending with "ai." And I have seen elsewhere on the internet where some speakers pronounce "j'aurai" and "j'aurais" differently, while others do not.

But my question above seems unrelated since the "ai" in "aimer" is not at the end of the verb.

  • Une astuce : En règle générale, si é est suivi d'une syllabe comportant un e muet, il devient è (il existe des exceptions comme après), c'est ce que vous avez écrit en phonétique (/ɛm/ and /eme/) : /ɛm [e muet]/, c'est la prononciation sans accent régional. – Personne Jan 5 at 20:46
  • @Personne (1) I see, this é -> è rule is in accordance with cases where the spelling reflects the pronunciation change (like "répéter" -> "répète"), but I didn't realize this applied to "ai" as well. (2) In any case, my question is not really about this é -> è change, but rather about the "rule" that "ai is always pronounced è" (except at ends of verbs) which seems to be incorrect ? Merci pour votre aide ! – angryavian Jan 6 at 2:37

French has typographic rules and orthographic rules but when talking about pronunciation, you'd rather talk about usages, not rules.

These usages vary depending on several factors and make what is called an accent. Accents are acquired at very early stages of language learning. Kids have usually the same accent as the people surrounding them (family, schoolmates) and then their accent evolves with time, being more or less affected by the surrounding accents. This is not specific to French, all languages spoken in a large enough territory present the same kind of geographical and chronological variations.

That said, some phonemes are identical or almost identical whoever native French people use them while other phonemes present variants. Many vowels are in the second category.

A second thing you need to know about French is the fact it is not written phonetically. The way a word is written only gives hints about how it is pronounced, actual usage might be different to what would be expected. English is worse than French on that subject.

The two letters "ai" might be pronounced /ε/, /e/, /ɛː/, /ɛɪ̯/ (Québec) or even /ə/ in a few words (e.g. faisan).

In aime, ai is almost always pronounced /ε/ in France.
In aimer, the /e/ pronunciation is the most common in Southern France but competes with /ε/ elsewhere.

This ai is often pronounced the same way as the et of poulet. Here is a map from Mathieu Avanzi showing this kind of regional variations, it might not exactly match the aimer figures but is nevertheless an example of such patterns :

enter image description here
Source: https://francaisdenosregions.com/2017/07/06/ces-mots-qui-ne-se-prononcent-pas-de-la-meme-facon-dun-bout-a-lautre-de-la-france/

As you are not a native French speaker, you shouldn't really care about which of the common pronunciations to choose when pronouncing aimer.

The primary goal of oral communication is to be understood, either of these vowels is fine.

  • I agree with your answer but this map doesn't look quite right to me. When I speak with people from Northern France (59, 62), I always hear /e/ when they say 'poulet', 'jouet', 'jamais', 'vrai'... – vc 74 Jan 6 at 9:02
  • @vc74 These numbers come from voluntary answers. In the Hauts-de-France region, the /ε/ is only slightly dominant, not like in Ain or Doubs for example. Several factors might explain your diverging experience. There may have been an evolution in this direction in recent years, the people who answered the poll may not have been representative of the whole region, the people around you might not be representative enough (age, class..) of the region, the people who answered might thought they were pronouncing one way but actually pronounce the other way... Many possible explanations. – jlliagre Jan 6 at 9:41
  • I'm sure @MathieuAvanzi would know better... – jlliagre Jan 6 at 9:43
  • Most likely the latter IMHO. As an example, watch any video about Calais and pay attention to how people pronounce it. I'd be surprised if you find someone pronouncing it Cal/ε/. – vc 74 Jan 6 at 9:47
  • Indeed, it would be great to have his opinion on that one – vc 74 Jan 6 at 9:47

In some regions, this is regularly so for verbs of similar construction, not only for "ai" but also for "é", and "ei" (when pronounced as é).

/e/ and /ɛ/ depending on the region

  • aider, essaimer, daigner, régner, peigner, …

/ɛ/ everywhere

  • j'aime, j'essaime, je daigne, je règne, je peigne, …

Notice that the change in pronunciation is indicated by the accent in the case of "régner".

  • « aider, essaimer, daigner, régner, peigner, … » avec un è ? au Québec régner=*raègné* ? quelle région est concernée ? – Personne Jan 5 at 21:30
  • @Personne TLFi: daigner [dε ɳe] ou [deɳe]. Pour le moins le sud de la France. (ce n'est pas vrai pour « régner » (exception), encore que je n'en sois pas si sûr parce que le TLFi donne ceci : [ʀeɳe], [ʀ ε-]. – LPH Jan 5 at 21:36
  • Pour le TLFi, la virgule après le ] et l'espace suivante renvoient à ce qui suit : (il) règne – Personne Jan 5 at 21:40
  • Thanks very much for the several examples, this is very helpful. So it seems the "rule" that "ai is always pronounced è except at the ends of verbs" is not really correct either. Do you have any guidance on how I should remember how to pronounce "ai" in general? It is a little confusing that the pronunciation of common words like "j'ai" or "aimer" differ regionally and don't seem to follow a nice rule. – angryavian Jan 6 at 2:47
  • @angryavian No, I do not know a rule that would take into account all cases; it is hardly possible to give any guidance; I could, for instance, advise you to learn through internalization, merely listening to a lot a audio material but then I have no way to show you how to select this material within one single acceptable accent. You might still do that, though, and be able in the end to settle on personal choices of pronunciation. One thing can be depended upon: the difference between /e/ and /ɛ/ is not sufficient to impair understanding. – LPH Jan 6 at 12:49

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