French: Has [ɛ] become [e̞]?

cetait

New Member
English
In my studying of French, I have noticed that the sound for /ɛ/ isn't actually [ɛ] but more so something else, a bit closer to [e] than [ɛ]. Let's use these examples:

lait pronunciation: How to pronounce lait in French, Piedmontese, Finnish
Everyone except two people pronounced these words the same: Ariele says [le], wblondel says [ɛ], and the rest sound like they're saying something in between those vowels; which would be [e̞].

Another example: après pronunciation: How to pronounce après in French, Occitan, Catalan
Domigloup say é very obviously, whereas 3l3fat says [ɛ] very clearly, and you can hear the contrast and difference in the vowel compared to the first two examples.

I've been told the difference could be because of sound quality, but I disagree heavily as you can hear with the last example especially, 3l3fat's example is very clear, much like gwen's (second example for après) is very clear, and in general none of the examples shown are obscured.

I bring this up mostly because 3 out of 4 times I hear /ɛ/ it's not actually [ɛ] but another vowel. On 1/8 of occasions I hear [e], and very rarely do I hear French people actually say [ɛ] like in the après or lait example.

From this observation though, I have noticed that the difference is audible almost entirely in open syllables. In closed syllables it's a bit harder to distinguish, but you can still hear the difference. Take for example the forvo examples of Francophones pronouncing sel vs Anglophones saying cell. The vowel is notably and consistently different between the two languages.

This thread is asking for opinions, as I'm not a native and would like feedback on my observation. In addition, what sound should I make when speaking, [ɛ] or [e̞]? A French associate of mine told me that [ɛ] is the "academic" pronunciation of /ɛ/ whereas [e̞ is how it's said by just about anybody, but neither are "wrong" or more right per se. I'm also not trying to say this is something in all dialects of French, but it seems like something that's prevalent in many parts of the (native) Francophone world.
 
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  • berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    I think there is a é-è-merger going on in open syllables. Minimal pairs like et-est and pré-près are fading. My daughter grew up in a native speaking environment but later went to a German school. I.e. her French is modern colloquial without "academic" influence thought I was joking when I said the ought to be an audible difference between et and est. But this tendency is limited to open syllables. In closed syllables I cannot detect it. A slight raising of [ɛ], maybe. But the [ɛ]-[e] contrast seems intact to me.
     

    Zec

    Senior Member
    Croatian
    My perception of these examples is that some have [e] and some have [ɛ] - I didn't hear any that would obviously be in between the two sounds. As you've mentioned, some are more extreme than others but I still perceive them all as having either [e] or [ɛ]. I'm a long-time student of French and I have a distinction of [eː] and [ɛ] in my native language, which has likely influenced my perception (though my [ɛ] verges on [æ] and is somewhat more open than the French one).

    The tendency to merge [e] and [ɛ] has been there since the Old French period, and if you look at the testimonies of ancient grammarians you'll see that there's been a lot of disagreement concerning the pronunciation of specific words. The current tendency seems to be that [e] is found in open and [ɛ] in closed syllables, of which the word you've mentioned are a good example (for the change [e] > [ɛ] in closed syllables there's médecin, especially the cases when they don't pronounc the e caduc, except spl0uf whose vowel is quite closed even in that case).
     

    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    for the change [e] > [ɛ] in closed syllables there's médecin
    I agree that this opposite tendency exists as well. But in my perception it is less strong then the tendency to merge é and è in open syllables. I still hear [med.sɛ̃] quite often. Certainly more than [ɛ] in an open syllable.
     

    merquiades

    Senior Member
    English (US Northeast)
    I don't agree that [e] and [ɛ] have merged. Les and lait or forer and forêt are pronounced very differently, as are verbs in the imperfect tense versus the past participle: parlait vs parlé. Perhaps in American English we are used to [ɛ] being very open and it is not the case in French. Bed and bête don't have the same vowel sound. The differentiation is perhaps even more difficult for Americans to hear in French because [e] is very much closed, more so than in English which tends to make a diphthong anyhow, but also more closed than in Spanish or Italian.
     

    cetait

    New Member
    English
    Well, the question is moreso about whether [ɛ] has become another sound rather than it merging with [e], which I hear a lot more from speakers than [ɛ] anyway, but I'm pretty confident the way French people pronounce /ɛ/ isn't [ɛ] but another sound. Though I'm an English speaker I don't think the way it's pronounced in English is exceptionally open, otherwise it'd be confused for [æ] or at least close to it, and the vowels are pretty distinct. With however French say /ɛ/ nowadays the distinction from é is definitely not very distinct at all, though it's there, but in general simply because there's a distinction doesn't mean that French /ɛ/ is actually [ɛ].

    As noted in the examples, I can hear when a French persons says [ɛ]; I don't confuse it with a diphthong, but the way French say /ɛ/ is certainly not [ɛ] and is much more closed and making it a different sound.

    edit: I also live in Southern America where people often pronounce /ɛ/ much more closed; not to the point where it sounds like [e] but definitely more closed, and it's very much alike if not the same as in french (without the drawl). And it's definitely distinct from how I say it, which is just a clear [ɛ], so I don't think the issue is that English /ɛ/ is more open, it's that the French one is more closed.
     
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    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    The way I hear it, in closed syllables the [ɛ] is right where it ought to be. This raising only occurs in open syllables and has to do with this (incomplete) process @Zec described: A merger of the classical [ɛ]-[e] opposition in conjunction with an allophonic separation between open and closed syllables.
     

    cetait

    New Member
    English
    The way I hear it, in closed syllables the [ɛ] is right where it ought to be. This raising only occurs in open syllables and has to do with this (incomplete) process @Zec described: A merger of the classical [ɛ]-[e] opposition in conjunction with an allophonic separation between open and closed syllables.
    I can concede to that; the difference in closed syllables almost always goes over my ears and even when I do notice (or think I notice) a difference it really ends up not mattering. However to me it's very obvious in open syllables, as you noted.

    Interestingly I do find this is very similar to /a/ in French. I often hear [a] in closed syllables whereas I hear [ɐ] for open ones. Though this one seems more free form as people can do either or for both open and closed syllables and I hear both mixes quite often, but still something I noticed.
     

    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    Interestingly I do find this is very similar to /a/ in French. I often hear [a] in closed syllables whereas I hear [ɐ] for open ones. Though this one seems more free form as people can do either or for both open and closed syllables and I hear both mixes quite often, but still something I noticed.
    Yes, I think so too. French used to distinguish [ɑ] and [a] (or [ɑ:] and [a], to be precise). Today, [ɑ], [a] and [ɐ] is all the same.
     

    cetait

    New Member
    English
    Yes, I think so too. French used to distinguish [ɑ] and [a] (or [ɑ:] and [a], to be precise). Today, [ɑ], [a] and [ɐ] is all the same.
    Now in the case of the topic itself, it still leaves one question unanswered, which sound would be best/preferred to make for /ɛ/ in open syllables? [ɛ] or [e]? I can say both with ease, though the former comes easier a bit
     
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    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    Now in the case of the topic itself, it still leaves one question unanswered, which sound would be best to make for /ɛ/ in open syllables? [ɛ] or [e]?
    I would say: Anywhere in between dependent on speaker and speech situation with tendency towards [e].
     
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    Zec

    Senior Member
    Croatian
    To solve this issue, ideally, we would have to hear words with [e] and words with [ɛ] pronounced by the same speaker. Only then we will be able to hear if they are truly merged in word-final position or are just pronounced extremely similarly.
     
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