Knowing about the dropped “e” is essential in order to understand natural French speech. It’s one of the reasons French sounds so fast!
Unstable “e” in a word
As you already know, the final letters in French words are often silent. So not only is the final “e” nearly always silent, but an “e” inside a word is often silent too! If it is located between two consonant sounds (in other words, if there is just one consonant sound in front of it), the “e” will usually not be pronounced:
- Samedi — sam’di
- Acheter — ach’ter
- Lentement — lent’ment
But if it is between three or more consonant sounds (in other words, if there are at least two consonants before it), it has to be pronounced:
Unstable “e” in a group of words
The same thing happens across groups of words. The “e” is a very unstable letter in French, which leads to its “élision” in short words such as “je”, “ne”, “le”, “de” preceding a vowel: l’ami, je n’ai pas.
Additionally, this instability leads to the disappearance of the “e” in normal, rapid speech, although that “e” will remain in written French – the written language is a couple centuries behind the spoken language!
For instance, people don’t say, “Au revoir, tout le monde!” as it is written, but rather, “Au r’voir, tout l’monde!” with the apostrophe showing where an “e” was deleted. This makes the sentence shorter, with fewer syllables. Here are a few more examples:
- À demain — à d’main
- Dans le jardin — dans l’jardin
So how do you know when you can drop the “e”?
The general rule is, if there is only one consonant SOUND (spoken – not written – consonant) before an “e”, you can drop it. If there are two consonant SOUNDS before an “e”, it would be too hard to pronounce without the “e”, so you keep it:
- Je ne sais pas — Je n’sais pas
- Chez le docteur — Chez l’docteur
- Fais ce qu’il dit — Fais c’qu’il dit
- Qu’est-ce qui se passe? — Qu’est-c’qui s’passe?
- Je voudrais un petit café. — J’voudrais un p’tit café.
- J’aime le français — J’aime le français (KEEP the “e” in “le” – there are 2 consonant sounds before it)
- Michel parle de toi — Michel parle de toi (KEEP the “e” in “de” – there are 3 consonant sounds before it)
For language geeks, an interesting thing happens when the dropped “e” puts two consonants together: if one of the consonants is unvoiced, the other one may well become unvoiced too!
What does this mean? It means a D will sound like a T:
- D — T
- B — P
- G — K
- J — CH
- Z — S
- V — F
The only difference between the above pairs is that the first consonant is voiced (you can feel your vocal cords vibrating when you say it), whereas the second one is unvoiced (no vibration from the vocal cords). Other than that, they are identical.
So “pas de problème” will sound like “pas t’problème”, because the P is an unvoiced consonant, which makes the D lose its voiced quality and sound like a T. Also, “je” will often sound like “ch”. Other examples:
- Pas de problème — pas d’problème — pas t’problème
- Je fais — j’fais — ch’fais
- Je suis — j’suis — ch’suis
- Je peux — j’peux — ch’peux
- Les cheveux — les ch’veux — les ch’feux
- Tout de suite — tout d’suite — tout t’suite
Understanding this phenomenon will help tremendously with your listening skills! It is ideal if you can practice listening to something while reading the transcription at the same time. Songs are useful for this, as are informal dialogues.
Here are a few links to practice listening to sentences with the dropped “e”:
- Le e muet (silent e)
- The sounds of silent French e
- E instable (Lawless French)
- Listen: La chute de l’e-muet entre deux consonnes
Image courtesy of Theeradech Sanin / FreeDigitalPhotos.net