The French spelling reform: representation of e vowels

Two categories of changes propoesd in the French spelling reform can be broadly seen as aiming to bring more consistency to how the French open and close e vowels are represented in spelling.

Bringing use of é and è in line with pronunciation

In general, é and è are used respectively to indicate a so-called "close" and "open" e sound. However, there are some instances where, due to sound changes that have occurred more or less recently in the language, é ends up representing what is actually pronounced as a close vowel in what is perceived of as a "standard" accent. This essentially occurs when the vowel written é is followed by a consonant and then a schwa vowel (the one written as an e with no accent mark). So in the following words, the underlying vowels are actually pronounced as though written è, and the subsequent e (the schwa) tends not to be pronounced at all:

je préférerais
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The reform proposes, in most of these cases, to change the é to è. So in the new spelling, one would write:

je préfèrerais

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Note that:

  • the change isn't proposed for the words médecin and médecine;
  • even before the reform, the spelling évènement was widely accepted.

In our survey, opinion was pretty much split: 58% of respondents preferred the "new" spelling of évènement and 53% perferred the new spelling for the verb form cèderai (vs the "old" form céderai).

Consistency of verb conjugations (-eter and -eler verbs)

A related proposal concerns the spelling of certain conjugated verb forms. French has a number of verbs where a schwa vowel alternates with a close e vowel when that vowel occurs in a closed syllable. Specifiaclly, this concerns verbs whose infinitive ends in -eter or -eler, such as acheter, jeter and appeler. In the present convention, there are two alternatives depending on the verb: -eler mark this vowel change by doubling the l (e.g. appeler vs j'appelle); -eter mark the change either by adding a grave accent or by doubling the t (e.g. jeter gives je jette, but acheter gives j'achète). Most such verbs in fact double the consonant, but a few common verbs (and some uncommon ones) are generally spelt with the accent, and in some cases there is actually little consensus on which spelling to use (see my article on How do I spell forms of -eter and -eler verbs?).

The reform proposes that all such verbs be spelt with the grave accent. So for example, instead of writing j'appelle, one would write j'appèle; instead of writing je jette, one would write je jète.

While this change brings more consistency to how the open e vowel is represented in the language as a whole, looking just at verbs, an obvious issue with this proposal is that it takes what was the rule for the minority of verbs and applies it to all verbs. The proposal thus compounds the number of "unusual" forms that it would create. Had the proposal been the other way round— to write *j'achette etc— then fewer "new" spellings would have been created.

In any case, our survey suggests that this is an unpopular proposal: only 20% of respondents were in favour of the reformed spelling j'appèlerai over the current form j'appellerai.

Next: use of the circumflex

On the next page, we look at the proposal to remove the circumflex in some cases over the vowels i and u, where it does not signal a pronunciation difference.

 French grammar index
 French-English dictionary
 English-French dictionary

This page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2017. All rights reserved.