French Pronunciation
February 3, 2011 12:18 PM   Subscribe

French pronunciation: Schwa at the end of words that end in consonant plus final 'e'?

Trying to figure out principles of French listening to a recording of a poem ('Le pont Mirabeau' by Apploinaire). Recording here.
In the line

"Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine"

I hear a schwa at the end of 'coule'. Am I hearing right? Is this the way all words ending in consonant+e are pronounced?

I also hear the schwa at the end of 'vienne' and 'sonne' in the line

"Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure"

I'm confused because even though I learned a bit of French as a kid, I don't remember this sound at the end of words. Or am I hearing gemination of the final consonant--I mean, is this just because the final consonant is doubled and you pronounce it doubly-long?
posted by Paquda to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
In everyday spoken French, that schwa is usually elided. In poetry and music, however, where rhythm and rhyme reign supreme, it is retained.
posted by ocherdraco at 12:21 PM on February 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

Or, rather it is often, but not always, retained. It depends upon what is needed to make the phrase work in the context of the poem or song.
posted by ocherdraco at 12:22 PM on February 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

When yer fancy-talkin' in french you can put more EMphasSIS on the liason.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:36 PM on February 3, 2011

Officially the final "e" is pronounced, but usually when speaking, it's dropped. But think about it as the final syllable that causes the final consonant to be pronounced. So lis is just "lee," while lise is "leezeh," which gets abbreviated in speaking to "leez."

You'll often hear the final "e" in song lyrics.

The rules for pronouncing French are often just about what sounds nice.
posted by thebazilist at 12:46 PM on February 3, 2011

In French poetry, especially pre-1950, vowels that are silent in ordinary speech are sometimes enunciated in order to preserve the scansion.

The same is true in English poetry--there are plenty of poems where the "-ed" ending is pronounced, for instance.

From Byron's Don Juan:

And one by one her articles of dress
Were laid aside; but not before she offer'd
Her aid to fair Juanna, whose excess
Of modesty declined the assistance proffer'd:
Which pass'd well off -- as she could do no less;
Though by this politesse she rather suffer'd,
Pricking her fingers with those cursed pins,
Which surely were invented for our sins, -

This doesn't work, scansion-wise, unless you pronounce "cursed" as "curs-ed." Note that Byron generally (though not always) represents the ordinary pronunciation of the "-ed" ending with an apostrophe replacing the e.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:49 PM on February 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I lived with a family in Grenoble for a while, and the father, who was originally from the south of France, pronounced words in this way--nobody else in the family did. He was also quite a chatterbox, such that since he dominated dinner table conversation, and as a good host focused much of it on me, I came home with a very funny accent indeed.
posted by padraigin at 12:58 PM on February 3, 2011

What ocherdraco and Sidhedevil said.
Generally not pronounced unless it is needed for scansion.

10 Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine
3 Et nos amours
6 Faut-il qu'il m'en souvienne
10 La joie venait toujours après la peine

7 Vienne la nuit sonne l'heure
7 Les jours s'en vont je demeure

So you need to pronounce coule but souvienn'
Vienne , sonne , l'heur'

posted by bru at 1:21 PM on February 3, 2011

Also, try singing along to some George Brassens--impossible without keeping track of which schwas are pronounced.

Et le troisième coup ne fut qu'une caresse...
posted by lapsangsouchong at 2:56 PM on February 3, 2011

This doesn't work, scansion-wise, unless you pronounce "cursed" as "curs-ed."

That's a trickier example, though, pronunciation-wise -- think "accursed". Go back to the 1600s, for sure, and you see that flexibility; go further forward into the Tennyson era, and instead of apostrophes, you'll often see silent vowels marked with accents for pronunciation, in a kind of deliberate archaism.

Anyway, as ocherdraco said, when you're working within the high formalist tradition of French poetry and song, you pronounce those silent '-e' endings to fit the metre, not least because it's the basis of all of those feminine rhymes, and the interplay of feminine and masculine rhyme is central to French prosody. You can hear it when Piaf sings 'La vie en rose', and even when Jacques Brel sings 'La chanson de Jacky', where the terminal -es in the first two lines ('Knock-le-Zoute' / 'je le redoute') are there almost by sheer weight of tradition.
posted by holgate at 3:12 PM on February 3, 2011

In modern French, the unstable e is only found in open syllables, like in demain [də-mɛ̃] or je reviens [ʒə Rəvjɛ̃].

The rules are:

Mandatory pronunciation
1) inside a word or a group of words, after more than one pronounced consonnant, et if the next syllable starts with a consonnant;
2) before an aspired h;
3) before the numbers un, huit et onze;
4) in an accentuated final syllable;
5) a few other isolated cases.

Mandatory omission
1) inside a group of words, afterone pronounced syllable;
2) at the end of a group of words;
3) before or after a vowel.

And it's facultative at the start of a group of words. It will often be pronounced before an occlusive consonnant, like in le pont.

So a modern French reader, not realizing they're reading a poem, could read:

9(8) Sous l[e]pont Mirabeau coul' la Seine
3 Et nos amours
6 Faut-il qu'il m'en souvienn'
9 La joie v'nait toujours après la pein'

5 Vienn' la nuit sonn' l'heur'
7(6) Les jours s'en vont je d[e]meure [pronunciation here is facultative]

But the unstable e is always pronounced before consonnants in classic diction, so that Rimbeaud could write:

12 Je le vis, je rougis, je pâlis à sa vu(e)
12 Un trouble s'éleva dans mon âm(e) éperdu(e)

(note that the e is not pronounced before a vowel or at the end of a verse)
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 3:43 PM on February 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

I was told, by my Paris-born high school french teacher, that having the final syllable be audible was part of the Provençal accent. I learned French diction (for singing classical music) before I learned the French language, and I always have just a little of that final syllable, because it's so often needed for musical purposes, and he joked that I spoke with a Provençal accent.
posted by KathrynT at 6:55 PM on February 3, 2011

You've got great answers re: the poetry side of the pronunciation.

And as others have remarked, an audible final "e" is also part of southern French accents (not just Provençal). To make things even more confusing, they sometimes add that vowel where there is none. To wit, "peuneu" is "pneu" in the Marseille area. They'll add it on the end of words that don't have a final "e" too. In my completely anecdotal and non-scientific experience, this happens when people are most comfortable with others in the south. Je suis allée au marché-euh, putaing c'était beau-euh, frangchemengeuh on peut pas demander mieux hein-euh, quel soleil, putaing-euh...

But I digress from the poetry.
posted by fraula at 12:34 AM on February 4, 2011

Thank you all. So now understand it's like the 'ed' suffix in English that can be pronounced in either of two ways in poetry to fit the meter. Thinking back, I remember hearing that final sound in song lyrics too and not knowing what to make of it.
posted by Paquda at 7:41 AM on February 4, 2011

I need to correct what I said above now that I understand better: Pronunciation of final 'e' as a light schwa sound is always done, except at the end of a line or when the following word starts with a vowel. So it's not like the '-ed' suffix in English that the poet has the option of using in two ways. And as Padraigin mentioned, in southern French accents people often pronounce final e's in their ordinary speech.
posted by Paquda at 7:54 AM on February 28, 2011

One last thing -- I often hear "merde" as "MER-DAH!!" especially if someone has stubbed their toe or something.
posted by thebazilist at 4:58 PM on March 6, 2011

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