Say aloud the French word for milk.
It’s lait, right?
Now, how did you pronounce it? Did it sound like lé or lè?
If we transcribe lé into IPA, we get [le].
If we transcribe lè into IPA, we get [lɛ].
Do you hear the difference between the two sounds?
Say these French words aloud: mes, chez, tes, né. All these words use é. They can be transcribed in IPA as [me], [ʃe], [te], [ne]. In IPA, [e] sounds like é.
Now say these French words aloud: belle, fesse, messe, net. All these words use è. They can be transcribed in IPA as [bɛl], [fɛs], [mɛs], [nɛt]. In IPA, [ɛ] sounds like è. Listen carefully to sound made by [ɛ]. Say belle again, but this time, hold the [ɛ] sound longer: bèèèèèèèèèèlle.
Now try this: say belle, but instead of pronouncing it correctly as [bɛl], mispronounce it intentionally as [bel], or as though it were written bél. Do you hear a distinct difference now between [bɛl] and [bel]?
Isolate [e] and say it on its own a few times: é, é, é, é, é.
How about [ɛ] now — can you isolate it and say it on its own? è, è, è, è, è.
Think about the English word meh. You know, it’s that word often used to show your indifference towards something, especially online. Meh. Meh, meh, meh. Does the vowel sound in meh sound more like [e] or [ɛ] to you?
We started this post by looking at the French word lait, and I asked you how you pronounced it — as [le] or [lɛ].
If we look up lait in the Usito dictionary, we see it transcribed in IPA. Here’s what we see:
Lait is transcribed as [lɛ]. Does that match or mismatch how you pronounce it?