Ideas people have about French spelling range from disgruntled: “It doesn’t correspond to what you hear” to exasperated: “It’s irrational”. Such perceptions of French spelling may have to do with these questions:
Why is French spelling so complicated?
Why are there so many silent letters in French?
Why are written and spoken French so different?
All three questions are linked to the history of French, how it has developed from Latin, and how it has been standardized throughout its developmental stages. Like Latin, and other Romance languages, French is highly inflected, with words changing form depending on their function within a particular sentence. A unique characteristic of French is the distance between its graphic form, which continues to reflect the pronunciation of ancien français, and its modern, spoken forms throughout the francophone world.
Characteristics of French
The particular linguistic path of the French language, its phonetic developments and efforts to codify it, have contributed to writing that is characterized by groups of inaudible letters, unpronounced final consonants, and digraphs, two characters that are used to create single phonemes within a written system. These characteristics doubtlessly increase the length of French words, another observation that is particularly apparent in multilingual contexts, such as trilingual street signs and plaques in museum galleries. It is true that six letters are used for the one-syllable word sceaux and even little children must deal with the word schtroumf for entertainment.
In addition to these characteristics, there are many homophones in French, words that sound the same, but which may be spelled differently, or have different meanings, as seen in the words *haut* and *eau*, each pronounced /o/.
The basic elements of French spelling are similar to other languages that use the Roman alphabet. Like English, this alphabet is made up of twenty-six letters. A major difference between the French and English graphic systems, though, is that French uses five diacritical marks: l’accent aigu [ ́ ], l’accent grave [ ̀ ], l’accent circonflexe [ ̂ ], le tréma [ ¨ ], and la cédille [ ̧ ], whereas English does not require use of diacritical marks, although you may come across a few while reading Shakespeare, as in this version of the eleventh line of his thirtieth sonnet, first published in a sequence of 154 sonnets in 1609: “The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan”. Accents such as these are added into English lines of poetry or lyrics of songs to indicate that a normally unpronounced vowel sound should be pronounced to fit into the meter, which in this case is iambic pentameter.
Although I have seen accent marks disregarded by students, responders to blog posts, and even work emails, they are actually an integral part of the spelling of French words and serve as semantic and phonetic guides, much as the accent mark used in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30. In French, the article la is distinguished from the adverb là by the placement of an accent grave over the a, as is the case with the verb a and the preposition à. Similarly, the verb forms donné and donne are distinguished by an accent aigu placed over the final e. In this last case the accent mark denotes the phonetic difference between the masculine singular past participle and the present third person singular forms of the verb donner, i.e., /dͻne/ and /dͻn/.
The different verb forms shown above illustrate cases of inflection, mentioned earlier, which is another aspect of French spelling that may seem complicated to learners of French. Inflection denotes a change in the form of a word to express grammatical function. This typically shows up in the endings of French words, in verb conjugations and adjectives, for example, to show tense or mood, or to reflect gender and number. In this way, a single word can convey quite a bit of information about the agent of action and the time the action takes place, as well as its qualities and characteristics.
Development of French
The final s in certain French words was, in fact, pronounced in older forms of French, as with the word rosas for roses. Likewise, the final z was pronounced in amez for aimez. Along with these more audible inflexions of ancien français came a more flexible word order, more akin to Latin. As word order became stricter, certain spellings linked to word order became more prominent, as with past participle agreement for direct object pronouns and feminine forms for prenominal adjectives used to modify certain words generally considered masculine. Consider the following sentence:
Les belles gens que nous avons vus à la réunion nous remercient.
Spelling tends to reflect the way a language was spoken when it was standardized, and French has gone through different stages of standardization. A very early stage of French standardization took place around the eleventh century, when French was becoming a prominent written language in its own right, used instead of Latin for literary works, such as the eleventh-century chanson de geste, titled La Chanson de Roland. As French developed, subsequent efforts to standardize it took place and it gained more and more status as a written language. French was promoted as an official language in the sixteenth century by François I, who enacted the ordonnance de Villers-Cotterêts in 1539, making French the administrative and legal language of France. The French language was heavily standardized in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with the establishment of the Académie française in 1635 by the cardinal de Richelieu, chief minister of Louis XIII. Article XXIV of the Académie’s statutes specifies an objective of establishing clear rules for the French language, with the goal of rendering the language “pure, éloquente et capable de traiter les arts et les sciences”.
French has subsequently gone through further stages of standardization, including the replacement of the ending -ois by -ais in imperfect conjugations that was published in the sixth edition of the dictionary of the Académie française in 1835. The spelling reform of 1990, documented in Les rectifications de l’orthographe, published by the Conseil supérieur de la langue française, reflects a further attempt to adjust French spelling, which we see in the streamlining of graphic representation of numbers, for example. Thus, compound numbers formerly spelled vingt et un and cent trois are now spelled vingt-et-un and cent-trois. Attempts to adjust for phonetic developments are also evident in the 1990 spelling reform, e.g., événement becoming évènement, as well as in subsequent proposed changes, illustrated by the 2016 proposal to eliminate the i from oignon, which is pronounced /ͻɲɔ̃/.
All Those French Letters
Although spelling in French remains complex, the extensive codification of the French language has brought about a certain consistency to its spelling and grammar. So while it may seem like French uses so many letters for two-syllable words such as fontaine, the on that we see in this word will consistently refer to a nasalized o sound, the 'ai' to an open 'e' sound, and the final 'e' to the pronunciation of the preceding consonant, i.e., /fɔ̃ tεn/. The digraphs that correspond to the first two vowel sounds do increase the length of the word but follow a certain logic, as illustrated by the addition of the n after a vowel to denote its nasalized sound, which is consistent within the graphic system.
As for the final letters at the end of words like *vingt*, a word pronounced exactly like *vin*, *vînt*, and *vaincs*, and formerly spelled *vint* and *vinz*, these reflect different stages of the development of words throughout history. The Latin version of the number, viginti, is an influence on the French version we use today.
Similar Sounds in French
Another thing students of French might find challenging is that a lot of French sounds similar. This should be nice in conversation, although it means paying careful attention to written forms of the language. This is even true in the case of native speakers, who may easily write *je suis aller* rather than *je suis allé* when writing too quickly and not paying much attention to their spelling. For some reason, it is easy to write down the first graphic representation of a sound that comes to mind, and since there tend to be multiple alternate spellings for words in French, mistakes such as the one indicated above are something to be aware of.
Indeed, multiple graphic representations may correspond to a single phoneme, as with è, ès, and ai for /ε/ and ez, et, er, é, ée, és, ées for /e/. As shown in the cases of ée and ées, the 'e' often does not hold phonetic value, although it does represent something graphically, and it is the slipperiness of this 'e' that proves challenging and fascinating for many students of French.
The 'e' in the final position of a word has quite a few functions, as previously noted, including pointing to the feminine gender of a word and indicating the pronunciation of the preceding consonant. At times, it can take on phonetic value, and for this reason it is called the *e caduc*, a reference to its instability. In certain parts of the francophone world, such as the southern regions of France, it is, in fact, pronounced in its final position, as a schwa sound /ә/. And in poetry, it takes on this same phonetic value when appearing between two consonants, thus being counted as a separate syllable, e.g., “*Tu vois tourner une heure en cent mille façons*”, from the twenty-second sonnet in *Pierre de Ronsard’s Second livre des sonnets pour Hélène*, published in 1578. This ninth line of Ronsard’s sonnet thus contains twelve syllables, an example of the alexandrine verse characteristic of Renaissance poetry. The flexibility of the *e caduc* illustrated by the word mille makes this e quite a significant component of French spelling.
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We often do not hear the endings of French words, whether e’s or a plethora of consonants, such as t, s, n, d, etc. And since inflection occurs at the ends of French words, this can add to the complexity of French spelling. In fact, French schoolchildren often have exercises called *dictées* during which they are meant to transcribe phrases that are spoken aloud to them, giving them practice with their spelling techniques. In this way, they gain practice distinguishing feminine and masculine endings of past participles that are inaudible, e.g., *tombée / tombé, recueillie / recueilli, rendue / rendu*, and remembering the different consonants that are placed at the ends of words that are also not audible, with the possible exception of being uttered in liaison. Fard, maillot, and dès all end with unpronounced consonants with which French speakers must be familiar in order to produce correctly spelled words. Of course, these must be distinguished from words that behave slightly differently, which is often the case when they are borrowed from foreign languages. I remember seeing a French school child writing a couplet, in which he rhymed the word flot with bravot, the spelling he attributed to the word bravo, borrowed from Italian.
French Past Participles
Past participles include endings over which students of French spend many hours, as they follow codified rules of tense and agreement. Being inflected, they are part adjective and part verb, and superpose two functions: forming composite tenses and serving as verbal adjectives. Since adjectives need to agree in gender and number with whatever they modify, e.g., *les beaux jours, quelles belles fleurs,* past participles need to do the same thing: *les questions posées, le parti pris,* etc.
The issue of agreement of part participles occurs in various instances in French spelling. Learners of French need to be aware of past participle agreement in different contexts, including the use of verbs taking the auxiliary être, direct object pronouns that precede verb tenses using past participles, and relative clauses whose antecedents are direct objects of the verbs used within that clause. French has not always had such strict rules governing agreement with the past participle, having gone through periods of greater flexibility in gender agreement and word order, as mentioned earlier, which extends to flexibility of spelling in general. The Renaissance poet *Clément Marot* is credited with importing the agreement of the past participle from Italy, finding it elegant and refined.
Currently there are debates going on over whether or not to abandon this practice altogether, as described in this segment of the radio station France Culture.
Devoting a minimum of eighty hours during the school year to teaching this aspect of the French language may seem cumbersome to the two Belgian instructors who have proposed the use of invariable past participles when they follow the verb avoir, but it does point to the significance of context when approaching inflected languages. The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated in an interview recorded by CBC / Radio Canada that while in English it was possible to pitch des mots ensemble in order to form sentences, in French it took a bit of knowing where one was headed verbally. It could be that when approaching French spelling, it is a good idea to know where one is headed graphically.