French Pronunciation: Liasions

Liaisons are a distinctive characteristic of the French language and involve pronouncing the final consonants of words.

This may sound contrary to what you initially learn when learning French, since when you pronounce a single word in French that ends with a consonant, the consonant often remains unpronounced. The final sounds of the words beaucoup, sang, pot, aucun, fréquenter and mon are /u/, /ɑ̃/, /o/, /œ̃/, /e/, and /ɔ̃/, respectively. This, however, may change when these words precede words that begin with vowel sounds. In this case, we suddenly have phrases such as the following: “J’ai beaucoup aimé ce film”, in which “beaucoup aimé” sounds like /bokupɛme/, or “Mon ami déteste ce film”, in which “mon ami” sounds like /mͻnɑmi/, giving us not only an n sound but a denasalized o sound that precedes it. This is an example of sandhi, the process whereby the form of a word changes as a result of its position within an utterance.

Liaisons connect words within a phrase, linking them together in the enchaînement that occurs with the alternation between vowel and consonant sounds that is characteristic of the French language. This is very apparent in poetry, particularly in poetry that follows an even meter, as with this line from Charles Baudelaire’s “Bénédiction” in his 1857 collection, Les fleurs du mal: “Crispe ses poings vers Dieu, qui la prend en pitié”. In this line, the words “prend” and “en” are linked by the final consonant of the first word, d, which in this case is pronounced /t/.

This type of sandhi occurs with several consonant sounds when they precede vowel sounds in the process of liaison. Take a look at the following liaisons and note the changes in consonant sounds:

d → t: “grand homme” is pronounced /gʁɑ̃tͻm/
f → v: “neuf heures” is pronounced /nœvœʁ/
g → k: “sang impur” is pronounced /sɑ̃kɛ̃pyʁ/
x → z: “six oiseaux” is pronounced /sizwɑzo/

In addition, we have the denasalization that occurs with liaison, as seen above with “mon ami”. This occurs with other words ending in nasal sounds when pronounced alone, such as -an, -en, -ein, -on, -un, giving us:

“certain arbre” pronounced as /sɛʁtɛnɑʁbʁ/
“bon appétit” pronounced as /bͻnɑpeti/
“ancien ami” pronounced as /ɑ̃sjɛnɑmi/
“premier étage” pronounced as /pʁǝmjɛʁetɑʒ/
“ancien élève” pronounced as /ɑ̃sjɛnelɛv/

As we see above, some masculine words sound feminine when they are connected to words beginning with a vowel through liaison, which reflects the different characteristics of masculine and feminine forms of certain adjectives (as with ancien and ancienne).

When pronouncing liaisons, think of the final consonant sound of the first word as the first sound of the next syllable you pronounce, which is in the following word, e.g., “beaux yeux” as /bo zjø/.

Although liaisons are characteristic of the French language, they do not occur under every circumstance in which a word ending in an unpronounced consonant is followed by a word beginning with a vowel sound. There are, in fact, three types of liaison: obligatoire, facultative, and interdite.


3 Types of Liaison: Obligatoire, Facultative, and Interdite

1. Liaisons Obligatoires

Liaison is necessary in a nominal group of words, between a determiner (article, possessive, demonstrative, interrogative, number) and a noun that it accompanies, or a prenominal adjective and the noun it modifies.

For example:

  • In the phrase “Nous avons trouvé deux acteurs”, the /z/ in “deux acteurs” is pronounced, i.e., /dø zɑk tœʁ/

  • In the phrase “Quels attributs ont-ils ?” the /z/ in “quels attributs” is pronounced, i.e., /kɛl zɑ tʁi by/

  • In the phrase “J’ai de jolies orchidées”, the /z/ in “jolies orchidées” is pronounced, i.e., / ʒͻ li zͻʁ ki de/

· Liaison is equally necessary between pronouns, subject or object, and verbs, as well as between two successive pronouns.

  • In the phrase “Nous vous en avons donné”, the /z/ is pronounced between the object pronoun and the auxiliary verb, i.e., /vu zɑ̃/; and in “Vous êtes descendues”, the /z/ is pronounced between the subject and auxiliary verb, i.e., /vu zɛt/

Liaison is also necessary between a preposition that only has one syllable and the word that follows it; for prepositions that have more than one syllable, liaison is generally optional, except after à travers and selon which are not linked to the word that follows.
Compare the uses of liaison in the following sentences, focusing on the words in bold:

  • “La table est dans une salle qui est au deuxième étage.”
  • “Elle se trouve devant une fenêtre qui donne sur une cour.”
  • “On voit un jardin à travers une autre grande fenêtre.”
  • “Selon un vieil adage, ‘fréquenter des bons, c’est entrer dans une pièce avec des orchidées ;
    fréquenter des méchants, c’est entrer chez un poisonnier.’”

Liaison is also made between an adverb and an adjective that it accompanies. With adverbs ending in -ment, however, the liaison is optional. Compare the following sentences:

  • “C’est un article bien intéressant.”
  • “Je le trouve extrêmement agréable à lire.”

2. Liaisons Facultatives

Liaison is optional between a plural noun and the adjective or noun complement that follows it.

  • In the phrase “On a vu plusieurs fleurs exotiques”, pronouncing the final s /z/ of the word “fleurs” is optional.
  • In the phrase “Les personnes en question ne sont pas arrivées”, the final s /z/ of the word “personnes” is optional.

Liaison is optional between a plural noun that functions as a subject and the verb that follows it; this liaison is specific to formal language.

  • In the phrase “Ces jardins ont les plus belles fleurs de notre région”, pronouncing the s /z/ of the word “jardins” is optional.

Liaison is optional between the auxiliary verbs avoir and être and the past participles that follow them.

  • “Nous sommes arrivées aux jardins botaniques juste avant les autres.”
  • “Elles se sont aperçues à travers une haie bien épaisse.”

We can choose whether or not to make a liaison after infinitives of the 1e groupe, ending in -er.

  • “Aimer à loisir, aimer et mourir” (For these phrases, taken from “L’Invitation au voyage”, another poem in Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal, pronouncing the r’s would be very elegant.

Liaison is also optional after the conjunctions quand, mais, soit (when it is repeated) and le pronom dont.

  • “Nous ne savions pas exactement quand il est arrivé, mais elle s’est certainement souvenue de tous les détails dont il nous avait parlé à la réunion précédente, soit au moment où il a commencé à en parler, soit en parlant une minute avec lui.”

3. Liaisons Interdites

Liaison is prohibited when there is a pause between two words. Thus a liaison is never made between two words that are separated by punctuation marks.

  • “Vous avez fait ce plat, on l’a trouvé délicieux, et nous avons tout fini.” (There is a pause at each comma, making liaison prohibited after the words “plat” and “délicieux”.)

Liaisons are prohibited after the conjunction et.

  • “Elle a posé une question et il a répondu.” (Do NOT get this mixed up with Latin, in which you do pronounce the t of the word et and the spelling and meaning are the same as in French. Making the liaison would make this conjunction sound too much like the third person singular indicative conjugation of the verb être, which is est, and for which there are both liaisons obligatoires and liaisons facultatives.)

Liaisons are prohibited after a singular noun. Thus liaisons are not made between a singular noun that is the subject of a verb and this verb, nor between a singular noun and the adjective that follows it. In the following sentences, the t’s would not be pronounced:

  • “Le perroquet a mangé beaucoup de grain.”
  • “Un éléphant énorme nage dans un grand lac.”

· Liaisons are prohibited before foreign words beginning with the semi-vowel (also called a semi-consonant) /j/, as well as before oui, ouistiti, whisky and before un, huit, huitième, onze, and onzième.

  • “Ces yaourts sont bien crémeux.”
  • “Mais oui, on a les billets !”
  • “Ce whisky est vraiment fort.”

Liaison is also prohibited after the plural -s that appears in the middle of certain composite nouns.

  • In the phrase “Des sages-femmes ont recommandé ce remède”, the s at the end of “sages” would not be pronounced.

Finally, the liaison is not made after the s of the second person singular verb in the present indicative or the present subjunctive.

  • In the phrase “Il faut que tu prennes une gorgée d’eau tout de suite !” the s at the end of “prennes” is not pronounced.

Liaison may seem complex if you try to remember all of the guidelines surrounding its use each time you try to speak. The best way to become familiar with the presence or absence of liaison is to listen to spoken French, ideally in different registers. In this way, you will be able to reproduce the liaisons you hear spoken in different contexts, in formal and informal discourse, and to become attuned to the different circumstances in which you find yourself.

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