Final consonants in French

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages and Linguistics (EHL)' started by 0stsee, Jan 21, 2008.

  1. 0stsee Banned

    I wonder when the French stopped pronouncing the final consonants, especially the -S.
  2. miyamoto_musashi

    miyamoto_musashi Banned

    Beach Toronto
    Canada, English
    It happened, in my view, after the twelfth century, but probably just before the Renaissance. Loan words into Middle English (borrowed after 1066 A.D., the year of the Norman Conquest) show that in Norman French the final consonants were still pronounced. Example: paix > peace, with the final /s/ pronounced. The Anglo-Saxon word displaced by peace was "grith".

    The rimes in seventeenth century France (Corneille, Racine) show they were already dropped unless the poet wanted to cheat a bit. They are not so obviously dropped in Rabelais and Villon earlier on, however. I'd guess it really accelerated around 1500.
  3. CapnPrep Senior Member

    Yes, starting at the end of the 12th century in the spoken language. But the process took a long time. Final consonants started disappearing earliest before another consonant, then before a pause (e.g. at the end of a sentence, or at the end of a line of poetry), and finally before a vowel. These effects can still be seen to some degree in the modern pronunciation of six, dix, plus, tous.

    By the time the first grammars of French appeared (16th century), the dropping of a final consonant before another consonant was the rule. One was still "supposed to" pronounce the consonant before a pause, but this was probably only done in the most formal styles (e.g. when reciting poetry). Grammarians did manage to resurrect some lost consonants (especially -r, in the 17th century, or the -s of fils).

    Some final consonants (especially -s) have survived to this day, thanks to liaison (when the next word begins with a vowel). But there has also been a considerable reduction in the use of liaison since the classical French period.
  4. MarX Banned

    Indonesian, Indonesia
    I've got a related question.
    How was the final -x pronounced in French?
    Was it always pronounced as an -s (before it was eventually dropped)? Or was it actually pronounced as -ks?
    Thank you!


  5. Erick404 Senior Member

    Rio de Janeiro
    Portuguese - Brazil
    The final consonant dropping existing along with the liaison always seemed to me somewhat demanding of proper education. I mean, one must know how a word is written to pronounce it properly with liaison, because it is usually pronounced without the final consonant (maybe it isn't true for native speakers, it's just how it seems to me).
    And, since during the Middle Ages most people were illiterate, it would seem very likely that even liaison became forgotten.
  6. Frank06

    Frank06 Senior Member

    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)
    I have my doubts about that. I mean, one doesn't have to know how a word is written in order to pronounce it properly. And the proper pronunciation of a word (whatever is meant by proper) is certainly not imposed or regulated by its spelling.
    In that case, speakers of languages which are not written (and that's still a staggering majority of all languages spoken in this corner of the universe) would have tremendous problems pronouncing words properly. The spelling of a language doesn't necessarily reflect the pronunciation.

    A second objection: your explanation only focusses upon the spelling/pronunciation of the final consonant. That's a bit ad hoc. What about the rest? Just an example: petits__enfants.


  7. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    In general I agree. But French always surprised my in this respect. I find the pronunciation highly regular although it does not adapt spelling to pronunciation. It appears as if pronunciation really follows the rule and not the other way around.

    Maybe I've been doing it wrong all the time but I am used to saying petit_enfant but petits_enfants.
  8. Frank06

    Frank06 Senior Member

    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)
    I meant it in another way.
    Knowing how to write petits enfants in order to make an elision is an adhoc argument. It doesn't explain a lot, and it certainly doesn't explain how the literate knows that the 't' in this particular phrase is not pronounced (though it is written).


  9. CapnPrep Senior Member

    In the very rare cases where Latin words ending in -x entered into Old French, the pronunciation changed from [ks] to . The only example I can think of right now is six.

    Otherwise, final -x was introduced as an abbreviation for -us in Old French (dieus = diex, chevaus = chevax). Later, the -u- reappeared in the spelling. As a result, final -ux became much more common than final -us (but the sound represented was still just ).

    And then there are lots of exceptional cases, and the choice of final -s, -x or -z in words inherited from Old French cannot always be fully explained. But they all represent the sound ([z] in liaison).
  10. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    I'm not very familiar with the history of French orthography, but from some cursory reading on the subject, I got the impression that there have been numerous spelling reforms ever since the founding of the French Academy. According to this source, for example, the Academy's dictionary of 1740 "modified up to 6,000 words." I'm sure, of course, that the modern norm for formal French has been significantly influenced by the official prescriptions, far more than any form of standard English, which is understandable given the political and social circumstances in which these languages developed and spread.

    Also, is it possible that the sound changes in French in the last few centuries, while certainly severe, just happened to preserve a high degree correspondence between spelling and pronunciation? (Unlike, say, the Great Vowel Shift, whose cumulative effect made the pronunciation of vowels in many English words entirely unpredictable from spelling.)
  11. CapnPrep Senior Member

    Let's stay focused on the question of final consonants. In the majority of cases, these consonants have been preserved in the spelling since the Old French period. In other words, if the word had a pronounced final consonant at that time, it is still spelled with a final consonant today. But this letter may or may not be pronounced, and although one can come up with rules for guessing the right pronunciation, in general I do not see any "high degree [of] correspondence between spelling and pronunciation" here. After all, this is an area where foreign speakers make lots of mistakes in speaking, and (I imagine) that it takes a lot of effort for French school-children to learn when and where to add these "imaginary" letters in writing.
  12. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    I cannot really confirm this from experience. Once you have learned the rules which consonants to pronounce and which not there are only few "oddities". In general you cannot guess the spelling from the pronunciation but to pronounce a written word you never encountered only rarely produces difficulties. For a language the spelling of which reflects a state of the language as it was centuries ago I still find the "high degree [of] correspondence between spelling and pronunciation" remarkable.
  13. MarX Banned

    Indonesian, Indonesia

    Merci beaucoup! :)
  14. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    You do see spelling mistakes by native French speakers which are clearly due to the disconnect between spelling and pronunciation.

    Which rules? I think there are plenty of exceptions, myself. And frustrating idiolectal variations, as well. To give just one example, I discovered in a recent thread that the word "plus" has two standard pronunciations, one with and another without "s"!
  15. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    You will see that discussions about such anomalies are always concerned with the same words (plus, cinq vs. cinq cent, six, dix). I take this as tentative evidence of my claim that people find these anomalies so remarkable.
  16. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    Could you give a sketch of the general pronunciation rules for word-final consonants in French, according to your view?
  17. Hulalessar Senior Member

    English - England
    I think that the correspondence is nevertheless complex. When you set out to learn French you cannot really be given any rules. The rules sort of emerge. Once you know the rules you can pronounce most words you see, but certainly not predict the spelling of every word you hear. Just consider how many ways there are of writing the sound /o/. I have come up with the following:

  18. CapnPrep Senior Member

    The anomalies that you mention (six, dix, plus, etc.) are all very common words and their behavior at least has some underlying logic. What I had in mind were the hundreds of words for which you simply have to memorize whether or not the final consonant is pronounced. Some people find this kind of thing very easy to learn, and I suspect that berndf is one of the lucky few. But that doesn't necessarily mean that there's always a rule…

    But actually, there are some rules. For example, final "-k" is always pronounced [k]. Not particularly useful, but 100% reliable, as opposed to the so-called "CaReFuL rule". (For the particularly unpredictable case of words ending in "-il", have a look at this thread.) But if you consider some additional grammatical information in addition to just the identity of the consonant, you can come up with some more useful rules. For example:

    • plural "-s/x" is not pronounced
    • conjugated verbs have silent final consonants
    • the pronunciation of "-er" infinitives vs. "-ir" infinitives
    More generally, you only have to learn suffixes once, and then be able to recognize them: silent final consonant in -ment, -ant, -ois, -eux, -ier, -ion, etc. vs pronounced final consonant in -eur, -oir, -if, -al, etc.

    Such rules will eventually account for the vast majority of cases (I have no idea of the percentage). But this still leaves a significant number of idiosyncrasies, especially in monosyllabic words. I did a simple search ("???#") for four-letter words ending in a consonant in the Petit Robert. There are about 800 of them, but I threw out the abbreviations, plurals, some double entries, and some other noise. The list still includes loanwords and some very rare words, but I didn't have any good criteria for deciding which to keep and which to throw out.

    So here are a few results:
    -s: 32 pronounced, 50 silent, +3 words with both pronunciations
    -t: 43 pronounced, 61 silent, +7 words with both pronunciations
    -x: 5 pronounced, 14 silent
    -p: 17 pronounced, 5 silent
    -c: 41 pronounced, 7 silent, +1
    -r: 42 pronounced, 16 silent
    -f: 31 pronounced, 3 silent, +1
    -l: 47 pronounced [l], 4 pronounced [j], 2 silent
    -g/-ng: 10 pronounced [g], 4 pronounced [ŋ], 5 silent, +1 with two pron.
    -n: 11 pronounced, 68 "silent" (nasal vowel)
    -m: 19 pronounced, 3 "silent"
    -k/-kh: all 28 pronounced

    We can go into more details if you like, this is a very superficial view.
  19. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    I never claimed this. I claimed only the opposite direction: When you see the spelling you can deduce the pronunciation with relatively few exceptions.
  20. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    When I learned that in singular "œuf" the "f" was pronounced but in plural "œufs" the "f" and the "s" were both silent was when I gave up all hope of finding a system for the pronunciation of French. :D

    From what I've read here in the forums, there are also significant differences between European French and Quebec French, concerning the pronunciation of final consonants.
  21. Hulalessar Senior Member

    English - England
    Noted and agreed.
  22. TitTornade

    TitTornade Senior Member

    I feel very surprised to learn that there are so many words (4-letter...) that ends with pronounced consonants (except for -l, -c, -r, -f).

    I feel sorry to ask you some examples (yes, I'm native french !!) of words that ends with pronounced -p, -g, -n, -m, -t ,-s...
    Aren't they foreign words ? Or trademarks ?
  23. CapnPrep Senior Member

    Yes, but not all. And anyway, you would still have to somehow learn that those are foreign words, so… ça ne fait que déplacer le problème.

    -P : flip, flop, lomp, houp, slip, stop, youp, …
    -G : bang, gang, grog, tong, …
    -N : amen, aven, éden, open, …
    -M : boum, clam, film, item, rhum, zoom, …
    -T : août, brut, chut, coït, fart, fret, lest, obit, rapt, sept, tact, test, …
    -S : anis, anus, axis, fils, ibis, laps, maïs, mars, ours, sens, …
  24. TitTornade

    TitTornade Senior Member

    These are exceptions ;)
    Except "slip" and "stop", I didn't know the other -p words ;)
    All these words are a minority among the rules, aren't they ?
  25. CapnPrep Senior Member

    It depends… which rules?

    For example, you say that you didn't know the word flip. But how would you have pronounced it? I guess [flip], not [fli]…
  26. TitTornade

    TitTornade Senior Member

    To my mind, the general rules is : "except l, r and f, the consonnants at the end of a word are not pronounced"
    The exceptions are : foreign words (many are certainly monosyllabic, that's why you found so many exceptions is the 4-letter words ;) ) ; "special words" as numbers, month ; onomatopae ; -er verbs and some others :)p)...

    I guess now that flip and flop are onomatopae, right ?
    Like boum, bang, zip, paf, crac... I would pronounce all the letters

    Let's take "mars" /maRs/ (the name of a month) and remplace 'a' by other vowels :
    mers, mors, murs : 's' is not said. :p
  27. CapnPrep Senior Member

    Flip means a drug-induced depression (cf. flipper), or a kind of drink. But the meaning/origin does not matter in this case: I believe that the "p" would be pronounced in any word ending in "-ip".

    You forgot mœurs. ;)
  28. timofei Senior Member

    On rencontre les deux prononciations pour ce mot. Un autre exemple intéressant est le mot « legs », prononcé /lɛg/ en français moderne.
  29. Nanon

    Nanon Senior Member

    Entre Paris et Lisbonne
    français (France)
    That's not the way French-speaking children are taught! Typically, first you get a rule, then you get a loooooong list of exceptions... :eek:

    Some others, indeed! that is when you get a list of exceptions to memorise. Onomatopoeia? What about patatras? What about porc vs porc-épic, Marc vs marc, etc., etc., etc.?

    I remember that, as a child who taught herself to read, I had a hard time with the word "pied". Especially in plural: "pieds". It was hard to admit that -ed and -eds should sound like [e]. (Don't worry, today my spelling is not bad. Although I was self-taught. In French :D)

    "C'est clair et net", comme dirait un de mes copains belges. En prononçant [nɛ] :D...
  30. Encolpius

    Encolpius Senior Member

    Hello, since there is nothing like that in my mother tongue I've been always fascinated by that phenomenon and can't understand and I wish I knew WHY people stopped pronouncing a certain sound and if there are any French dialects not using it. Were there any psychological or sociocultural influences on that change? thanks.
  31. TitTornade

    TitTornade Senior Member

    I guess that the pronounciation evolutes in all the languages (some letters change their pronounciation, some of them disappear, others appear...).
    But, in most of the languages the spelling evoluted with the pronounciations of the words... In French the spelling evolutes slowly (or not at all)... So the spelling of French keeps old letters that are not said now... Moreover, in remembrance of Latin, the "ancestor" of French language, mute (ghost) letters have sometimes been added in the spelling...
    French spelling is a kind of history of our language and people seems to want to keep it ;)

    Hey, Encolpius, your picture is a Chinese ideogram that means "way"! A similarity with French: the "spelling" of this ideogram slowly evolutes and its pronounciation can be very different along the space (From Japan to HongKong) and along the time...

    English submits a similar phenomenon, I believe: does "better" and "hot" contains the sound /t/ everywhere?

    Else, I'm now sure that many dialects are written in France... I don't know how to write the dialectal words I use...

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