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unpronounced French inflections

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages and Linguistics (EHL)' started by Sprache, Oct 30, 2013.

  1. Sprache Senior Member

    United States
    English/inglés
    This is something that I've wondered about for a long time. It's something that is so striking that it's surprising that I can't find more topics on it. Why has French lost most of its verb and plural endings and even more bemusing is, why have all these silent unpronounced letters been preserved in the written language? I guess my question is twofold. What has led French to lack a distinct plural of the majority of nouns and why have verb endings been lost in the spoken language? And second, why do all these useless written endings still persist when they really don't exist in real life? In no other language have I seen such a thing. Written French would lead one to believe that it's morphology and verb conjugations are as complex as, say, Spanish or Italian. But they really aren't.

    If one looks at the present indicative of -er verbs, four out of six forms are identical but spelled with non-existent inflections while another is identical to the infinitive form as well as the past participle. Only one is distinct. Why are these endings kept? To me, it would be like using Old English verb conjugations in modern English and not pronouncing them. I can't imagine writing "they singen" but saying "they sing". And the plural marker -s has disappeared too. Why complicate things unnecessarily? Why haven't non-existent endings such as -es, -e, -ent, -ait, -ais, etc. been done away with? And what led to this drastic reduction in verb endings in the first place? How did the plural mostly become silent? It seems so uncharacteristic of Romance languages.
     
  2. Ben Jamin Senior Member

    Norway
    Polish
    I have nothing to contribute to your question nr 1, but I think that the answer to the question nr 2 is at least partially as follows:

    1. France had presumably a relatively large percentage of literate people beginning from the XVI century.
    2. The loss of pronounced endings was gradual, so they still existed in the minds of all literate language users, and somehow still exist today.
    3. The written language, as opposed to spoken language, needs more precise distinction between words and word forms in order to be understood. In the oral communication you always can give additional signals like hand, head or eye movement, tone of the voice, etc. In the written communication a degree of redundancy is an advandage.
    4. "Silent phonemes" occur in all languages, as the historical spelling principle is strong and the writing tends to be conservative.
    5. The written language is not just a mirror image of the speech, but an independent communication system as well.

    If you can read and understand French, try to read Haitian Creole. You will soon miss all the letters that Creole has dropped!
     
    Last edited: Oct 30, 2013
  3. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    For the same reason you pronounce all these useless letters in your own language, e.g. in though, night, give, ... French and English spelling preserves older, late medieval, spellings rules that once corresponded to how those words were really pronounced ([ðoʊx], [nɪçt], [gɪvə]) while Spanish and Italian had fewer sound shifts and more spelling reforms during the last 500 odd years.
     
  4. Sprache Senior Member

    United States
    English/inglés
    These are just examples of irregular spelling conventions. It isn't the same thing as an entire systematic inflectional paradigm that literally no longer exists at all. That just reflects changes in pronunciation spellings that haven't caught up. French has seemingly lost much of its morphology, which is quite different. That's what I'm trying to understand.

    It would be like putting a silent -s on English adjectives and saying that they inflect for number. Or conjugating an English verb like singe, singeth, singen and pronouncing them all as sing. :confused:
     
    Last edited: Oct 30, 2013
  5. Ben Jamin Senior Member

    Norway
    Polish
    So you choose to disregard my post altogether?
     
  6. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    Same in French. That is the simple reason. There is nothing mysterious.
    These inflections died out during the Middle English period and English spelling is based on mid 15th century (i.e. late Middle English) "Chancery English". The losses you mean happened a bit later in French so they are preserved by the freezing of spelling conventions that happened roughly at the same time as in English. The effect you perceive is mainly due to muting of final consonants and monophthongisations of certain diphthongs which happened in the 15th century and the muting of final -e which is an even more recent phenomenon. And, besides, many inflectional forms can very well be distinguished phonetically (je danse, nous dansons, vous dansez). It is not at all so that entire systems are lost. The said shifts just produced many homophones. That is a general problem in French and not restricted to inflectional endings. Look, e.g., at the famous homophones sans, sang, cent, (je) sens, (il) sent.
     
    Last edited: Oct 30, 2013
  7. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    No, I just think my answer is more accurate.:) (Maybe someone will prove me wrong. But I don't think so.;))
     
  8. CapnPrep Senior Member

    France
    AmE
  9. Ben Jamin Senior Member

    Norway
    Polish
    Certainly, but it is also narrows the problem, which I believe may has a broader perspective. Besides, my question was to Sprache.
     
  10. learnerr Senior Member

    Russian
    Well, perhaps they had greater respect for their grammar fineties. It is a culturological question, actually. You see, the decision of Englishmen to drop their personal verbal endings from writing is just as illogical as the decision of Frenchmen to keep theirs; that's to begin with. So, the nature of this question is why some preferred one illogical decision, and others preferred the other.
    Why you don't accept writing to be part of real life?
     
  11. bearded man

    bearded man Senior Member

    Milan
    Italian
    I will try to give a reply to Sprache's first question (why syllables or endings lost in pronunciation). As you will know, French is ''Latin as pronounced by the Gauls'', and according to linguistic studies the Gauls pronounced stressed syllables with a particular 'strong' stress. Now, the stronger is the stressed syllable and the easier it is that the following sounds get lost, as most of the effort in a word is consumed in pronouncing the stressed syllable. You will have noticed that the ''lost'' sounds in French words always follow the stressed syllable, and never or most seldom precede it. Writing is, of course, much more conservative and keeps lost endings that are no longer pronounced. The phaenomenon of losing final sounds is less present in other Latin languages because none of them got a celtic (Gaulic) influence comparable to the one French received.
     
  12. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    Yes, French generally lost syllables following the stress syllable which is the reason why stress is now always on the last syllable and, as a consequence, phonemic stress has been lost altogether. But this mostly happened earlier and the loss of those syllables is already reflected in spelling and hence there is no discrepancy between spelling and pronunciation here. The only exception I can think of is the silent -ent ending of the the 3rd plural.
     
  13. CapnPrep Senior Member

    France
    AmE
    All other instances of final silent ‹e› (possibly followed by ‹s›) would also be exceptions, since as you pointed out above, these represented pronounced syllables until relatively recently.

    bearded man's stress explanation accounts for the loss/reduction of atonic vowels, but it doesn't explain why final consonants were also lost.
     
  14. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    Right, of course. Sorry about that.
     
  15. bearded man

    bearded man Senior Member

    Milan
    Italian
    But if you take a word like verts (die gruenen, from Lat. virides), then I think the final sounds got lost for the reasons I tried to explain, and, yes there is a discrepancy between pronunciation and spelling. And many other French words could be quoted as examples of this.
     
  16. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    I agree with CapnPrep that this does not explain the loss of final consonants. Stress applies to entire syllables and not to individual sounds.

    These two phenomena also happened in different periods and are therefore probably unrelated. The loss of final consonants happened almost 1000 years after continental Gaulish became extinct, in the 15th century* while the loss of final unstressed syllables was already relatively advanced in the oldest known Old French text, the Oaths of Strasbourg (842): "Pro Deo amurX et pro christianX poblo et nostro communX saluamentX, d'istX diX in auantX, in quantX Deus sauirX et podirX me dunat...". (X indicates a missing syllable).
    ______________________
    * Some final -t already earlier.
     
    Last edited: Oct 30, 2013
  17. bearded man

    bearded man Senior Member

    Milan
    Italian
    My opinion is that the ''strong-stress'' effect (originally Gaulic) did not represent a momentary phaenomenon, but it established a trend, a stable tendency in the French language, which continued for centuries and eventually explains also the later disappearance of single consonant sounds. Take e.g. the word 'cité' from Lat. civitatem. First to disappear was the case ending: civitate, then the final -e: civitat, then the second syllable (but this is a somehow different story): citat, then the stressed -a became -e (also Gaulic influence): citet, finally the last consonant sound -t : cité. In other latin languages with slighter celtic influence, the final sounds remain (Sp. ciudad, Port.cidade).
    So my point is that, once the stress is very strong, ANYTHING that follows may disappear in the course of time. In Northern Italy, many dialects were influenced by Gaulic languages (so-called Gaulic-Italic dialects) and show a similar tendency ('town' is 'zitè' in Bologna dialect: a word very similar to French).
     
  18. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    I am not sure what you mean by "strong-stress". I suppose you mean the replacement of tonal accent by stress. This probably better be expressed by Germanic (mainly Frankish) influence which was certainly stronger in the OF period than continued influence of a by then already extinct language group. Especially the weakening of final vowels to Schwa (-o, -a > [ə]) as in (ego) amo > je aime or carta > carte reflects a typical development in West-Germanic language in this period (1st person singular ending -o > -e, infinitive ending -an/-on > -en, etc in last Old English, Old High German, Old Saxon (=Low German) and Old Dutch).
     
  19. Nino83 Senior Member

    Italian
    Granted that both English and French have a great discrepancy between speech and writing (in both languages most people proposed spelling reforms) I think that there are some "logical" reasons that explain the preservation of these final endings.

    1) French didn't lose gender distinction, for example in adjectives and nouns.
    Carla est une belle fille. Je l'ai vue hier.
    François est un beau garçon. Est-ce que tu l'ai vu (Ø
    marker) hier?

    So the final e in past participle is preserved to differenciate gender. English lost grammatical gender.

    2) English definite article "the" doesn't make difference between singular and plural. French retains le, la, les [lə, la, le] so it doesn't need to preserve plural ending in spoken language.
    La pomme [la pom], les pommes [le pom] (English apple, apples).

    3) Regarding the verbal endings, English lost the plural en because it lost final n as a general phonological process and it lost the second person singular ending st because the second person pronoun thou fell into disuse.
    In French the final s (tu parles, nous parlons) can be used for liason.

    So the grammatical gender, the different plural definite article and the liason can explain why French retains these endings.

    EDIT:
    Also the plural s is pronounced when there is an adjective.
    Chanson original [ʃãsõ_n_oriʒinal], chansons originales [ʃãsõ_z_oriʒinal]

    They exist in "real life".
    So these endings are written because sometimes they are pronounced (except for the final e of the past participle).

    Ciao
     
    Last edited: Oct 31, 2013
  20. CapnPrep Senior Member

    France
    AmE
    Final o was actually lost completely: amo > aim. The e in aime was a later analogical addition. More generally, the loss of final vowels other than a is typical of Gallo-Romance (including Catalan and Northern Italian) and happened in the 7th century, before Old French. What time period is given for the West Germanic weakening?
    It's the other way around: As the plural ending became silent in most contexts in French, the determiner became obligatory. In Old French it was possible to say manger pommes but now it has to be manger des pommes.
     
  21. bearded man

    bearded man Senior Member

    Milan
    Italian
    To berndf
    In full friendship I must tell you that I am sorry to see that we follow two 'lines of thought' so different from one another, that continuing this discussion seems now aimless, therefore I will in this message - which is the last from me on this topic - only specify my opinion more precisely:
    By strong stress I mean an intense stress. The Gauls who had to speak Latin, as their Country was dominated by the Romans, pronounced the stressed syllables of it (since replacement of tonal accent by stress had already taken place in late Latin) with particular intensity, which eventually caused weakening and often disappearance of the syllables that followed that 'strong' stress. Once this tendency was incorporated into the French language, it continued to operate permanently and independently up to present days. It is obvious that, after extincion of the Gauls, their language(s) cannot influence French directly any more. But if you think that, until not many centuries ago, a word like 'corps' (body) - from Lat. corpus - was pronounced with all the final consonants (as is witnessed by conservative orthography), and then first the sound s and later the sound p disappeared, you can see that the now 'internal' tendency I mentioned is still alive.
    Maybe that you as a German tend to overestimate the influence of Frankish, which was rather secondary on French.
    It seems to me that the theory I have presented (which is not mine only) can explain these phaenomena of syllables/sounds weakened or disappeared in the French language, without intervention of ancient German peoples' linguistic developments. Do not forget that French is essentially 'vulgar' Latin as pronounced by the descendants of Gauls, even today! As you know, other latin languages, less influenced at their origin by Gaulic, do not show the ''disappearance' (e.g. in Spanish cuerpo or Ital. corpo, the original p is retained).
    Also some of the factors mentioned by Nino83 undoubtedly gave their contribution.
    With best regards, B.M.
     
  22. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    Ok, that means there is a certain gap. The weakening started to be reflected in spelling from the 10th century on-wards but may have started in pronunciation a bit earlier and was completed in MHG and ME. It is probably the single most significant characteristic that separates MHG and ME from OHG and OE.

    The e in j'aime, it is in analogy to what? the a>e of the 3rd person?

    If you look at the Strasburg Oaths, there are a few -o endings which are -e in modern French, e.g. polbo - peuple, nostro - notre. And the name Charles is Karlo in one sentence and Karle in the next (both accusative). Wouldn't that suggest that the weakening -o (whether to -e or to -ø) had not yet been completed in the mid 9th century?
     
  23. CapnPrep Senior Member

    France
    AmE
    Yes: final vowels (not just a) were preserved but neutralized to e after consonant clusters like pl and tr as a so-called "support vowel". But -o after a single consonant and after clusters that did not need "support" (e.g. dreit, saluament) had completely disappeared by the time of the Oaths.
    Yes, and the 2sg as > es, and also because many verbs had the support vowel in the 1sg because of a root-final consonant cluster: simĭlo > semble, cambio > change.
     
    Last edited: Oct 31, 2013
  24. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    That is of course entirely your choice but I am surprised you retreat from the discussion just because there is some disagreement. I find disagreement makes a discussion more interesting.:)

    I do not at all reject theories of Gaulish influence altogether (be it a Gaulish substratum theory as we discussed recently or the idea that the change from pro-drop to non-pro-drop as a consequence of Gaulish rather than Germanic influence or your theory). But as we know so little about continental Gaulish which died out without leaving any corpus of primary source of relevance and before attested OF starts so we can't follow the development of such alleged Gaulish influences while they actually happened, I tend to be hesitant to take such claims at face value.

    Also, when you say that the Gauish stress system had such an effect on the VL spoken in Gaul, wouldn't you expect at least a wee bit of a similar effect on the surviving Insular Celtic languages, too? But if you look at Irish, e.g., multi-syllable words ending in unstressed syllables is the norm and not the exception.
     
  25. CapnPrep Senior Member

    France
    AmE
    It was first the sound p that disappeared, then the sound s. The word was spelled cors in Old French; the p was restored artificially in Middle French (but only in spelling, never pronounced). Anyway I still don't see how the stress can explain the loss of these consonants, in whichever order, especially since cor(p)s is monosyllabic. Monosyllabic words in French often kept their final consonants, or had them restored.
     
  26. myšlenka Senior Member

    Norwegian
    Could you please explain the details in how this works? How exactly does a tendency operate independently?
     
  27. bearded man

    bearded man Senior Member

    Milan
    Italian
    To myslenka
    By independently I meant 'no longer under the direct influence of Gaulic', which is extinct,
    i.e. weakening and disappearance of sounds - after the stressed syllable - continued even centuries after the initial influence of Gaulic as an independent internal tendency of French.
    But, as I said before, I decided not to take part in this discussion any more, I am sorry.
     
  28. N'importe-qui New Member

    English - US
    From what I've read, the appearance of the -e in the 1st sg of -er verbs is from the verbs which retained the weakened vowel to support a consonant cluster.

    As for the Oaths, I'm inclined to believe that the presence of final -o and -a is not representative of the pronunciation, but a hold-over from the Latin that the Bishop Nithard knew and spoke. There was some vowel there, for sure, and it probably seemed to him more correct to represent it with the Latin equivalent. There are other Latinisms in the text (notably the use of unetymological i throughout), lending credence to this interpretation.
     
  29. N'importe-qui New Member

    English - US
    Can someone explain to me why we continue to labor under the impression that Latin had anything other than a stress accent even in the Roman era? Although the Romans used Greek terminology to describe their system of accentuation, there's no other evidence that there was a pitch accent, and there's plenty of evidence that there was a stress accent, even in the pre-history of the language. The notable example is how vowels weakened and syncopated in line with stress on the initial syllable, something that you *don't* see in Greek in any capacity.
     
  30. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    Can you be a bit more specific? How can an unetymological feature be a Latinism?
     
  31. N'importe-qui New Member

    English - US
    "christian", "d'ist di", "savir et podir", "cist", etc. Many, but not all of these, would be correct in Latin, but not in Romance and Old French, where the below-mentioned change had long taken place.

    In Vulgar Latin, short i and long e merged to form the close e. This meant that people not infrequently spelled words like "in" and "iste" as "en" and "este", among many others. The Appendix Probi is replete with examples of this sort of error. People who learned Latin in a school setting (which was the only place you'd be doing it by the 9th century) would probably be reprimanded for these, and other, types of misspellings and it's easy to see how it could be seen that using "e" is wrong and "i" is better, much like people misuse "whom" and "I" in Modern English because they've developed this sense that those words are fancier and more correct in general, rather than in their original homes.
     
  32. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    Ah, you mean hyper-correct spellings. Got it. But that wouldn't really support your point. You wouldn't assume Nithart's Latin (or that of his writer) to be so poor as to make such mistakes.
     
    Last edited: Dec 4, 2013
  33. CapnPrep Senior Member

    France
    AmE
    "Christian" does not appear in this form in the manuscript; we can't say what letter the scribe would have used for the root vowel. The sound change you mention is less regular for pronominals like ist and cist (cf. also mod. Fr. il vs elle, both from the same short ĭ). Finally, for the two infinitives, I'm not sure if the target sound is [e]. The scribe could also be attempting to represent the diphthong [ei].
     
  34. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    If we look at the opinions given by scholars on this topic, we have to conclude that the jury is still out. But it is not important the this argument. We all agree that tonal accent played at most a minor role (Italian still has traces of it today, so we can't say it plays no role in Romance languages) in Vulgar Latin/proto-Romance. [moderator]If this topic interest you and/or you wish to argue your case further, please feel free to open a new thread[/moderator].:)
     
    Last edited: Dec 4, 2013
  35. N'importe-qui New Member

    English - US
    The expected sound is naturally "ei", so I agree that the scribe, either Nithard or someone later, was trying to represent that sound. In any case, the wrong choice of letters was made.

    Re: il vs. elle, based on the forms of the article, it looks like we are dealing with pre-French *illi and *ella, with the former showing some sort of vowel harmony or umlaut, or levelling from the nominative plural, as weird as that would be (neither the pronoun nor the article can be explained by any other regular sound changes). In any case, the "i" only seems to appear in the nominative in most of the rest of Old French (cf. "cist" nom. vs "cest" and "cestui" in the oblique) and in the Oaths, we have oblique for most of the forms. Thus, I'd be surprised if the "i" really represents the sound at the time as opposed to a hypercorrection.
     
  36. killerbee256 Senior Member

    American English
    Catalan and Occitan also have this phenomenon, but not to the extreme degree of French. Italian has hints of it but they are fewer, but then these languages are next on the dialect continuum so that isn't surprising.
     
    Last edited: Dec 10, 2013
  37. franknagy Senior Member

    Most of the endings are silent: je mange, tu manges, ils mangent all sound exactly the same. Nous mangeons and vous mangez can be heard, though.
     
  38. übermönch

    übermönch Senior Member

    Warum wohne ich bloß in so einem KAFF?
    World - 1.German, 2.Russian, 3.English
    It's not just corps. Loup was written lou; debte was written dette; pied was written pie; vingt was written vint. Does anybody know how if the verbs had undergone a similar hyper-correction? Why is it that "ils comptent" is pronounced with a different ending than "comment"?

    what if you add a vowel?
    "je mange en publique"
    "tu manges en publique"
    "ils mangent en publique"
    I wonder if that is a hypercorrection as well.
     
  39. Nino83 Senior Member

    Italian
    Yes, but unpronounced final p,t, k, b,d, g are pronounced in liaisons, or when there is a final -e.
    Example: petit [pəti] (masculine), petite [pətit] (feminine) petit enfant [pətit ãfã] (masculine, liaison).

    The final -ent change the pronunciation of a lot of verbs (most -ir verbs).
    Example: il part [il par] ils partent [il part]

    Final -s are pronounced in liaisons.

    Why French would have to drop these letters in writing when they pronounce them, sometimes, in speaking?
     
    Last edited: Dec 12, 2013

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