The mystery of French pronunciation

I reckon my stepson’s French is pretty good for his age, and will no doubt become better after a trip to France this summer. However, quite naturally, he continues to pronounce French words the way they are spelled (at least to an English speaker) – for example, trop is pronounced “tropp” in our household!

What on earth happened?

As with any so-called “Romance” language (Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Romanian etc), the story begins upon the expansion of the Romans out from Rome. The initial movement saw the conquest of what is now southern France, then the “Provincia Romana” (whose name lives on in “Provence”); half a century before Christ, Julius Caesar had completed the conquest of the whole of Gaul (thus as far as the English Channel), until then mainly Celtic-speaking.

The Romans soon ensured that everyone in Gaul spoke Latin (albeit the so-called “vulgar” version of colloquial daily speech, rather than the classical formal written version). However, it was what happened as the Romans approached the Channel which fundamentally distinguishes French from the other Romance languages – to the extent that while Portuguese, Spanish and Italian retain a degree of mutual intelligibility up to this day, French does not with any of them.

In the north, they encountered the Germanic-speaking Franks – who give their name to Frankfurt, Franconia, and most notably of all “France” itself. These Germanic speakers left their mark, providing the Latin speakers with easier compass directions (nord, sud, ouest, est subsequently borrowed into the other Romance languages), new colours (bleu, brun), and a raft of other vocabulary often to do with war (including war itself, guerre – “gu-” was initially a “w-” sound unfamiliar in Latin)None of that, however, made the fundamental difference.

What made the fundamental difference was that Latin as spoken in Gaul (in other words, “Old French”) adopted Germanic stress patterns. Essentially, this meant that stress in French was shifted to the first syllable of the word, unlike in Latin (and all its other daughter languages) where it is typically final or penultimate. This first-syllable stress is one of the defining features of Germanic languages, because it led to their earlier adoption of “analytic” grammatical forms (i.e. using combinations of words to mark grammatical category – e.g. “I have done” or “more important”) as opposed to relying primarily on word endings (as, particularly with verbs, all the other Romance languages still do to a much greater extent than English, German – or French).

For example, the Latin “amo, amas, amat” essentially survives in Spanish, Portuguese and Italian (“amo, amas, ama” or similar); but in French the pronunciation of all three forms (“aime, aimes, aime”) became similar by the time they were standardised in writing and actually identical in the modern spoken language – hence French requires a pronoun subject (“j’aime, tu aimes, il/elle aime”) where none of Spanish, Portuguese or Italian does.

(French did retain, for longer than the other languages, case marking on nouns – essentially, -s was used to mark either a masculine singular or a feminine plural. Ultimately, it came to mark the plural in either gender; vestiges remain, however, in words such as fils “son” or, notably, in male given names such as Georges, Charles or Jacques).

It had most significance on the development of vocabulary. For example, the Latin words catena (“chain”) or petra (“stone” – actually the origin of “petrified”) are still obvious in the Spanish cadena and piedra. However, the early stress shift in French saw the final syllables reduced and the middle consonants initially weakened and then lost altogether – resulting in the not immediately obvious chaine and pierre.

Ultimately, this shift led to all final consonants except -s (and sort of -f) and then in the past 200 years or so even -s (and actually even -e)being dropped in pronunciation (except in liaison – e.g. nous pouvons versus nous avons).

The reason this was so important was that it gave French a fundamentally different sound and grammatical basis from Latin much earlier than was the case for what subsequently became Spanish, Italian or Portuguese. Because of this shift in stress as its wide-ranging impact both on pronunciation and grammar, as early as the ninth century, French was easily identifiable as distinct from Latin, in a way in which the others weren’t until several centuries after. Arguably, it was this aged uniqueness which subsequently put French in position to become the dominant language of European administration and diplomacy through the Middle Ages right up until the 20th century. That the UN still uses English and French as its two official languages may, to some extent, be to do with the impact the Germanic-speaking Franks had on Gaulish spoken Latin two millennia ago!

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5 thoughts on “The mystery of French pronunciation

  1. […] Leaving aside Portuguese, geography would dictate that French should be the “middle” of the three, but this is not the case. In fact, the reality that travel was historically easier over water (i.e. around the Mediterranean) than land already makes French the isolate; and French is in any case an immediate exception because of its early contact with Germanic, discussed here. […]

  2. […] but some more basic household words are probably missing in French but not in Spanish. Of course French, even at the best of times, is extraordinarily difficult for foreigners to pronounce! So, is my […]

  3. […] markedly from other Latinate languages (with one consequence that it is difficult, objectively, to pronounce), so is limited in being a conduit towards them. Furthermore, the case for its geographical extent […]

  4. […] Basic word order is one obvious aspect of a language’s structure you need to have at least some idea about before you can really learn it. There are other aspects to word order alone, of course – do adjectives come before the noun (as in English and German: ein starker Seemann “a strong sailor”) or after (as in Spanish and French: un marin fort)? Is the language “pro-drop” (strictly “null subject”) or does it require personal pronoun subjects (Spanish te quiero alone means “I love you”, even though there is no word for “I” in that clause; Latin was like this, and so are all its daughter languages except French, for reasons discussed in part here). […]

  5. […] but markedly distinct due to early Germanic influence and subsequently rapid pronunciation change, French is a remarkable language in every sense. Spoken natively by fewer than 125 million souls, thus […]

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