How to learn languages – French

Of Latin origin 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 ahead only of Italian among the four major Western national Latin-based languages, it nevertheless retains a global influence well beyond its numbers and a global prestige which is arguably unparalleled.

French took over from Latin in the modern era as the language of the elite (it was spoken in most European Royal Courts for centuries; Queen Elizabeth II is fluent) and of the educated. From international treaties to global post, French remains instantly recognisable and widespread in government and high culture. It is the foremost administrative language in the European institutions besides English, and is a lingua franca across most of North Africa. Although less prominent than Spanish or Portuguese, it has gone trans-Atlantic, as it is also spoken natively (with marked differences in pronunciation and colloquial vocabulary) in the Canadian provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick.

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Linguistically, French is also outstanding. It largely retains its Medieval spelling system, but pronunciation has developed and reduced dramatically, leading to vast complexities in “liaison” (the pronunciation of letters as words run together). So…

Phonology

French phonology is a linguistic phenomenon, having developed far further from Latin than any other major Latin-based language. As a consequence of the reduction (and often complete elimination) of sounds, a hugely complex system of “liaison” exists – rules governing how different words are pronounced when placed after each other.

French is free of many harsh or rarer sounds. Thus, for many learners, the initial challenge is its strong and distinctive nasalisation. Like many aspects of the language, the distinction between the pronunciation of the four main nasals (generally written [an], [en], [in] and [on] as well as occasionally [un], with any following dental consonant silent) is contested even by native speakers and exhibits an ongoing pronunciation shift. Some speakers now pronounce many of the low and central nasals similarly, so that grand ‘big’, vent ‘wind’ and ton ‘your’ seem to rhyme, although this is frowned upon by many (and most still certainly distinguish vent).

French is also marked by a series of once complex but now reduced vowel combinations (lieu ‘place’; chevaux ‘horses’; moi ‘me’; haie ‘hedge’). These have changed swiftly through the ages, and can sound notably different in Canada.

However, the stand-out feature is the liaison system, which sees most final consonants (though not all) left silent in most instances. For example, the French number six, once pronounced not far from its modern English equivalent, has three contemporary pronunciations – j’en ai six ‘I have six’ (/s/); six amis ‘six friends’ (/z/); six voyageurs ‘six travellers’ (silent). Three is relatively unusual but most words ending in a consonant (in writing) do have two pronunciations, the citation form with a silent final consonant and a form with the final consonant sounded (and then in most instances as either the voiced or devoiced version of that consonant – so, [t] or [d] are /t/; [s], [x] or [z] are /z/; etc.), but the rules for exactly when it is sounded are complex (and change through time): Comment allez-vous? ‘How are you?’ [liaison]; Comment est-elle voyagée? ‘How did she travel?’ [no liaison on comment].

Related to this is also the concept of enchaînement, which sees the final consonant before an initial vowel in effect pronounced as if it were part of the following word. Conventions also dictate when a final -e is silent or sounded; typically in modern speech it is silent, but in combinations of words it may reappear in one: une grande femme ‘a great woman’ [final –e sounded only in grande].

Another marked development is the switch of initial in Latin to an affricate, written , which has now lost the initial stop sound (thus formerly pronounced as English but now as English ): cheval ‘horse’; chaine ‘chain’.

Standard

The Academie Française is perhaps the best known language institute in the world, essentially charged with determining (and promoting) what is and what is not Standard French. Within the French-speaking world (known as la Francophonie), the Standard is perhaps of higher prestige than is typical with other languages, with regional (or any other kind of) variations less tolerated. As ever, this applies particularly to the written language, but it may also apply to spoken French. Particularly in France itself, debate can become remarkably philosophical over the rules of liaison (noted above), general standards of eloquence, and other matters of pronunciation.

Spelling is based on the French spoken in Paris at around the time of the Black Death (as is, coincidentally, the case with English). This was not necessarily easily understood even across the rest of Northern France at the time, and was certainly alien in the South. Even at the time of the French Revolution, a huge range of often mutually unintelligible dialects existed across modern-day France; although no one can be precisely sure, there is evidence that a combination of nationalism and centralisation after the revolution saw these quickly eclipsed and the Academie Standard come to predominate, often even in speech (whereas this only happened with most other European languages upon the invention of broadcasting).

As noted above, the consequence of the Standard being based on the speech of so long ago alongside the remarkable phonological development of the language (at least in Paris) has resulted in an astonishing and in fact quite unstable disconnect between the spoken and written language. Spelling is relatively (though by no means completely) consistent, but guessing spelling from pronunciation is often impossible. This, combined with the complex rules of liaison, makes French an outstandingly hard language to master absolutely – arguably even for its own speakers!

Written accents in French are: the acute (only é) to mark an open pronunciation; the grave (è) to mark closed, or on other letters to mark distinction (‘where’, ou ‘or’; là ‘there’, la ‘the’); the controversial and often now optional circumflex on most vowels to mark distinction or a historical following [s] (hôtel) or [a] (âge); the diaresis to mark separate pronunciation within a would-be diphthong (naïve); and the cedilla to mark soft [c] before a vowel (i.e. pronounced /s/; ça ‘that’).

Vocabulary

French vocabulary is predominantly drawn from Latin and thus is aligned heavily with Spanish, Portuguese and most notably Italian.

Key numbers:

  • un; deux; 3 trois; 4 quatre; 5 cinq; 6 six; 7 sept; 8 huit; 9 neuf; 10 dix;
  • 11 onze; 12 douze; 16 seize; 17 dix-sept; 20 vingt; 21 vingt et un;
  • 26 vingtsix; 66 soixante-six; 76 soixante-seize; 96 quatre-vingts-seize;
  • 100 cent; 1000 mille; 456789 quatre-cents cinquante-six mille sept-cents quatre-vingts-neuf.

Above 60, this demonstrates a vigesimal counting system probably borrowed from the Normans, who were originally Norse (Norse, as modern Danish, exhibited similar).

In Belgian and Swiss French, this vigesimal system may be ignored, with 70 septante and 90 nonante preferred instead (also 80 huitante in some Swiss dialects).

However, there are two noteworthy differences. First, as noted above, French phonology is heavily reduced, meaning it is not always obvious which words are related (e.g. chaine ‘chain’; Spanish cadena, Latin catena). Second, what became modern French was influenced much earlier by another major language (the Germanic which became German, Dutch and English), which provided a range of non-Latin vocabulary in certain areas such as orienteering (nord ‘north’), colours (bleu ‘blue’), or warfare (guerre ‘war’) – some of this was later passed on to other Latinate languages.

Key personal pronouns:

  • Singular je/me/moi; tu/te/toi; il/le/lui, elle/la/elle;
  • Plural nous; vous; ils/les/eux, elles/les/elles.

Vous is also used as the polite singular; modern spoken French also makes widespread use of the subject pronoun on, equivalent to English ‘one’ but often used in preference to nous or even occasionally je or tu where these have a general meaning.

Grammar

French nouns are marked for the plural and are inherently masculine or feminine. Old French retained a case system for a lot longer than ancestors of other major Latin-based languages whereby, in general, masculine singular subject nouns and plural object nouns were marked –s and feminine nouns the exact other way around. Over time this was regularised so that all plurals came to be marked –s (though vestiges of the old masculine singular ending remain in personal names such as Georges or Jacques, and in some exceptional forms such as fils ‘son’) or occasionally –x. In speech, this plural is no longer pronounced in most instances, but is clear from the surrounding words.

Regular verb endings in the present tense (1st, 2nd and 3rd person):

  • singular chante, chantes, chante;
  • plural chantons, chantez, chantent.

These were taken over from Late Latin and were once clearly distinct from each other in speech except in the first and third person singular, with endings fully pronounced (note was /ts/ as in German). However, in modern spoken French, all of these forms except first and second person plural are pronounced identically (as if there is no further ending beyond the final pronounced consonant).

The infinitive chanter and the past participle chanté are also pronounced alike.

French verbs can be marked for future, conditional or past imperfect (the latter most usually with common verbs); the past preterite is now restricted to formal writing so that almost all past reference otherwise is carried out via the perfect, which requires auxiliaries (avoir ‘to have’ or even être ‘to be’) and the past participle. There is also a present and past subjunctive which, while rarer than in the other major Latin-based languages, remains in common use even in speech. The auxiliary aller ‘to go’ may be used with an infinitive to mark an immediate future. There is no progressive auxiliary, however; other constructions are required to mark continuous action.

Uniquely among major Western Romance languages, French is not pro-drop: every sentence must have a subject, even if it is a dummy subject: tu chantes ‘you sing’; ils finissent ‘they finish’; nous l’avons vu ‘we saw it’; il pleut ‘it is raining’.

Adjectives agree with their noun for gender and number in all instances. They are generally placed after the noun, but may appear before, including with subtle variations in meaning: une grande femme ‘a great woman’; une femme grande ‘a big woman’.

The singular articles are definite le (masculine) and la (feminine), indefinite un and une; definite are reduced to l’ before vowels (or silent h-). The only plural article is definite les. There is also in effect the further article de (du, de la; des) used as in Italian for general quantities: du pain ‘some bread’. Possessives do not require an article: ma chanson ‘my song’.

Common prepositions:

  • de ‘of, from’; à ‘to, at’; en ‘in, at’; avec ‘with’; pour ‘with’; par ‘through, by’.

The first two merge with the definite article in the masculine singular (du, au) and plural (des, aux).

French has an unusual form of mandatory double negation, with the particle ne placed before the main verb and a further particle (most commonly pas) almost always required after: tu ne chantes pas ‘you do not sing’; il ne pleut plus ‘it is no longer raining’. In speech, the ne is frequently dropped.

Peculiarly, French adopted Germanic word order late in the first millennium (verb second regardless of first element), which was replaced by SVO (SOV where object is a pronoun) gradually from around the 15th century, perhaps under the influence of the Southern Latin-based dialects it displaced as it became the language of the whole of France. Some vestiges remain: Peut-être est elle là ‘Perhaps she is there [Perhaps is she there]’. French also exhibits the system of “preceding direct object” in formation of the perfect where a past participle agrees with its object if the object appears before: tu les avais vus ‘you had seen them’; la chanson que nous avons écrite ‘the song we wrote’.

Character

French is closest to Italian among the four major Western Latin-based languages (although it is still in practice more distant from it than any of the other three is from any other), and it does share Italian’s slight preference for noun-based constructions compared to Spanish and Italian.

French speech is marked by an even intonation, with very little stress evident within or even between words. This is exceptionally hard for non-native speakers to master (and generally not enough work is done on it by teachers and tutors because it is essential to the flow); conversely, it marks French speakers out when they speak other languages.

French speech is also marked by the tendency to add particles, a consequence perhaps of having reduced so many sounds, syllables and words. So although French words are themselves often shorter than in Portuguese, Spanish or particularly Italian, there may be additions to clauses and sentences to make them longer: Spanish Qué es? and Italian Cos’è? becomes French Qu’est-ce que c’est? ‘What is it? [What is it that it is?]’

French is notably vocalic, and thus excellent for music (though still not quite as much so as Italian).

What next?

Before moving on to Germanic, it may be useful to take a look next week at what unites Latin-based languages in the 21st century – and thus how knowledge of one can best be used to access the others.

As ever, thoughts and corrections welcome!

Notre Père, qui es aux cieux, que ton nom soit sanctifié; que ton règne vienne, que ta volonté soit faite sur la terre comme au ciel. Donne-nous aujourd’hui notre pain de ce jour. Pardonne-nous nos offences, comme nous pardonnons aussi à ceux qui nous ont offensés. Et ne nous soumets pas à la tentation, mais délivre-nous du mal.

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2 thoughts on “How to learn languages – French

  1. […] languages into “Iberian” (Spanish and Portuguese) and “Italo-Gallic” (French and Italian), at least in their Standard varieties. Nevertheless, largely because of its dramatic […]

  2. […] all that, in the British Isles French generally remains the first foreign language, with its remarkable cultural power and astonishing […]

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