French orthography

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French orthography encompasses the spelling and punctuation of the French language. It is based on a combination of phonemic and historical principles. The spelling of words is largely based on the pronunciation of Old French c. 1100–1200 CE and has stayed more or less the same since then, despite enormous changes to the pronunciation of the language in the intervening years. This has resulted in a complicated relationship between spelling and sound, especially for vowels; a multitude of silent letters; and a large number of homophones (e.g., saint/sein/sain/ceins/ceint, sang/sans/cent). Later attempts to respell some words in accordance with their Latin etymologies further increased the number of silent letters (e.g., temps vs. older tens – compare English "tense", which reflects the original spelling – and vingt vs. older vint). Nevertheless, there are rules governing French orthography which allow for a reasonable degree of accuracy when producing French words from their written forms. The reverse operation, producing written forms from a pronunciation, fails with a higher frequency.

Alphabet[edit]

The French alphabet is based on the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet, uppercase and lowercase, with five diacritics and two orthographic ligatures.

Letter Name Name (IPA) Diacritics and ligatures
A a /ɑ/ Àà, Ââ, Ææ, Ää
B /be/
C /se/ Çç
D /de/
E e /ə/ Éé, Èè, Êê, Ëë
F effe /ɛf/
G /ʒe/
H ache /aʃ/
I i /i/ Îî, Ïï
J ji /ʒi/
K ka /kɑ/
L elle /ɛl/
M emme /ɛm/
N enne /ɛn/
O o /o/ Ôô, Œœ, Öö
P /pe/
Q qu /ky/
R erre /ɛʁ/
S esse /ɛs/
T /te/
U u /y/ Ùù, Ûû, Üü
V /ve/
W double vé /dubləve/
X ixe /iks/
Y i grec /iɡʁɛk/ Ÿÿ
Z zède /zɛd/

The letters w and k are rarely used except in loan words or regional words. The phoneme /w/ sound is usually written ou; the /k/ sound is usually written c anywhere but before e, i, qu before e, i, and que at the ends of words. However, k is common in the metrological prefix kilo- (originally from Greek χίλια chilia "a thousand"): kilogramme, kilomètre, kilowatt, kilohertz, etc.

Diacritics[edit]

The usual diacritic marks are the acute ( ´, accent aigu), the grave ( ` , accent grave), the circumflex ( ˆ , circonflexe), the diaeresis ( ¨ , tréma), and the cedilla ( ¸ , cédille). Diacritics have no impact on the primary alphabetical order.

  • Acute accent (é): Over e, indicates uniquely the sound /e/. An é in modern French is often used where a combination of e and a consonant, usually s, would have been used formerly: écouter < escouter.
  • Grave accent (à, è, ù): Over a or u, used primarily to distinguish homophones: à ("to") vs. a ("has"), ou ("or") vs. ("where"; ù exists only in this word). Over an e, indicates the sound /ɛ/.
  • Circumflex (â, ê, î, ô, û): Over a, e and o, indicates the sound /ɑ/, /ɛ/ and /o/, respectively, but the distinction a /a/ vs. â /ɑ/ tends to disappear in Parisian French, so they are pronounced both [a]. In Belgian French, ê is pronounced [ɛː]. Most often indicates the historical deletion of an adjacent letter (usually an s or a vowel): château < castel, fête < feste, sûr < seur, dîner < disner. (In medieval manuscripts many letters were often written as diacritical marks: the circumflex for "s" and the tilde for "n" are examples.) It has also come to be used to distinguish homophones: du ("of the") vs. (past participle of devoir "to have to do something (pertaining to an act)"); however is in fact written thus because of a dropped e: deu). (See Use of the circumflex in French.) Since the 1990 orthographic changes, the circumflex on most i and u may be dropped when it does not serve to dintinguish homophones: chaîne becomes chaine but sûr (sure) does not change because of sur (on).
  • Diaeresis or tréma (ë, ï, ü, ÿ): Over e, i, u or y, indicates that a vowel is to be pronounced separately from the preceding one: naïve, Noël. A diaeresis on y only occurs in some proper names and in modern editions of old French texts. Some proper names in which ÿ appears include Aÿ (commune in canton de la Marne, formerly Aÿ-Champagne), Rue des Cloÿs (alley in the 18th arrondissement of Paris), Croÿ (family name and hotel on the Boulevard Raspail, Paris), Château du Feÿ (near Joigny), Ghÿs (name of Flemish origin spelt Ghijs where ij in handwriting looked like ÿ to French clerks), L'Haÿ-les-Roses (commune between Paris and Orly airport), Pierre Louÿs (author), Moÿ (place in commune de l'Aisne and family name), and Le Blanc de Nicolaÿ (an insurance company in eastern France). The diaeresis on u appears in the Biblical proper names Archélaüs, Capharnaüm, Emmaüs, Ésaü, and Saül, as well as French names such as Haüy. Nevertheless, since the 1990 orthographic changes, the diaeresis in words containing guë (such as aiguë or ciguë) may be moved onto the u: aigüe, cigüe, and by analogy may be used in verbs such as j'argüe. In addition, words coming from German retain their umlaut (ä, ö and ü) if applicable but use French pronunciation, such as Kärcher (trademark of a pressure washer).
  • Cedilla (ç): Under c, this is pronounced /s/ rather than /k/. Thus je lance "I throw" (with c = [s] before e), je lançais "I was throwing" (c would be pronounced [k] before a without the cedilla). The c cedilla (ç) softens the hard /k/ sound to /s/ before the vowels a, o or u, for example, ça /sa/. Ç is never used before the vowels e, i, or y, since these three vowels always produce a soft /s/ sound (ce, ci, cycle).

The tilde diacritical mark ( ˜ ) above n is occasionally used in French for words and names of Spanish origin that have been incorporated into the language (e.g., cañon, El Niño). Like the other diacritics, the tilde has no impact on the primary alphabetical order.

Diacritics are often omitted on capital letters, mainly for technical reasons. It is widely believed that they are not required; however both the Académie française and the Office québécois de la langue française reject this usage and confirm that "in French, the accent has full orthographic value",[1] except for acronyms but not for abbreviations (e.g., CEE, ALENA, but É.-U.).[2] Nevertheless, diacritics are often ignored in word games, including crosswords, Scrabble, and Des chiffres et des lettres.

Ligatures[edit]

The two ligatures œ and æ, have orthographic value. For determining alphabetical order, these ligatures are treated like the sequences oe and ae.

Œ[edit]

(French: o, e dans l'o or o, e collés/liés) This ligature is a mandatory contraction of oe in certain words. Some of these are native French words, with the pronunciation /œ/ or /ø/, e.g., sœur "sister" /sœʁ/, œuvre "work (of art)" /œvʁ/. Note that it usually appears in the combination œu; œil "eye" is an exception. Many of these words were originally written with the digraph eu; the o in the ligature represents a sometimes artificial attempt to imitate the Latin spelling: Latin bovem > Old French buef/beuf > Modern French bœuf.

Œ is also used in words of Greek origin, as the Latin rendering of the Greek diphthong οι, e.g., cœlacanthe "coelacanth". These words used to be pronounced with the vowel /e/, but in recent years a spelling pronunciation with /ø/ has taken hold, e.g., œsophage /ezɔfaʒ/ or /øzɔfaʒ/, Œdipe /edip/ or /ødip/ etc. The pronunciation with /e/ is often seen to be more correct.

When œ is found behind the letter c, the c can be pronounced /k/ in some cases (cœur), or /s/ in others (cœlacanthe).

The ligature œ is not used when both letters contribute different sounds. For example, when o is part of a prefix (coexister), or when e is part of a suffix (minoen), or in the word moelle and its derivatives.[3]

Æ[edit]

(French: a, e dans l'a or a, e collés/liés) This ligature is rare, appearing only in some words of Latin and Greek origin like tænia, ex æquo, cæcum, æthyse (as named dog’s parsley).[4] It generally represents the vowel /e/, like é.

The sequence ae appears in loanwords where both sounds are heard, as in maestro and paella.[5]

Digraphs and trigraphs[edit]

French digraphs and trigraphs have both historical and phonological origins. In the first case, it is a vestige of the spelling in the word's original language (usually Latin or Greek) maintained in modern French, for example, the use of ph in words like téléphone, th in words like théorème, or ch in chaotique. In the second case, a digraph is due to an archaic pronunciation, such as eu, au, oi, ai, and œu, or is merely a convenient way to expand the twenty-six-letter alphabet to cover all relevant phonemes, as in ch, on, an, ou, un, and in. Some cases are a mixture of these or are used for purely pragmatic reasons, such as ge for /ʒ/ in il mangeait ('he ate'), where the e serves to indicate a "soft" g inherent in the verb's root.

Sound to spelling correspondences[edit]

Note: Some exceptions apply to the rules governing the pronunciation of word-final consonants. See Liaison (French) for more details.

Consonants and combinations of consonant letters[edit]

Spelling Major value
(IPA)
Examples of major value Minor values
(IPA)
Examples of minor value Exceptions
-bs, -cs, -ds, -gs, -ps, -ts Ø plombs, blancs, prends, longs, draps, achats
b, bb non-finally /b/ ballon, abbé
finally Ø plomb
ç /s/ ça, garçon, reçu
c before e, i, y /s/ cyclone, loquace, douce, ciel, ceux
initially/medially elsewhere /k/ cabas, crasse, cœur, sac /s/ cœlacanthe
finally Ø tabac, blanc /k/ lac, donc
cc before e, i, y /ks/ accès
elsewhere /k/ accord
ch /ʃ/ chat, douche /k/ chaotique, chlore
d, dd non-finally /d/ doux, adresse, addition
finally Ø pied, accord
f, ff /f/ fait, affoler
g before e, i, y /ʒ/ gens, manger
initially/medially elsewhere /ɡ/ gain, glacier
finally Ø long
gg before e, i, y // suggérer
elsewhere /g/ aggraver
gn /ɲ/ montagne, agneau /gn/ gnou
h Ø habite, hiver
j /ʒ/ joue, jeter
l, ll non-finally /l/ lait, allier
finally Ø fusil, /l/ il, quel
m, mm /m/ mou, pomme
n, nn /n/ nouvel, panne
ng /ŋ/ parking, camping
p, pp non-finally /p/ pain, appel
finally Ø corp, trop
ph /f/ téléphone, photo
-pt /pt/ concept /t/ sept
r, rr /ʁ/ rat, barre
s at the beginning of a word
between two consonants
between a vowel and a consonant
/s/ sacre, estime, penser, instituer /z/ transat, transiter
between two vowels /z/ rose, paysage
finally Ø dans, repas /s/ fils
sc before e, i, y /s/ science
elsewhere /sk/ script
ss /s/ baisser, passer
t, tt non-finally /t/ tout, attente
finally Ø tant, raffut /t/ est (direction)
th /t/ thème, thermique
v /v/ ville, vanne
x next to
a voiceless consonant
/ks/ expansion
medially elsewhere /ɡz/ exigence, exulter /s/
/z/
/ks/
soixante
deuxième
galaxie
finally Ø paix, deux /s/
/ks/
six, dix
index
xc before e, i, y /ks/ exciter
elsewhere /ksk/ excavation
y /j/ yeux, yole
z non-finally /z/ zain, gazette
finally Ø chez /z/ gaz

Vowels and combinations of vowel letters[edit]

Spelling Major value
(IPA)
Examples of major value Minor values
(IPA)
Examples of minor value Exceptions
a, à /a/ patte, arable, là /ɑ/ araser, base
â /ɑ/ château
ai /ɛ/
/e/
vrai, faite
baisser, aiguille
/ə/ faisons[6]
/ɛ/ mtre, chne
/ai/ nf, hr
aie /ɛ/ baie
aou /u/ saoul, août
au /o/ haut, augure /ɔ/ sauropode, dinosaure
ay elsewhere /ɛj/ ayons, essayer /ei/ pays, /aj/ mayonnaise, papaye
finally /ɛ/ gamay, margay, railway
e elsewhere /ə/ repeser, genoux /e/ essence /a/ femme, fréquemment,[7] solennel
before two or more consonants
(including double consonants),
x (in all cases), or
a final consonant (silent or pronounced)
/ɛ/ est, estival, voyelle, examiner, exécuter, quel, chalet /e/ et
finally
in a position where
it can be easily elided
Ø caisse, unique, acheter, franchement /ə/ que, secret, je
é, ée /e/ clé, échapper, idée
è /ɛ/ relève, zèle
ê /ɛ/ tête, crêpe, forêt, prêt
eau /o/ eau, oiseaux
ei /ɛ/ neige, reine
/ɛ/ rtre
eu phonologically finally
before /z/
/ø/ heureux, peu, chanteuse /y/ eu
elsewhere /œ/ beurre, jeune /ø/ feutre, neutre
/ø/ jne
i elsewhere /i/ ici, proscrire
before vowel /j/ fief, ionique, rien
-ie /i/ régie
o phonologically finally /o/ pro, mot, gros
elsewhere /ɔ/ carotte, offre /o/ frosse, fosse
ô /o/ tôt, cône
œ /œ/ œil /e/ œsophage
oe /oe/ coefficient /we/ moelleux
œu /œ/ sœur, cœur /ø/ vœu
oi, oie /wa/ roi, oiseau, foie, trois, noix /ɔ/ oignon
ou elsewhere /u/ ouvrir, sous
before vowel /w/ ouest, couiner, oui
-oue /u/ roue
oy /waj/ moyen, royaume /ɔj/ goyave, cow-boy
u elsewhere /y/ tu, juge
before vowel /ɥ/ huit, tuer
-ue /y/ rue
y /i/ cyclone, style

Combinations of vowel and consonant letters[edit]

Spelling Major value
(IPA)
Examples of major value Minor values
(IPA)
Examples of minor value Exceptions
aim, ain (before consonant or finally) /ɛ̃/ faim, saint, bains
am, an (before consonant or finally) /ɑ̃/ ambiance, France /am/ Viêt-Nam
aen (before consonant or finally) /ɑ̃/ Caen
aon (before consonant or finally) /ɑ̃/ paon /aɔ̃/ pharaon
cqu /k/ acquit, acquéreur
ein (before consonant or finally) /ɛ̃/ plein, sein
em, en (before consonant or finally) /ɑ̃/ embaucher, vent /ɛ̃/ examen /ɛm/ totem

/ən/ venir

-ent /ɑ̃/ firmament
-ent (3rd person plural ending) Ø parlent, finissaient
-er /e/ aller, transporter /ɛʁ/ hiver, super
-es Ø Nantes, faites /e//ɛ/
/ez/(in liaison)
les, des
les attaques
-et (final) /ɛ/ cachet, jouet /ɛt net
eun (before consonant or finally) /œ̃/ jeun
ge (before vowel) /ʒ/ geai, mangea
gu /ɡ/ guerre, dingue /ɡɥ/ aiguille, linguistique ambiguïté, aiguë
ien (before consonant or finally) /jɛ̃/ rien, vient /jɑ̃/ patient, quotient
-il (after vowel) 1 /j/ ail, conseil /l/ cocktail
/il/ huile
-il (not after vowel) /il/ il, fil /i/ outil, fils, fusil
-ill- (after vowel) 1 /j/ paille, nouille
-ill- (not after vowel) /ij/ grillage, bille /il/ mille, million, billion, ville, villa, village, tranquille[8]
im, in (before consonant or finally) /ɛ̃/ importer, vin /in/ sprint
oign /waɲ/ poigner, témoignage /ɔɲ/ oignon
oin (before consonant or finally) /wɛ̃/ point
om, on (before consonant or finally) /ɔ̃/ ombre, bon /ə/ Monsieur
qu /k/ quand, pourquoi /kw/ aquarium
ti + vowel (behind s, x, or in first position) /tj/ 2 bastion, gestionnaire, tiens, extion
ti + vowel (medially elsewhere) /sj/ 2 attention, fonctionnaire, initiation /tj/ pitié,
abstiens, augmentions, partiez and all conjugated forms of verbs with a radical ending in -t and derived of tenir 2
uin (before consonant or finally) /ɥɛ̃/ juin
um, un (before consonant or finally) /œ̃/ parfum, brun /ɔm/ album, maximum
ym, yn (before consonant or finally) /ɛ̃/ sympa, syndrome /im/ gymnase, hymne
^1 In cases where those combination are pronounced /j/, the vowel (or combination of vowel) before the il or ill is pronounced normally and is not influenced by the i. For example, in rail, the a is pronounced /a/, in mouiller, the ou is still pronounced /u/.
^2 These rules about the pronunciation of the letter t in French might be more complex: words portions [pɔʁsjɔ̃] (noun, 'portions') and portions [pɔʁtjɔ̃] (conjugated form of the verb porter, 'to carry') are some examples of this complexity. The best way to know how to pronounce it would be to check in a dictionary.

Words from Greek[edit]

The spelling of French words of Greek origin is complicated by a number of digraphs which originated in the Latin transcriptions. The digraphs ph, th, and ch normally represent /f/, /t/, and /k/ in Greek loanwords, respectively; and the digraphs ae and oe in Greek loanwords generally represent the same vowel as e. Further, many words in the international scientific vocabulary were constructed in French from Greek roots and have kept their digraphs (e.g., stratosphère, photographie).

History of French orthography[edit]

The Oaths of Strasbourg from 842 is the earliest text written in the early form of French called Romance or Gallo-Romance.

Roman[edit]

The Celtic vernaculars of the inhabitants of Gaul disappeared progressively over the course of the Roman conquest as the Latin languages began to replace them: written (Classic) Latin and spoken (vulgar) Latin. Classic Latin, taught in schools, remained the language of religious services, of scientific works, of legislative acts and of certain literary works. Vulgar Latin, spoken by the Roman soldiers and merchants, and adopted by the natives, evolved slowly, taking the forms of different spoken Roman vernaculars according to the region of the country. These vernaculars divided into two branches in the Gallo-Romance language family, langue d'oïl north of the Loire River, langue d'oc in the south.[9]

Old French[edit]

In the 9th century, the Romance vernaculars were already quite far from Latin. For example, to understand the Bible, written in Latin, footnotes were necessary. With consolidation of the royal powers, beginning in the 13th century, the Francien vernacular, in usage then on the Île-de-France, brought it little by little to the other languages and evolved toward Classic French.

The languages found in the manuscripts dating from the 9th century to the 13th century form what is known as Old French or ancien français. These languages continued to evolve until, in the 14th century to the 16th century, Middle French (moyen français) emerged.[9]

Middle French[edit]

During the Middle French period (c. 1300–1600), modern spelling practices were largely established. This happened especially during the 16th century, under the influence of printers. The overall trend was towards continuity with Old French spelling, although some changes were made under the influence of changed pronunciation habits; for example, the Old French distinction between the diphthongs eu and ue was eliminated in favor of consistent eu,[10] as both diphthongs had come to be pronounced /ø/ or /œ/ (depending on the surrounding sounds). However, many other distinctions that had become equally superfluous were maintained, e.g. between s and soft c or between ai and ei. It is likely that etymology was the guiding factor here: The distinction between s/c and ai/ei reflects corresponding distinctions in the spelling of the underlying Latin words, whereas no such distinction exists in the case of eu/ue.

This period also saw the development of some explicitly etymological spellings, e.g. temps "time", vingt "twenty" and poids "weight". (Note that in many cases, the etymologizing was sloppy or occasionally completely incorrect. For example, vingt reflects Latin VIGINTI, with the g in wrong place, and poids actually reflects Latin PENSUM, with no d at all; the spelling poids is due to an incorrect derivation from Latin PONDUS.) The trend towards etymologizing sometimes produced absurd (and generally rejected) spellings such as sçapvoir for normal savoir "to know", which attempted to combine Latin SAPERE "to be wise" (the correct origin of savoir) with SCIRE "to know".

Classical French[edit]

Modern French spelling was codified in the late 17th century by the Académie française, based largely on previously established spelling conventions. Some reforms have occurred since then, but most have been fairly minor. The most significant changes have been:

  • Adoption of j and v to represent consonants, in place of former i and u.
  • Addition of a circumflex accent to reflect historically long vowels. During the Middle French period, a distinction developed between long and short vowels, with long vowels largely stemming from a lost /s/ before a consonant, as in même (cf. Spanish mismo), but sometimes from the coalescence of similar vowels, as in âge from earlier aage, eage (early Old French *edage < Vulgar Latin *aetaticum, cf. Spanish edad < *aetate). Prior to this, such words continued to be spelled historically (e.g. mesme and age). Ironically, by the time this convention was adopted in the 19th century, the former distinction between short and long vowels had largely disappeared in all but the most conservative pronunciations, with vowels automatically pronounced long or short depending on the phonological context (see French phonology).
  • Use of ai in place of oi where pronounced /ɛ/ rather than /wa/. The most significant effect of this was to change the spelling of all imperfect verbs (formerly spelled -ois, -oit, -oient rather than -ais, -ait, -aient).

Modern French[edit]

In October 1989, Michel Rocard, then-Prime Minister of France, established the Superior Council of the French Language (Conseil supérieur de la langue française) in Paris. He designated experts – among them linguists, representatives of the Académie française and lexicographers – to propose standardizing several points, a few of those points being:

  • The uniting hyphen in all compound numerals
i.e. trente-et-un
  • The plural of compound words, the second element always takes the plural s
For example un après-midi, des après-midis
  • The circumflex accent ˆ disappears on all the u and i except for words for which it is needed for differentiation
As in coût (cost) --> cout, abîme (abyss) --> abime but sûr (sure) because of sur (on)
  • The past participle of laisser followed by an infinitive verb is invariable (works now the same way as the verb faire)
elle s'est laissée mourir --> elle s'est laissé mourir

Quickly, the experts set to work. Their conclusions were submitted to Belgian and Québécois linguistic political organizations. They were likewise submitted to the Académie française, which endorsed them unanimously, saying:

Current orthography remains that of usage, and the "recommendations" of the High Council of the French language only enter into play with words that may be written in a different manner without being considered as incorrect or as faults.

The changes were published in the Official Journal of the French Republic (Journal officiel de la République française) in December 1990.

Bibliography[edit]

  • Fouché, Pierre (1956). Traité de prononciation française. Paris: Klincksieck. 
  • Tranel, Bernard (1987). The Sounds of French: An Introduction. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-31510-7. 

See also[edit]

References[edit]

External links[edit]