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Phonological history of French

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

French exhibits perhaps the most extensive phonetic changes (from Latin) of any of the Romance languages. Similar changes are seen in some of the northern Italian regional languages, such as Lombard or Ligurian. Most other Romance languages are significantly more conservative phonetically, with Spanish, Italian, and especially Sardinian showing the most conservatism, and Portuguese, Occitan, Catalan, and Romanian showing moderate conservatism.[1]

French also shows enormous phonetic changes between the Old French period and the modern language. Spelling, however, has barely changed, which accounts for the wide differences between current spelling and pronunciation. Some of the most profound changes have been:

  • The loss of almost all final consonants.
  • The subsequent loss of final /ə/, which caused many newly-final consonants.
  • The loss of the formerly strong stress that had characterized the language throughout much of its history and triggered many of the phonetic changes.
  • Significant transformations in the pronunciation of vowels, especially nasal vowels.

Only some of the changes are reflected in the orthography, which generally corresponds to the pronunciation of c. 1100–1200 CE (the Old French period) rather than modern pronunciation.

This page documents the phonological history of French from a relatively technical standpoint. See also History of French#Internal history for a less technical introduction.


A profound change in very late spoken Latin (Vulgar Latin, the forerunner of all the Romance languages) was the restructuring of the vowel system of Classical Latin. Latin had thirteen distinct vowels: ten pure vowels (long and short versions of a, e, i, o, u), and three diphthongs (ae, oe, au).[2] What happened to Vulgar Latin is set forth in the table.[3]

Essentially, the ten pure vowels were reduced to the seven vowels /a ɛ e i ɔ o u/, and vowel length was no longer a distinguishing feature. The diphthongs ae and oe fell in with /ɛ/ and /e/, respectively. Au was retained, but various languages (including Old French) eventually turned it into /ɔ/ after the original /ɔ/ fell victim to further changes.[citation needed]

Development of French pronunciation over time
("to sing")
Latin Old French Modern French
spelling pronunciation spelling pronunciation
Infinitive cantāre chanter /tʃanˈtæɾ/ chanter /ʃɑ̃ˈte/
Past Part. cantātum chanté(ṭ) /tʃanˈtæ(θ)/ chanté /ʃɑ̃ˈte/
Gerund cantandō chantant /tʃanˈtant/ chantant /ʃɑ̃ˈtɑ̃/
1sg. indic. cantō chant /tʃant/ chante /ʃɑ̃t/
2sg. indic. cantās chantes /ˈtʃantəs/ chantes /ʃɑ̃t/
3sg. indic. cantat chante(ṭ) /ˈtʃantə(θ)/ chante /ʃɑ̃t/
1pl. indic. cantāmus chantons /tʃanˈtuns/ chantons /ʃɑ̃ˈtɔ̃/
2pl. indic. cantātis chantez /tʃanˈtæts/ chantez /ʃɑ̃ˈte/
3pl. indic. cantant chantent /ˈtʃantə(n)t/ chantent /ʃɑ̃t/
1sg. subj. cantem chant /tʃant/ chante /ʃɑ̃t/
2sg. subj. cantēs chanz /tʃants/ chantes /ʃɑ̃t/
3sg. subj. cantet chant /tʃant/ chante /ʃɑ̃t/
1pl. subj. cantēmus chantons /tʃanˈtuns/ chantions /ʃɑ̃ˈtjɔ̃/
2pl. subj. cantētis chantez /tʃanˈtæts/ chantiez /ʃɑ̃ˈtje/
3pl. subj. cantent chantent /ˈtʃantə(n)t/ chantent /ʃɑ̃t/
2sg. impv. cantā chante /ˈtʃantə/ chante /ʃɑ̃t/
2pl. impv. cantāte chantez /tʃanˈtæts/ chantez /ʃɑ̃ˈte/

Vowel length became automatically determined by syllable structure, with stressed open syllables having long vowels and other syllables having short vowels. Furthermore, the stress on accented syllables became more pronounced in Vulgar Latin than in Classical Latin. That tended to cause unaccented syllables to become less distinct, while working further changes on the sounds of the accented syllables. That especially applied to the new long vowels, many of which broke into diphthongs but with different results in each daughter language.[citation needed]

Old French underwent more thorough alterations of its sound system than did the other Romance languages. Vowel breaking is observed to some extent in Spanish and Italian: Vulgar Latin focu(s) "fire" (in Classical Latin, "hearth") becomes Italian fuoco and Spanish fuego. In Old French, it went even further than in any other Romance language; of the seven vowels inherited from Vulgar Latin, only /i/ remained unchanged in stressed open syllables:[citation needed]

  • The sound of Latin short e, turning to /ɛ/ in Proto-Romance, became ie in Old French: Latin mel, "honey" > OF miel
  • The sound of Latin short o > Proto-Romance /ɔ/ > OF uo, later ue: cor > cuor > cuer, "heart"
  • Latin long ē and short i > Proto-Romance /e/ > OF ei: habēre > aveir, "to have"; this later becomes /oi/ in many words, as in avoir
  • Latin long ō and short u > Proto-Romance /o/ > OF ou, later eu: flōrem > flour, "flower"
  • Latin a, ā > Proto-Romance /a/ > OF /e/, probably through an intervening stage of /æ/; mare > mer, "sea". That change also characterizes the Gallo-Italic languages of Northern Italy (cf. Bolognese [mɛːr]).

Furthermore, all instances of Latin long ū > Proto-Romance /u/ became /y/, the lip-rounded sound that is written u in Modern French. That occurred in both stressed and unstressed syllables, regardless of whether open or closed.

Latin au did not share the fate of /ɔ/ or /o/; Latin aurum > OF or, "gold": not *œur nor *our. Latin au must have been retained at the time such changes were affecting Proto-Romance.

Changes affecting the consonants were also quite pervasive in Old French. Old French shared with the rest of the Vulgar Latin world the loss of final -M. Since this sound was basic to the Latin noun case system, its loss leveled the distinctions upon which the synthetic Latin syntax relied, forcing the Romance languages to adapt a more analytic syntax, based on word order. Old French also dropped many internal consonants when they followed the strongly stressed syllable; Latin petram > Proto-Romance */ˈpɛðra/ > OF pierre; cf. Spanish piedra ("stone").

Table of Old French outcomes of Latin vowels
Letter Classical
Early Old French
(through early 12th c.)
Later Old French
(from late 12th c.)
closed open closed open
a /a/ /a/ ⟨a⟩ /a/ ⟨e, ie⟩ /æ, iə/ ⟨a⟩ /a/ ⟨e, ie⟩ /ɛ, jɛ/
ā /aː/
ae /ai/ /ɛ/ ⟨e⟩ /ɛ/ ⟨ie⟩ /iə/ ⟨e⟩ /ɛ/ ⟨ie⟩ /jɛ/
e /e/
oe /oi/ /e/ /e/ ⟨e⟩ /e/ ⟨ei⟩ /ei/ ⟨oi⟩ /oi/ > /wɛ/
ē /eː/
i /i/ /ɪ/
y /y/
ī /iː/ /i/ ⟨i⟩ /i/
ȳ /yː/
o /o/ /ɔ/ ⟨o⟩ /ɔ/ ⟨uo⟩ /uə/ ⟨o⟩ /ɔ/ ⟨ue⟩ /wɛ/ > /ø/
ō /oː/ /o/ /o/ ⟨o⟩ /o/ ⟨ou⟩ /ou/ ⟨o(u)⟩ /u/ ⟨eu⟩ /eu/ > /ø/
u /u/ /ʊ/
ū /uː/ /u/ ⟨u⟩ /y/
au /aw/ /aw/ ⟨o⟩ /ɔ/

In some contexts, /oi/ became /e/, still written oi in Modern French. During the early Old French period, it was pronounced as the writing suggests, as /oi/ as a falling diphthong: /oi̯/. It later shifted to become rising, /o̯i/, before becoming /o̯e/. The sound developed variously in different varieties of oïl: most of the surviving languages maintain a pronunciation as /we/, but Literary French adopted a dialectal pronunciation, /wa/. The doublet of français and François in modern French orthography demonstrates the mix of dialectal features.[citation needed]

At some point during the Old French period, vowels with a following nasal consonant began to be nasalized. While the process of losing the final nasal consonant took place after the Old French period, the nasal vowels that characterize Modern French appeared during the period in question.[citation needed]

Table of vowel outcomes

The following table shows the most important modern outcomes of Vulgar Latin vowels, starting from the seven-vowel system of Proto-Western-Romance stressed syllables: /a/, /ɛ/, /e/, /i/, /ɔ/, /o/, /u/. The vowels developed differently in different contexts, with the most important contexts being:

  • "Open" syllables (followed by at most one consonant), where most of the vowels were diphthongized or otherwise modified.
  • Syllables followed by a palatal consonant. An /i/ usually appeared before the palatal consonant, producing a diphthong, which subsequently evolved in complex ways. There were various palatal sources: Classical Latin /jj/ (e.g. peior[4] "worse"); any consonant followed by a /j/ coming from Latin short /e/ or /i/ in hiatus (e.g. balneum "bath", palātium "palace"); /k/ or /ɡ/ followed by /e/ or /i/ (e.g. pācem "peace", cōgitō "I think"); /k/ or /ɡ/ followed by /a/ and preceded by /a/, /e/ or /i/ (e.g. plāga "wound"); /k/ or /ɡ/ after a vowel in various sequences, such as /kl/, /kr/, /ks/, /kt/, /ɡl/, /ɡn/, /ɡr/ (e.g. noctem "night", veclum < vetulum "old", nigrum "black").
  • Syllables preceded by a palatal consonant. An /i/ appeared after the palatal consonant, producing a rising diphthong. The palatal consonant could arise in any of the ways just described. In addition, it could stem from an earlier /j/ brought into contact with a following consonant by loss of the intervening vowel: e.g. medietātem > Proto-Romance /mejjeˈtate/ > Gallo-Romance /mejˈtat/ (loss of unstressed vowels) > Proto-French /meiˈtʲat/ (palatalization) > Old French /moiˈtjɛ/ > moitié /mwaˈtje/ "half".
  • Nasal syllables (followed by an /n/ or /m/), where nasal vowels arose. Nasal syllables inhibited many of the changes that otherwise happened in open syllables; instead, vowels tended to be raised. Subsequently, the following /n/ or /m/ was deleted unless a vowel followed, and the nasal vowels were lowered; but when the /n/ or /m/ remained, the nasal quality was lost, with no lowering of the vowel. This produced significant alternations, such as masculine fin /fɛ̃/ vs. feminine fine /fin/.
  • Syllables closed by /s/ followed by another consonant. By Old French times, this /s/ was "debuccalized" into /h/, which was subsequently lost, with a phonemic long vowel taking its place. These long vowels remained for centuries, and continued to be indicated by an s, and later a circumflex, with alternations such as bette /bɛt/ "chard" vs. bête (formerly /bɛːt/) "beast" (borrowed from bēstiam). Sometimes the length difference was accompanied by a difference in vowel quality, e.g. mal /mal/ "bad" vs. mâle /mɑːl/ "male" (Latin māscvlvm < */ˈmaslə/). Phonemic (although not phonetic) length disappeared by the 18th century, but the quality differences mostly remain.
  • Syllables closed by /l/ followed by another consonant (although the sequence -lla- was not affected). The /l/ vocalized to /w/, producing a diphthong, which then developed in various ways.
  • Syllables where two or more of the above conditions occurred simultaneously, which generally evolved in complex ways. Common examples are syllables followed by both a nasal and a palatal element (e.g. from Latin -neu-, -nea-, -nct-); open syllables preceded by a palatal (e.g. cēram "wax"); syllables both preceded and followed by a palatal (e.g. iacet "it lies"); syllables preceded by a palatal and followed by a nasal (e.g. canem "dog").

Note that the developments in unstressed syllables were both simpler and less predictable. In Proto Western Romance there were only five vowels in unstressed syllables: /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/, as low-mid vowels /ɛ/, /ɔ/ were raised to /e/, /o/. These syllables were not subject to diphthongization and many of the other complex changes that affected stressed syllables. This produced many lexical and grammatical alternations between stressed and unstressed syllables. However, there was a strong tendency (especially beginning in the Middle French period, when the formerly strong stress accent was drastically weakened) to even out these alternations. In certain cases in verbal paradigms unstressed variant was imported into stressed syllables, but mostly it was the other way around, with the result that in Modern French all of the numerous vowels can appear in unstressed syllables.

Table of modern outcomes of Vulgar Latin vowel combinations
Gallo-Romance Context 1 Proto-French Later Old French Modern French Example
Basic vowels
/a/ closed /a/ /a/ /a/ partem > part /paʁ/ "part"
closed followed by /s/ /ɑ/ /ɑ/ bassum > bas /bɑ/
open /æ/ /ɛ/ /ɛ/; /e/+#1 mare > mer /mɛʁ/ "sea", amātum > /aiˈmɛθ/ > aimé /eˈme/ "loved"
before Gallo-Romance /u, o/ or /w/ /ɔ/ /ɔ/, combines with next element (/w, u, o, ɣu, ɣo/) to make a new diphthong, /ɔw/ /u/ fagum > Gallo-Romance /faɣo/ > Old French fou /fɔw/ + diminutive -et > fouet /fwɛ/ "beech tree";[5] bavan (< Gaulish) > /bɔwə/ > boue /bu/ "mud"
palatal + open /iæ/ /jɛ/ /jɛ/; /je/+#1 medietātem > Vulgar Latin /mejeˈtate/ > /mejˈtʲate/ > Early Old French /meiˈtiɛθ/3 > Late Old French /moiˈtjɛ/ > moitié /mwaˈtje/ "half"; cārum > Old French chier /tʃjɛr/ > cher /ʃɛʁ/ "dear"
/ɛ/ closed /ɛ/ /ɛ/ /ɛ/ septem > sept /sɛt/ "seven"
open /iɛ/ /jɛ/ /jɛ/; /je/+#1 heri > hier /jɛʁ/ "yesterday"; pedem > pied /pje/ "foot"
/e/ closed /e/ /ɛ/ /ɛ/ siccum > sec /sɛk/ "dry"
open /ei/ /oi/ > /wɛ/ /wa/ pēram > poire /pwaʁ/; vidēre > early Old French vedeir /vəˈðeir/ > Old French vëoir /vəˈoir/ > voir /vwaʁ/ "to see"
palatal + open /iei/ /i/ /i/ cēram > cire /siʁ/ "wax"; mercēdem > merci /mɛʁˈsi/ "mercy"
/i/ all /i/ /i/ /i/ vītam > vie /vi/ "life"; vīllam > ville > /vil/ "town"
/ɔ/ closed /ɔ/ /ɔ/ /ɔ/; /o/+#1 portam > porte /pɔʁt/ "door"; *sottum, *sottam > sot, sotte /so/, /sɔt/ "silly"
closed followed by /s/, /z/ /o/ /o/ grossum, grossam > gros, grosse /ɡʁo/, /ɡʁos/ "fat"
open /uɔ/ /wɛ/ /œ/, /ø/ 2 novum > neuf /nœf/ "new"; cor > *corem > cœur /kœʁ/ "heart"
/o/ closed /o/ /u/ /u/ subtus > /ˈsottos/ > sous /su/ "under"; surdum > sourd /suʁ/ "mute"
open /ou/ /eu/ /œ/, /ø/ 2 nōdum > nœud /nø/ "knot"
/u/ all /y/ /y/ /y/ dūrum > dur /dyʁ/ "hard"; nūllam > nulle /nyl/ "none (fem.)"
/au/ all /au/ /ɔ/ /ɔ/; /o/+#1 aurum > or /ɔʁ/ "gold"
followed by /s/, /z/ /o/ /o/ causam > chose /ʃoz/ "thing"
followed by Gallo-Romance /w/, /ɣu/, /ɣo/ /ɔ/ combining with second element to make /ɔw/ /u/ *traucon (<Gaulish) > Gallo-Romance /trauɣo/ > Old French /trɔw/ > trou /tʁu/ "hole" [6]
Vowels + /n/
/an/ closed /an/ /ã/ /ɑ̃/ [ɒ̃] annum > an /ɑ̃/ "year"; cantum > chant /ʃɑ̃/ "song"
open /ain/ /ɛ̃n/ /ɛn/ sānam > saine /sɛn/ "healthy (fem.)"; amat > aime /ɛm/ "(he) loves"
late closed /ɛ̃/ /ɛ̃/ [æ̃] sānum > sain /sɛ̃/ "healthy (masc.)"; famem > faim /fɛ̃/ "hunger"
palatal + late closed /iain/ > /iɛn/ /jɛ̃/ /jɛ̃/ [jæ̃] canem > chien /ʃjɛ̃/ "dog"
/ɛn/ closed /en/ /ã/ /ɑ̃/ [ɒ̃] dentem > dent /dɑ̃/ "teeth"
open /ien/ /jɛ̃n/ /jɛn/ tenent > tiennent /tjɛn/ "(they) hold"
late closed /jɛ̃/ /jɛ̃/ [jæ̃] bene > bien /bjɛ̃/ "well"; tenet > tient /tjɛ̃/ "(he) holds"
/en/ closed /en/ /ã/ /ɑ̃/ [ɒ̃] lingua > langue /lɑ̃g/ "tongue"[citation needed]
open /ein/ /ẽn/ /ɛn/ pēnam > peine /pɛn/ "sorrow, trouble"
late closed /ẽ/ /ɛ̃/ [æ̃] plēnum > plein /plɛ̃/ "full"; sinum > sein /sɛ̃/ "breast"
palatal + late closed /iein/ > /in/ /ĩ/ /ɛ̃/ [æ̃] racēmum > raisin /rɛzɛ̃/ "grape"
/in/ closed, late closed /in/ /ĩ/ /ɛ̃/ [æ̃] quīnque > *cīnque > cinq /sɛ̃k/ "five"; fīnum > fin /fɛ̃/ "fine, thin (masc.)"
open /ĩn/ /in/ fīnam > fine /fin/ "fine, thin (fem.)"
/ɔn/ closed /on/ /ũ/ /ɔ̃/ [õ] pontem > pont /pɔ̃/ "bridge"
open /on/, /uon/ /ũn/, /wɛ̃n/ /ɔn/ bonam > bonne /bɔn/ "good (fem.)"
late closed /ũ/, /wɛ̃/ /ɔ̃/ [õ] bonum > OF buen > bon /bɔ̃/ "good (masc.)"; comes > OF cuens "count (noble rank) (nom.)"
/on/ closed, late closed /on/ /ũ/ /ɔ̃/ [õ] dōnum > don /dɔ̃/ "gift"
open /ũn/ /ɔn/ dōnat > donne /dɔn/ "(he) gives"
/un/ closed, late closed /yn/ /ỹ/ /œ̃/ > /ɛ̃/ [æ̃] v̄nvm > un /œ̃/ > /ɛ̃/ "one"; perfūmum > parfum /paʁˈfœ̃/ > /paʁˈfɛ̃/ "perfume"
open /ỹn/ /yn/ v̄nam > une /yn/ "one (fem.)"; plv̄mam > plume /plym/ "feather"
Vowels + /s/ (followed by a consonant)
/as/ closed /ah/ /ɑː/ /ɑ/ bassum > bas /bɑ/ "low"
/ɛs/ closed /ɛh/ /ɛː/ /ɛ/ festam > fête /fɛt/ "feast"
/es/ closed /eh/ /ɛː/ /ɛ/ bēstiam > bête /bɛt/ "beast"
/is/ closed /ih/ /iː/ /i/ abȳssimum > *abīsmum > abîme /abim/ "chasm"
/ɔs/ closed /ɔh/ /oː/ /o/ costam > côte /kot/ "coast"
/os/ closed /oh/ /uː/ /u/ cōnstat > *cōstat > coûte /kut/ "(it) costs"
/us/ closed /yh/ /yː/ /y/ fūstis > fût /fy/ "bole"
Vowels + /l/ (followed by a consonant, but not /la/)
/al/ closed /al/ /au/ /o/ falsum > faux /fo/ "false"; palmam > paume /pom/ "palm"
/ɛl/ closed /ɛl/ /ɛau/ /o/ bellum > beau /bo/ (but bellam > belle /bɛl/) "beautiful"
late closed /jɛl/ /jɛu/ /jœ/, /jø/ 2 melius > /miɛʎts/ > /mjɛus/ > mieux /mjø/ "better"
/el/ closed /el/ /ɛu/ /œ/, /ø/ 2 capillum > cheveu /ʃəˈvø/ "hair"; *filtrvm > feutre /føtʁ/ "felt"
/il/ closed, late closed /il/ /i/ /i/ gentīlem > gentil /ʒɑ̃ˈti/ "nice"
/ɔl/ closed /ɔl/ /ou/ /u/ follem > fou (but *follam > folle /fɔl/) "crazy"; colaphum}} > *colpum > coup /ku/ "blow"
late closed /wɔl/ /wɛu/ /œ/, /ø/ 2 volet > OF vueut > veut "(he) wants"
/ol/ closed /ol/ /ou/ /u/ pulsat > pousse /pus/ "(he) pushes"
/ul/ closed, late closed /yl/ /y/ /y/ cūlum > cul /ky/ "buttocks"
Vowels + /i/ (from a Gallo-Romance palatal element)
/ai/ all /ai/ /ɛ/ /ɛ/ factum > /fait/ > fait /fɛ/ "deed"; palātium > palais /paˈlɛ/ "palace"; plāgam > plaie /plɛ/ "wound"; placet > /plaist/ > plaît /plɛ/ "(he) pleases"; paria > paire /pɛʁ/ "pair"
palatal + /iai/ > /i/ /i/ /i/ iacet > gît /ʒi/ "(he) lies (on the ground)"; cacat > chie /ʃi/ "(he) shits"
/ɛi/ all /iɛi/ /i/ /i/ lectvm > /lɛit/ > lit /li/ "bed"; sex > six /sis/ "six"; peior[4] > pire /piʁ/ "worse"
/ei/ all /ei/ /oi/ /wa/ tēctvm > /teit/ > toit /twa/ "roof"; rēgem > /rei/ > roi /ʁwa/ "king"; nigrvm > /neir/ > noir /nwaʁ/ "black"; fēriam > /ˈfeira/ > foire /fwaʁ/ "fair"
/ɔi/ all /uɔi/ /yi/ /ɥi/ noctem > /nɔit/ > nuit /nɥi/ "night"; hodie > /ˈɔje/ > hui /ɥi/ "today"; crvcem > /ˈkɔisə/ > cuisse /kɥis/ "thigh"
/oi/ all /oi/ /oi/ /wa/ bvxitam > /ˈboista/ > boîte /bwat/ "box"; crucem > croix /kʁwa/ "cross"
/ui/ all /yi/ /yi/ /ɥi/ frv̄ctvm > /fruit/ > fruit /fʁɥi/ "fruit"
/aui/ all /ɔi/ /oi/ /wa/ gaudia > /ˈdʒɔiə/ > joie /ʒwa/ "joy"
Vowels plus /ɲ/ (from /n/ + a Gallo-Romance palatal element)
/aɲ/ closed, late closed /aɲ/ > /ain/ /ɛ̃/ /ɛ̃/ [æ̃] ba(l)neum > /baɲ/ > /bain/ > bain /bɛ̃/ "bath"; > sanctvm>/saɲt/ > /saint/ > saint /sɛ̃/ "holy"
open /aɲ/ /ãɲ/ /aɲ/ montāneam > /monˈtaɲ/ > montagne /mɔ̃ˈtaɲ/ "mountain"
/ɛɲ/ unattested?
/eɲ/ closed, late closed /eɲ/ > /ein/ /ẽ/ /ɛ̃/ [æ̃] pinctvm > /peɲt/ > /peint/ > peint /pɛ̃/ "painted"
open /eɲ/ /ẽɲ/ /ɛɲ/ insigniam > enseigne /ɑ̃ˈsɛɲ/ "sign"
/iɲ/ closed, late closed unattested?
open /iɲ/ /ĩɲ/ /iɲ/ līneam > ligne /liɲ/ "line"
/ɔɲ/ closed, late closed /oɲ/ > /oin/ /wɛ̃/ /wɛ̃/ [wæ̃] longe > /loɲ/? > /loin/ > loin /lwɛ̃/ "far"
open /oɲ/ /ũɲ/ /ɔɲ/ *frogna (Gaulish) > frogne /fʁɔɲ/ "frown"
/oɲ/ closed, late closed /oɲ/ > /oin/ /wɛ̃/ /wɛ̃/ [wæ̃] pvnctvm > /poɲt/ > /point/ > point /pwɛ̃/ "point"; cvnevm > /koɲ/ > /koin/ > coin /kwɛ̃/ "wedge"
open /oɲ/ /ũɲ/ /ɔɲ/ verecvndiam > vergogne /vɛʁˈɡɔɲ/ "shame"
/uɲ/ closed, late closed /yɲ/ > /yin/ /ɥĩ/ /ɥɛ̃/ [ɥæ̃] iv̄nivm > /dʒyɲ/ > /dʒyin/ > juin /ʒɥɛ̃/ "June"
open unattested?

^1 "Context" refers to the syllable context at the Vulgar Latin or Gallo-Romance stage. The contexts are as follows:

  • An "open" context is a stressed syllable followed by at most a single consonant at the Vulgar Latin stage.
  • A "closed" context is any other syllable type (unstressed, or followed by two or more consonants).
  • A "late closed" context is a context that is open at the Vulgar Latin (Proto-Romance) stage but becomes closed in the Gallo-Romance stage due to loss an unstressed vowel (usually /e/ or /o/ in a final syllable).
  • A "palatal" context is a stressed syllable where the preceding consonant has a palatal quality, causing a yod /j/ to be generated after the preceding consonant, before the stressed vowel.

Changes that occurred due to contexts that developed during the Old French stage or later are indicated in the "Modern French" column. In particular, "+#" indicates a word-final context in modern French, which generally evolved due to loss of a final consonant in Old French or Middle French. For example, loss of /θ/ in aimé "loved" (originally /aiˈmɛθ/) occurred in Old French, while loss of /t/ in sot "silly" occurred in Middle French (hence its continuing presence in spelling, which tends to reflect later Old French).

^2 Both /œ/ and /ø/ occur in modern French, and there are a small number of minimal pairs, e.g. jeune /ʒœn/ "young" vs. jeûne /ʒøn/ [ʒøːn] "fast (abstain from food)". In general, however, only /ø/ occurs word-finally, before /z/, and usually before /t/, while /œ/ occurs elsewhere.

^3 The changes producing French moitié /mwaˈtje/ were approximately as follows:

  1. medietātem (Classical/Late Latin form)
  2. /medjeˈtaːtẽː/ (pronunciation c. 1 AD)
  3. /mejjeˈtate/ (Proto-Romance form, with /dj/ > /jj/ and loss of vowel length)[when?]
  4. /mejˈtate/ (loss of intertonic /e/)[when?]
  5. /mejˈtʲate/ (late palatalization of /t/ by preceding /j/)[when?]
  6. /mejˈtʲade/ (first lenition of second /t/, but first one protected by preceding consonant /j/)[when?]
  7. /mejˈtʲaːde/ (lengthening of stressed vowel in open syllable)[when?]
  8. /mejˈtʲaːd/ (Gallo-Romance loss of final unstressed /e/)[when?]
  9. /mejˈtʲaːð/ (second lenition)[when?]
  10. /mejˈtʲaːθ/ (final devoicing)[when?]
  11. /mejˈtiæθ/ (Proto-French changes in "palatal + open" context, with the long /aː/ reflecting the former open-syllable context)[when?]
  12. /meiˈtiɛθ/ (Early Old French vowel changes)[when?]
  13. /moiˈtjɛ/ (Late Old French changes: /ei/ > /oi/, /iɛ/ > /jɛ/, loss of /θ/)[when?]
  14. /mweˈtje/ (Changes to Middle French: /oi/ > /we/, final /ɛ/ > /e/)[when?]
  15. /mwaˈtje/ (Changes to modern French: /we/ > /wa/)[when?]

Chronological history

From Vulgar Latin through to Proto-Western-Romance

  • Introduction of prosthetic short /i/ before words beginning with /s/ + consonant, becoming closed /e/ with the Romance vowel change (Spanish espina, Modern French épine "thorn, spine" < spīnam).
  • Reduction of ten-vowel system of Vulgar Latin to seven vowels; diphthongs ae and oe reduced to /ɛ/ and /e/; maintenance of /au/ diphthong.
  • Loss of final /m/ (except in monosyllables: Modern French rien < rem).
  • Loss of /h/.
  • /ns/ > /s/.
  • /rs/ > /ss/ in some words (dorsum > Vulgar Latin *dossu > Modern French dos) but not others (ursum > Modern French ours).
  • Final /-er/ > /-re/, /-or/ > /-ro/ (Spanish cuatro, sobre < quattuor, super).
  • Vulgar Latin unstressed vowel loss: Loss of intertonic (unstressed and in an interior syllable) vowels between /k/, /ɡ/ and /r/, /l/.
  • Reduction of /e/ and /i/ in hiatus to /j/, followed by palatalization. Palatalization of /k/ and /ɡ/ before front vowels.
    • /kj/ is apparently doubled to /kkj/ prior to palatalization.
    • /dʲ/ and /ɡʲ/ (from /dj/, /ɡj/, and /ɡ/ before a front vowel) become /j/.

To Proto-Gallo-Ibero-Romance

  • /kʲ/ and /tʲ/ merge, becoming /tsʲ/ (still treated as a single sound).
  • /kt/ > /jt/.
  • /ks/ > /js/.
  • First diphthongation (only in some dialects): diphthongation of /ɛ/, /ɔ/ to /ie/, /uo/ (later, /uo/ > /ue/) in stressed, open syllables. That also happens in closed syllables before a palatal, often later absorbed: pēior >> /ˈpejro/ > /ˈpiejro/ >> pire "worst"; noctem > /ˈnojte/ > /ˈnuojte/ >> /nujt/ nuit; but tertium > /ˈtertsʲo/ >> tierz.
  • First lenition (did not happen in a small area around the Pyrenees): chain shift involving intervocalic or word-final consonants: voiced stops and unvoiced fricatives become voiced fricatives (/ð/, /v/, /j/); unvoiced stops become voiced stops. /tsʲ/ (from /k(e,i)/, /tj/) is pronounced as a single sound and voiced to /dzʲ/, but /ttsʲ/ (from /kk(e,i)/, /kj/) is geminate and so is not voiced. Consonants before /r/ are lenited, also, and /pl/ > /bl/. Final /t/ and /d/ when following a vowel are lenited.
  • /jn/, /nj/, /jl/, /ɡl/ (from Vulgar Latin /ɡn/, /ŋɡʲ/, /ɡl/, /kl/, respectively) become /ɲ/ and /ʎ/, respectively.
  • First unstressed vowel loss: Loss of intertonic (unstressed and in an interior syllable) vowels except /a/ when pretonic. That occurred at the same time as the first lenition, and individual words inconsistently show one change before the other. Hence manica > manche but grānica > grange. carricāre becomes either charchier or chargier in Old French. However, in some analyses, the standard for central French was initially for lenition to occur before the unstressed vowel apocope, and patterns of the order being reversed, resulting in voiceless consonants, were loaned from the more Frankish-influenced Northern dialects of Normandy, Champagne and Lorrain, eventually spreading to some other words by analogy, leading to known cases of divergent development, such as grange and granche, and venger and (re)vencher (the latter both from Latin vindicāre) [7]

To Early Old French

  • Spread and dissolution of palatalization:
    • A protected /j/ not preceded by a vowel, when stemming from an initial /j/ or from a /dj/, /ɡj/ or /ɡ(eˌi)/ when preceded by a consonant, became chiefly /dʒ/ via palatalization then affrication: Vulgar Latin /j/ → Late Gallo-Roman /ʝ/ → Early Old French /dʒ/.
    • A /j/ followed by another consonant tends to palatalize that consonant; the consonants may have been brought together by intertonic loss (medietātem > /mejeˈtate/ > /mejˈtʲate/ > moitié, peior > /ˈpejro/ > /ˈpiejrʲe/ > pire, but impeiorāre > /empejˈrare/ > /empejˈrʲare/ > /empejˈriɛr/ > OF empoirier "to worsen").
    • Palatalized sounds lose their palatal quality and eject a /j/ into the end of the preceding syllable, when open; also into the beginning of the following syllable when it is stressed, open, and front (/a/ or /e/): *cugitāre > /kujeˈtare/ > /kujˈdare/ > /kujˈdʲare/ >> /kujˈdiɛr/ OF cuidier "to think". mansiōnātam > /mazʲoˈnada/ > /mazʲˈnada/ > /majzʲˈnjɛðə/ > OF maisniée "household".
      • /tʃ/ and /dʒ/ (including those from later sources, see below) eject a following /j/ normally but do not eject any preceding /j/.
      • Double /ssʲ/ < /ssj/ and from various other combinations also ejects a preceding /j/.
      • Single /dz/ ejects such a /j/, but not double /tts/, evidently since it is a double sound and causes the previous syllable to close; see comment above, under lenition.
      • Actual palatal /lʲ/ and /nʲ/ (as opposed to the merely palatalized varieties of the other sounds) retain their palatal nature and don't emit preceding /j/. Or rather, palatal /lʲ/ does not eject a preceding /j/ (otherwise, it is always absorbed even if depalatalized); palatal /nʲ/ emits a preceding /j/ when depalatalized even if the preceding syllable is closed (ivngit > */ˈjonjet/ > /dʒoɲt/ > /dʒojnt/ joint).
      • Palatal /rʲ/ ejects a preceding /j/ as normal, but the /j/ metathesizes when a /a/ precedes, hence operārium > /obˈrarʲo/ > /obˈrjaro/ (not */obˈrajro/) >> ouvrier "worker".
      • Palatalized labials internal (in the middle of words) become palatal affricates (/pʲ/ > /tʃ/; /bʲ/ and /vʲ/ > /dʒ/; /mʲ/ > /ndʒ/) without emitting a preceding /j/. This development was also seen in Occitan and Ligurian.[8]
  • Second diphthongation: diphthongation of /e/, /o/, /a/ to /ei/, /ou/, /ae/ in stressed, open syllables, not followed by a palatal sound (not in all Gallo-Romance). (Later on, /ei/ > /oi/, /ou/ > /eu/, /ae/ > /e/; see below.)
  • Second unstressed vowel loss: Loss of all vowels in unstressed, final syllables, except /a/; addition of a final, supporting /e/ when necessary, to avoid words with impermissible final clusters.
  • Second lenition: Same changes as in first lenition, applied again (not in all Gallo-Romance). Losses of unstressed vowels may have blocked that change from happening.
  • Palatalization of /ka/ > /tʃa/, /ɡa/ > /dʒa/.
  • Further vocalic changes (part 1):
    • /ae/ > /ɛ/ (but > /jɛ/ after a palatal, and > /aj/ before nasals when not after a palatal).
    • /au/ > /ɔ/.
  • Further consonant changes:
    • Geminate stops become single stops.
    • Final stops and fricatives become devoiced.
    • /dz/ > /z/ unless final.
    • A /t/ is inserted between palatal /ɲ/, /ʎ/ and following /s/ (dolēs > duels "you hurt" but colligis > */ˈkɔljes/ > cuelz, cueuz "you gather"; iungis > */ˈjonjes/ > joinz "you join"; fīlius > filz "son": the z on such words represents /ts/).
    • Palatal /ɲ/, /ʎ/ are depalatalized to /n/, /l/ when final or following a consonant.
      • In first-person verb forms, they may remain palatal when final because of the influence of the palatalized subjunctives.
      • /ɲ/ > /jn/ when depalatalising but /ʎ/ > /l/, without a yod. (*veclum > /ˈvɛlʲo/ > /ˈviɛlʲo/ > viel "old" but cuneum > /ˈkonʲo/ > coin, balneum > /ˈbanjo/ > bain but montāneam > /monˈtanja/ > montagne.)
  • Further vocalic changes (part 2):
    • /jej/ > /i/, /woj/ > /uj/. (placēre > /plajˈdzjejr/ > plaisir; noctem > /nuojt/ > nuit.)
    • Diphthongs are consistently rendered as falling diphthongs, the major stress is on the first element, including for /ie/, /ue/, /ui/, etc. in contrast with the normal Spanish pronunciation.
    • /a/ > /ǝ/, when word-final.

To Old French, c. 1100

  • /f/, /p/, /k/ lost before final /s/, /t/. (dēbet > Strasbourg Oaths dift /deift/ > OF doit.)
  • /ei/ > /oi/ (blocked by nasalization; see below).
  • /ou/ > /eu/, however this is blocked if a labial consonant follows, in which case the segment remains /ou/, ultimately becoming /u/ later.[9][example  needed]
  • /wo/ > /we/ (blocked by nasalization; see below).
  • /a/ develops allophone [ɑ] before /s/, which later develops into a separate phoneme.
  • Loss of /θ/ and /ð/. When it results in a hiatus of /a/ with a following vowel, the /a/ becomes a schwa /ə/.
  • Loss of /s/ before voiced consonant (passing first through /h/), with lengthening of preceding vowel. That produces a new set of long vowel phonemes, as is described more completely in the following section.
  • /u/ > /y/. (This shift, along with the later /o/ > /u/, is an areal feature common to most Gallo-Romance languages.)
  • Word-final /rn/, /rm/ > /r/ (diurnum > EOF jorn > OF jor; vermem > EOF verm > OF ver; dormit > OF dort).

To Late Old French, c. 1250–1300

Changes here affect oral and nasal vowels alike, unless otherwise indicated.

change condition notes
/o/ > /u/ everywhere
/ue/, /eu/ > /œ/ everywhere Nasal /wɛ̃/ segments, for which there had dialectal variation with nasal /ũ/ previously, are all shifted (or returned) to /ũ/ (ultimately becoming /ɔ̃/) before this can occur.
  • Rising diphthongs develop when the first element of diphthong is /u/, /y/, /i/.
  • Stress shifts to second element.
everywhere Hence /yi/ > [yj] > [ɥi]
/oi/ > /we/ everywhere Later, /we/ > /ɛ/ in some words like français; note doublet François.
/ai/ > /ɛ/ everywhere afterward, ⟨ai⟩ is a common spelling of /ɛ/, regardless of origin.
/e/ > /ɛ/ In closed syllables.
  • /ts/ > /s/
  • /tʃ/ > /ʃ/
  • /dʒ/ > /ʒ/
Phonemicization of /a/ vs. /ɑ/ [ɑ] was initially an allophone of /a/ before /s/, /z/ that was phonemicized when /ts/ > /s/.
  • *[ˈtʃatsə] > /ʃas/, chasse ("he hunts").
  • *[ˈtʃɑsə] > /ʃɑs/, châsse ("reliquary, frame")

Later losses of /s/ produced further minimal pairs.

word-internal syllable-final position Consonants in coda position word-internally underwent weakening and loss (Gess 1996). This affected /S/ ([z] before voiced consonants and [s] before voiceless ones), /N/ (=nasal consonants), /l/, and to some extent the most sonorous coda consonant, /r/. Syllable-final /S/ reduced to [h] before deleting. Borrowings into English suggest that the process occurred first when the following consonant was voiced but not when it was unvoiced (this explains the English pronunciations isle vs. feast). This process was accompanied by compensatory lengthening of the preceding vowel. Preconsonantal ⟨s⟩ was retained as a marker of vowel length (sometimes non-etymologically) until being substituted by ⟨ˆ⟩. Syllable-final nasal consonants nasalized and then were absorbed into the preceding vowels, leading to phonemic nasal vowels. Syllable-final /l/ (probably already velarized in this position) vocalized to [w] and fused with the preceding vowel to produce falling diphthongs. Where syllable-final /r/ was weakened and lost word-internally, it was later restored because its deletion was harshly condemned by grammarians.

To Middle French, c. 1500

Changes here affect oral and nasal vowels alike, unless otherwise indicated.

  • au /au/ > /o/.
  • ei /ei/ > /ɛ/ (the [ei̯] diphthong is maintained in Quebec French: neige "snow" [nei̯ʒ] or [naɪ̯ʒ]).
  • Loss of final consonants before a word beginning with a consonant. That produces a three-way pronunciation for many words (alone, followed by a vowel, followed by a consonant), which is still maintained in the words six "six" and dix "ten" (and until recently neuf "nine"), e.g. dix /dis/ "ten" but dix amis /diz aˈmi/ "ten friends" and dix femmes /di ˈfam/ "ten women".
  • Subject pronouns start to become mandatory because of loss of phonetic differences between inflections.
  • Medieval apical s, as in saint, merges into deaffricated c as in ceint, thus merging soft c and s.

To Early Modern French, c. 1700

  • Loss of most phonemically lengthened vowels (preserved in Belgian, Acadian French and Quebec French).
  • Loss of final consonants in a word standing alone. That produces a two-way pronunciation for many words (in close connection with a following word that begins with a vowel), often still maintained: nous voyons /nu vwaˈjɔ̃/ "we see" vs. nous avons /nuz aˈvɔ̃/ "we have". That phenomenon is known as liaison.
  • oi /we/ > /wa/[10] (see above – To Late Old French) or /ɛ/ (étoit > était; note that the spelling was not changed until the 19th century). This also affects certain other instances of /we ~ o̯e/; e.g. moelle /mwal/, poêle /pwɑl/.
    • The pronunciation /we/ is preserved in some forms of Quebec and Acadian French, especially by old speakers.
  • Instances of /h/ were again deleted in the late seventeenth century. The phoneme /h/ had been reintroduced to the language through the absorption of loanwords, primarily of Germanic origin, in which the /h/ was preserved, and these are the /h/ instances that were lost this time around.[11][12] However a Germanic h usually disallows liaison: les halles /, les haies /le.ɛ/, les haltes /le.alt/, whereas a Latin h allows liaison: les herbes /lezɛrb/, les hôtels /lezotɛl/.

To Modern French, c. 2000

  • /r/ becomes a uvular sound: trill /ʀ/ or fricative /ʁ/ (the alveolar trill is maintained in Acadia, Louisiana and some parts of Québec).
  • Merger of /ʎ/ (spelled as il in œil and travail) with /j/ in the 18th century (see Mouillé)
  • Loss of final /ə/. Loss of /ə/ elsewhere unless a sequence of three consonants would be produced (such constraints operate over multiword sequences of words that are syntactically connected). Meridional French tend to be more conservative.
  • Gradual loss of liaison, unless absolutely needed, such as to distinguish quelques-uns from quelqu'un.
  • In Metropolitan French, gradual merging of /œ̃/ and /ɛ̃/, both are realized as [æ̃], but the distinction is maintained in Meridional French, Swiss French, Belgian French and Quebec French.
  • In Metropolitan French, loss of the phoneme /ɑ/, merged with /a/, both are realized as [a], but the distinction is maintained in Swiss French, Belgian French and Quebec French.
  • In Metropolitan French, loss of the phoneme /ə/, merged with /ø/, both are realized as [ø], but the distinction is maintained in Quebec French.
  • In Metropolitan French, loss of the phoneme /ɛː/, merged with /ɛ/, both are realized as [ɛ], but the distinction is maintained in Swiss French, Belgian French and Quebec French.
  • In Metropolitan French, merger of /ɔ/ into /o/ when word-final, but the distinction is maintained in Belgian French.


Progressive nasalization of vowels before /n/ or /m/ occurred over several hundred years, beginning with the low vowels, possibly as early as 900, and finished with the high vowels, possibly as late as c. 1300. Numerous changes occurred afterwards that are still continuing.

The following steps occurred during the Old French period:

  • Nasalization of /a/, /e/, /o/ before /n/ or /m/ (originally, in all circumstances, including when a vowel followed).
  • Nasalization occurs before and blocks the changes /ei/ > /oi/ and /ou/ > /eu/. However, the sequence /õĩ/ occurs because /oi/ has more than one origin: coin "corner" < cvnevm. The sequences /ĩẽn/ or /ĩẽm/, and /ũẽn/ or /ũẽm/, also occur, but the last two occur in only one word each, in each case alternating with a non-diphthongized variant: om or uem (ModF on), and bon or buen (ModF bon). The version without the diphthong apparently arose in unstressed environments and is the only one that survived.
  • Lowering of /ẽ/ and /ɛ̃/ to [æ̃] but not in the sequences /jẽ/ and /ẽj/: bien, plein. The realization of /ẽ/ to [æ̃] probably occurred during the 11th or early 12th century and did not affect Old Norman or Anglo-Norman. Ultimately [æ̃] merged into /ã/.
  • Nasalization of /i/, /u/, /y/ before /n/ or /m/.

The following steps occurred during the Middle French period:

  • Lowering of /ũ/ > /õ/ > /ɔ̃/. (/ũ/ usually comes from original /oN/, as original /u/ became /y/.)
  • Denasalization of vowels before /n/ or /m/ followed by a vowel or semi-vowel. (Examples like femme /fam/ "woman" < OF /ˈfãmə/ < fēminam and donne /dɔn/ "(he) gives" < OF /ˈdũnə/ < dōnat, with lowering and lack of diphthongization before a nasal even when a vowel followed, show that nasalization originally operated in all environments.)
  • Deletion of /n/ or /m/ after remaining nasal vowels (when not protected by a following vowel or semivowel): dent /dɑ̃/ "tooth" < */dãt/ < OFr dent /dãnt/ < EOFr */dɛ̃nt/ < dentem.

The following steps occurred during the Modern French period:

  • /ĩ/ > /ẽ/ > /ɛ̃/ > [æ̃] ([ẽɪ̯̃] in Quebec French). That also affects diphthongs such as /ĩẽ/ > /jẽ/ > /jɛ̃/ (bien /bjɛ̃/ "well" < bene); /ỹĩ/ > /ɥĩ/ > /ɥɛ̃/, (juin /ʒɥɛ̃/ "June" < iūnium); /õĩ/ > /wẽ/ > /wɛ̃/, (coin /kwɛ̃/ "corner" < cuneum). Also, /ãĩ/ > /ɛ̃/, (pain /pɛ̃/ "bread" < pānem); /ẽĩ/ > /ɛ̃/, (plein /plɛ̃/ "full" < plēnum).
  • /ã/ > /ɑ̃/ > [ɒ̃], but the [ã] sound is maintained in Quebec French.
  • /ũ/ > /ɔ̃/ > [õ] ([õʊ̯̃] in Quebec French)
  • /ỹ/ > /œ̃/ ([ɚ̃] in Quebec French). In the 20th century, this sound has low functional load and has tended to merge with /ɛ̃/.

That leaves only four nasal vowels: /ɛ̃/, /ɑ̃/, /ɔ̃/, and /œ̃/, the last often no longer being distinguished from the first.

See also


  1. ^ "Sardegna, isola del silenzio, Manlio Brigaglia". Archived from the original on 2017-05-10. Retrieved 2018-08-24.
  2. ^ In this article:
    • Italics indicate Old French and other Romance language words;
    • An *asterisk marks a conjectured or hypothetical form;
    • Phonetic transcriptions appear /between slashes/, in the International Phonetic Alphabet.
  3. ^ The changes occurred in the majority of Vulgar Latin, specifically the Italo-Western Romance area, which underlies the vast majority of Romance languages spoken in Italy, France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, and Andorra. However, different vowel changes occurred elsewhere, in the Vulgar Latin underlying modern Romanian, Sardinian, Corsican, and a few modern southern Italian varieties.
  4. ^ a b Found as pēior "worse" in many 19th and 20th century editions, but was actually pronounced /ˈpej.jor/, with a short /e/ followed by a geminate /jj/; writing the macron is a convention to mark the resulting syllable weight.
  5. ^ Pope, Mildred K. From Latin to French, with Especial Consideration of Anglo-Norman. Page 183 section 481
  6. ^ Pope, Mildred K. From Latin to French, with Especial Consideration of Anglo-Norman. Page 183 section 481.
  7. ^ Deborah L. Arteaga. Research on Old French: The State and the Art. pp. 162–164.
  8. ^ Operstein, Natalie. Consonant Structure and Prevocalization. Pages 109-110, 112-118
  9. ^ Pope, Mildred K. From Latin to French, with Especial Consideration of Anglo-Norman. Page 185, Section 489.
  10. ^ Huchon, Mireille, Histoire de la langue française, pages 214 and 223.
  11. ^ Mildred Katharine Pope (1934). From Latin to Modern French with Especial Consideration of Anglo-Norman. Manchester University Press. p. 94. ISBN 9780719001765.
  12. ^ Robert McColl Miller; Larry Trask (20 February 2015). Trask's Historical Linguistics. ISBN 9781317541769. Between the fifth and eighth centuries, French borrowed a number of Germanic words with [h]... and [h] thus rejoined the French phonological system... the [h]s had disappeared by the eighteenth century.


  • Boyd-Bowman, Peter (1980), From Latin to Romance in Sound Charts, Georgetown University Press, ISBN 978-0878400775
  • Gess, Randall (1996) Optimality Theory in the Historical Phonology of French. PhD dissertation, University of Washington
  • Harris, Martin (1988), "French", in Harris, Martin; Vincent, Nigel (eds.), The Romance Languages, Oxford University Press, pp. 209–245, ISBN 978-0195208290
  • Kibler, William (1984), Introduction to Old French, Modern Language Association of America, ISBN 978-0873522922
  • Price, Glanville (1971), French Language: Present and Past, Jameson Books, ISBN 978-0844800356

External links

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