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/seing/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.
The French alphabet is based on the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet, uppercase and lowercase, with five diacritics and two orthographic ligatures.
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 metric prefix kilo- (originally from Greek χίλια khilia “a thousand”): kilogramme, kilomètre, kilowatt, kilohertz, etc.
The usual diacritic marks are the acute (⟨´⟩, accent aigu), the grave (⟨`⟩, accent grave), the circumflex ( ⟨ˆ⟩, accent circonflexe), the diaeresis (⟨¨⟩, tréma), and the cedilla (⟨¸⟩, cédille). Diacritics have no impact on the primary alphabetical order.
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
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, El Niño). Like the other diacritics, the tilde has no impact on the primary alphabetical order
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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”, except for acronyms but not for abbreviations (e.g., CEE, ALENA, but É
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.-U.). Nevertheless, diacritics are often ignored in word games, including crosswords, Scrabble, and Des chiffres et des lettres.
The two ligatures œ and æ, have orthographic value. For determining alphabetical order, these ligatures are treated like the sequences oe and ae.
(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 after 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.
(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). It generally represents the vowel /e/, like ⟨é⟩.
The sequence ⟨ae⟩ appears in loanwords where both sounds are heard, as in maestro and paella.
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.
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 ligatures ⟨æ⟩ and ⟨œ⟩ in Greek loanwords represent the same vowel as ⟨é⟩ (/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).
The Oaths of Strasbourg from 842 is the earliest text written in the early form of French called Romance or Gallo-Romance.
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.
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
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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.
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,[a] 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
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, 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”.
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:
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:
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.