Many different spellings for one sound

If you’re learning planning to start a new life in the sun in France in 2021, you’ve probably started to learn French, whether it be with French lessons online or to attend a French course in Marseille or a French course in Cannes. If you have, you may be surprised by the spelling of this language. Indeed, French has the particularity of using many combinations of letters to represent the same sound. For example, have a look at the following words:

  • Lettre
  • Appartre
  • Lait
  • Arrêt
  • Neige
  • Manège

For the sound [ɛ] alone, you can see here six possible spellings. So why is French spelling so complex? Carry on reading to find out!

To understand the reasons for the complexity of French spelling, we will split the topic into two articles. In this first article, we will focus on the evolution of French from its original language, Latin. And in the second article, we’ll look at how the French themselves have decided to transform their spelling.

One reason – the Latin heritage​​

French belongs to the large family of Romance languages which consist of a wide variety of languages from a common ancestor, Latin. Among Romance languages, we find French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan Romanian, and their different dialects.

Even if French and Latin have common characteristics they are very distinct languages. If Latin speakers were to talk to French speakers today, they would certainly not understand each other. Indeed, between the Latin spoken at the end of the Roman Empire in the fifth century and French today, almost 1,500 years have passed. Over such a long period of time, words have had time to transform, shorten and simplify. For example, it is very difficult to recognise the Latin word “frater” (English: brother) in the French word “frère”.

A typically French evolution – Homophones​​

Sometimes these developments have achieved the same result. Let us take the example of these Latin words.

  • Vermis (English: worm)
  • Versus (English: towards)
  • Vitrum (English: glass)
  • Varius (English: various)
  • Viridis (English: green)

Here are the French equivalents of these words. Watch the video to listen to the pronunciation of the following words in French.

  • Ver
  • Vers
  • Verre
  • vair
  • Vert

Each of these words have exactly the same pronunciation: [vɛʀ]

Different spellings to clarify the meanings

Throughout its history, each of these words has evolved to the same phonetic transformation and as a result, French has developed a large number of homophones. Homophones are words in a language that have the same pronunciation, but do not have the same meaning. There are therefore a lot of homophones in French, and there are even more if we take conjugation into account.

With the verb “to eat”, for example:

  • Je mange (I eat)
  • Tu manges (you eat)
  • Elle/il mange (she eats)
  • Ils/elles mangent (they eat).

In these four cases, even if the spelling of the word “eat” is different, the pronunciation is exactly the same. With so many homophones, you can imagine that there were many problems with reading comprehension and strategies had to be found to facilitate reading. Therefore, we used a variety of spellings to distinguish between the meanings of words.

Now you know one of the reasons why French uses so many letter combinations to write its words. But this is only the first part of the story. I’ll be telling you more in the next article.

If you’re looking for online French classes, want to learn French in Nice or want to find a French course in Cannes or a French course in Marseille, Expatlang will be thrilled to help you. Until then, “salut à tous” and good luck with French, Busy Learners!