The mystery of French silent letters explained

If you’re planning to start a new life under the sun in France in 2021, you’ve probably started to learn French, whether it be with French lessons online, a French course Marseille or a French course Cannes. If you have, you’ve certainly noticed that there are many silent letters in French. That is to say, letters that we write, but that we don’t pronounce. For example in the following words:

  • Vingt
  • Froid
  • Pied
  • Camp

You can listen to the pronunciation of these words by watching the video in this blog. This is all quite strange, right? Why are there silent letters in French ? Why isn’t French pronounced the way it’s spelt? This is what you’ll find out with this article. If you want to know more about the different spellings of French, you can also read our Why is French spelling so complex?

How did French evolve from Latin ?

If you learn French in Nice, I’m sure you know that this is a language that comes from Latin. But between Latin and modern French, words have changed a lot. The pronunciation of French has become much simpler compared to Latin and has caused the appearance of many words that have the same pronunciation, but do not have the same meaning. These words are called homophones. To learn more about this topic, please watch this video or read this article.

When talking to someone, homophones are not much of a problem. If you are not sure you understand the exact meaning of a word, you can always ask for an explanation (exactly the same as during a French course).

When reading, the context is usually sufficient to help us interpret the meaning. But in some cases, that’s not enough. If there is no one to confirm the meaning for us, it can be very difficult to interpret a text when two words are too similar.

One sound, several possible writings

The French, therefore, used different strategies to facilitate reading. The first solution was to use accents or different letter combinations to write the sounds. For example, the sound [o] in French can be written:

With the letter O,
The letter O with a circumflex accent (Ô),
We can also write it “AU”,
Or even “EAU”,

As, for example, in the following words:

Pô, as the river Pô in Italy,
Pau as in the city of Pau, in the south of France

Using Latin spelling to distinguish word meanings

The second strategy was to use knowledge of the original Latin words to clarify the situation. Let’s use the example of these two homophones:
Vingt (twenty)
Vin (wine)

These two words are pronounced exactly the same. In order to distinguish these two words in writing, French specialists have used the Latin origin of these words to define the spelling. “Vingt” comes from the Latin word “viginti”. And “vin” comes from the Latin “vinum”.

For the number twenty, the two letters “G” and “T” have been added to the French in homage to the Latin word that also has these letters (viGinTi).

Thus, in writing, we now clearly see the difference between the word “vingt”, the number and the word “vin” the drink. But to find this logical, one must know Latin. Today, in France, Latin is still taught in middle and high schools, but the majority of students do not learn it – as it’s optional.

Thus, for many French people and most students attending French lessons, the “G” and the “T” of “vingt” only represent a writing rule that must be learned without asking questions.

Why was Latin so important for the French?

Even if there are many homophones in French, that does not explain why we chose to adopt an etymological writing; that is to say a writing based on the origin of words. So why does French lean so heavily on Latin spelling instead of other simpler options? It is very important to point out that throughout its history, Latin has been used as a language of scientific and religious education all across Europe.

If a person spoke Latin it meant that they had studied and it said much about their social status, especially during times when going to school was not as easy as it is today.

Here is an example that shows the social importance of Latin. You have probably heard of the French Academy, the institution in charge of determining the rules of French. The French Academy was created in the 17th century, in 1635.

Complex spelling for educated people

In 1673, the French Academy asked François Eudes de Mézeray to establish the rules for writing French. For him, the writing of French should help to “distinguish between the scholars and the ignorants”. That is, to ensure that learning how to write requires many hours of study and reflects the level of education of the person learning.

François de Mézeray devised particularly complex writing rules which required a good knowledge of Latin in order to understand its logic. Today, fortunately, many of these rules have disappeared and the writing of French has become relatively simpler. But in the writing of French today, there is still a trace of the importance that has been given to the Latin language in society.

In some cases this has led to completely surreal situations , for example with these two words:

“Fils” (son).

These two words represent the exact opposite of what we said previously. They are spelled the same way, but they have a completely different pronunciations and instead of making it easier to read, well sometimes they make it harder.

The word son is pronounced, [fis], but is written with an “L” to recall the Latin word “filius”.

While the word for “threads” is pronounced as it is spelled and it comes from the Latin “filum”.

In this situation, it would obviously be much more logical to simplify the spelling of the word “son” to make it phonetic and thus facilitate reading in many situations.

What about French spelling today?

Today, French spelling is hybrid. That is to say, it is half-phonetic, half-etymological.

Even if writing French seems complex to you, you should not be afraid of it. French people often make mistakes when they write. So if you are attending online French classes, let me give you a piece of advice: focus on proofreading strategies for your texts during your French lessons online.

We will have the opportunity to talk about these strategies in other articles. I hope this has taught you a bit more about French and its spelling.

As for me, I’ll be seeing you in the next article and until then, “salut à tous” and good luck with French, Busy Learners!