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Highway to the Liaison Zone

or, How to Survive the Danger of Liaisons

A reader wrote to us recently with a very good question:

“I would really like to understand when to use liaisons and when not to. When is it obligatory, when is it optional, and when is it forbidden?”

Though I am an incorrigible linguist, I am going to do my absolute best to not nerd out too hard in the following explanation.

This post will:

  1. Define la liaison and distinguish it from similar processes
  2. Bring up a few necessary background details
  3. Give three lists (not 100% comprehensive, but pretty close) of when la liaison is obligatory, optional, and forbidden (respectively)

1. What it is, and what it isn’t

The first thing to keep in mind is that French really, really doesn’t like two vowels to touch. They need some personal space, and that personal space is ideally made of consonants. To avoid awkward physical contact, there are a few major strategies you need to know and use:

la liaison (English: liaison) – Say we have two words next to each other in a sentence. The first one ends in a vowel, but is written with a silent consonant. The second begins with a vowel (although the written form may begin with a silent <h>, as in homme). Liaison takes the first word’s silent, written consonant and turns it into a spoken consonant, thus sparing the two vowels from the horror of having to be pronounced one directly after the other.

For example: The word les ends in a vowel, since the s at the end is silent. The word amis begins with a vowel. When they’re combined, we prevent disaster by taking the silent, written-only s and giving it a spoken sound (still spelled s, but it will sound like a z). This post will mark where liaison occurs using the symbol ‿ between words: les‿ amis.

Remember: liaison adds a sound between two words that wasn’t there when those words were on their own.

l’enchainement (English: linking) – This is very similar to la liaison, but the key difference is that the first of two spoken words in this case ends in a pronounced consonant, while the second begins with a vowel. The exact same number of sounds are pronounced when the two words are spoken together as when they were on their own. So what changes? The sounds are re-distributed within syllables. All the nerdy things I want to tell you about syllables will have to wait for another day.

For now, consider the rhythm of the following words when they appear on their own:

 il ‘he’… arrive ‘arrives’… à ‘at’ seize ‘sixteen’… heures ‘hours’

But when you combine them into a complete sentence, the sounds link up in ways that don’t care about the word boundaries you see written on a page. Instead, you’ll find that syllables want to start with a consonant, and will even steal the consonant from the end of the previous word if there’s one available. Try saying this sentence out loud by first reading the normal written form, and then looking at the line below it where I’ve typed an X under each syllable. Now look at the version below that where I’ve separated the spoken syllables using a <.>.

Il arrive à seize heures (‘He’ll get here at 4:00 PM’)
X X X     X   X       X

i .la.rri .va .sei.zheures
X X X     X   X       X

l’élision (English: elision) – While la liaison adds a sound that wasn’t there and l’enchainement keeps the same number of total sounds, l’élision deletes a sound in order to keep vowels from touching. That’s right: the vowels find the prospect of physical contact so mortifying that one of them decides to cease to exist. That’s intense.

Elision happens most often with the singular definite articles le and lale + homme = l’homme; la + amie = l’amie. You’ll also see it when si ‘if’ goes before il or ils (s’il, s’ils) but not before elle or really anything else.

2. Some extra details

2.1. Spoken versus written French

I have to remind you of the huge difference between spoken and written French and what it means for us here. French doesn’t want vowels to touch in the spoken language, so the written language’s silent letters don’t automatically help anyone. Because this distinction is so important, I’ll sometimes specify which I mean by using different types of brackets:

Written language in angle brackets, <comme ça>.

Spoken language pronunciations in square brackets and using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), [kɔm sa]. If you don’t know the IPA yet…you should change that as soon as possible. It’s so incredibly useful to learning and improving pronunciation in any language. I’ll probably end up writing a post on that next, in fact. For now, this page is a decent introduction.

2.2. Levels of formality

French is a living language, meaning real humans use it, meaning that there’s a spectrum from formal to informal language. This is directly related to the topic at hand, because the more formal the French, the more liaison you have to use, and the more people will make the mockery of you if you use it where it’s forbidden.

If you’re a non-native speaker, it’s usually best to avoid speaking in the most or the least formal ways. This post generally aims for the sort of level you might use in the workplace, but the kind where you’re speaking with co-workers, not with your scary boss who wears a top hat and a monocle.

2.3. Particularities of pronunciation in la liaison

When you take a silent letter and turn it into a pronounced sound for the purposes of liaison, that letter might not be pronounced the way it usually is in written French. Here are some of the main weirdnesses:

<s> and <x>  → [z]               as in    des‿ idées [de.z‿i.de]

                                                 or        six‿ heures [si.z‿œʁ]

<d>                 → [t]                as in    grand‿ arbre [gʁɑ̃.t‿aʁ.bʁə]

<g>                  → [k] (rare)   as in    sang‿ impur [sɑ̃.k‿ɛ̃pyʁ] (This is the only example I could find of it, and it’s falling out of use. Good riddance, racist/classist expressions)

<f>                  → [v]                as in   neuf ans [nœ.v‿ɑ̃]

Alright. Now, at long last, I will answer the actual question.

3. When you must, when you may, and when you mustn’t use liaison

Notation reminders:

The symbol shows where the liaison border occurs or can occur.

The symbol | shows where a liaison cannot occur.

3.1. When you must (la liaison obligatoire )

Between a determiner (a category including articles, possessive adjectives, and demonstratives) and its associated noun

e.g. un an, les amis, ton avis, vos idées, ces ennemis

When an adjective precedes the noun it describes

e.g. un grand homme

Between a subject pronoun and its associated verb

e.g. nous aimons

Also between the verb and its subject pronoun when they’re inverted

e.g. vont-‿ils à la fête?

When an imperative verb precedes y or en

e.g. vas-‿y!; prends-‿en!

In certain compound words and fixed expressions:

e.g. c’est à dire, de temps en temps

3.2. When you may, but don’t have to (la liaison facultative )

Often between conjugated forms of être or avoir and their complement (this can be a noun or pronoun object, or an adjective)

e.g. elle est intelligente; ils en ont assez

Also between conjugated être and avoir and the past participle of the main verb, when they act as auxiliary verb to it

e.g. ils sont allés

Between a preposition, especially a monosyllabic one, and its complement

e.g. sans espoir, dans une heure

When an adverb that modifies the word directly following it

e.g. bien amusé, très heureux

Note: with beaucoup, liaison sounds pretty snooty. For example, in Nous l’avons beaucoup(‿) aimé, you’re probably better off not pronouncing the final <p> unless you’re wearing a monocle at that very moment.

Sometimes between a verb (that isn’t être or avoir) and its complement (more common for direct objects than indirect ones)

e.g. il prend un café

Sometimes between a plural noun and its following associated adjective (but NOT a singular noun before an adjective; see below)

e.g. des soldats américains (but un soldat | américain)

3.3. When you mustn’t (la liaison interdite )

When a singular noun precedes the adjective that describes it

e.g. un soldat | américain

Between et and anything

e.g. elle est charmante et | intelligente

Between anything and a word beginning with an h aspiré (look in a dictionary to find out whether your <h> is silent or aspiré…unfortunately, that’s the only real way to tell)

e.g. ce ne sont pas des | haricots

Between anything and un (when it’s a number, not an article), huit (even though it doesn’t begin with h aspiré) or onze

e.g. ils en ont | huit

…except: the phrase les uns (et) les autres

Between anything and a word beginning with a glide ([w], [j], [ɥ])

e.g. mon | yaourt; des non et des | oui

…except: des yeux

In certain compound words and fixed expressions:

e.g. nez | à nez

Conclusion

Whew. That was a lot. I hope this article helps as you learn and improve in French pronunciation. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a long time to apply these rules; a lot of this is considered intermediate or advanced-level stuff. And if you have more questions about it, don’t hesitate to contact us.

Speak less badly: verbs and prepositions

When you’re studying another language, English is not your friend. You would do best to forget you know English (if you do) anytime you’re trying to speak or write French.

You might be saying, “But aren’t there tons of cognates?” (Yes, and here’s a list of some 1700 of them.) Or maybe your objection goes something like, “Don’t you realize that the grammar of French is remarkably close to that of English, especially compared to a language like Japanese or Swahili?” (And I’ll admit that it is. They’re relatively very close to each other.)

But listen. Your objections are wrong.

Why are they wrong? Because although English and French share a lot of similarities, that’s not always a good thing.

Why not? It often leads to learners assuming similarities that don’t actually exist. On a vocabulary level, that could be something like taking the English word “crash” and using it (with a spelling change) in French as the verb cracher…the problem being that this means “to spit”, not “to crash”. On a grammatical level, this happens when learners use the word order of English in a French sentence: “I sometimes eat puppies” is a fine English sentence, but Je parfois mange des chiots is not (hopefully you noticed that the placement of the adverb parfois is wrong).

This brings me to one of the most rage-inducing sets of mistakes learners make– and sometimes, continue to make for years, never quite figuring out that French is not English-with-different-words-and-a-silly-accent. That mistake comes from the way a lot of English verbs take prepositions.

Example: “to ask”. You can “ask a question” with no preposition, but as soon as you’re requesting a physical thing, it becomes “to ask for“. Of course, if you assume French is English with the words switched out, you’re going to say (and this hurts me to even type it) *demander pour (which kind of means “to ask on behalf of”, which doesn’t make sense in the way it usually gets used by learners). I have seen it and heard it over and over, read it used non-stop while grading papers and feeling like I needed to scrub myself with steel wool and harsh solvents to get it off of me. French does not associate pour with demander. This French verb meaning “to ask for” requires a direct object, with no preposition: Il a demandé un pain. Oh, and because of this, if you say demander une question, you’ve conveyed the meaning of “to ask for a question”, as an AP test-writer’s boss might do (“I want you to have twenty questions on my desk by Tuesday”). For what you usually mean, you want the verb poserPoser une question. OK?

The same applies to verbs like chercher (“to seek”, “to look for“), écouter (“to listen to“), and many others. Do yourself a favor, and don’t just look up single words in the dictionary. Find either a dictionary that gives context and example sentences, or use a site like linguee.com. That site allows you to enter a word or phrase and see how it’s been used in parallel (translated) texts. Here’s an example:

ask linguee

Pretty great, right? There are so many resources out there that no one really has much of an excuse anymore. Once it clicks for you that even two similar languages like French and English are very different, you’ll be on your way to really learning how to do it right. Good luck.

Ask a linguist: Why does French have grammatical gender?

As a teacher of French, I’ve heard a lot of grievances about the French language, as though if enough people complained, I (of all people) would suddenly do something about it. One of the most fundamental of these gripes is about French’s grammatical masculine/feminine distinction; the argument goes something like this: “Giving nouns genders is arbitrary (OK, most whiners don’t use the word ‘arbitrary’, but that’s what they mean) and requires effort without serving any apparent purpose.” Actually, that usually just comes out as, “Waaah, learning genders is hard.” Just observing that isn’t particularly admirable, but then some students ask this question: “Why would that even exist in a language?”

It’s interesting enough to be worth a discussion, I think. Why does French make use of an arbitrary distinction between masculine and feminine nouns, when doing so appears to give no benefit to speakers and is cognitively costly for learners?

Before we can look at some possible explanations, let’s talk linguistic typology (please? this is my favorite stuff¹).

First: grammatical gender is different from natural gender. Natural gender describes actual gender distinctions in living beings, like humans or lizards or whatever. English makes some distinctions of natural gender (here are some examples on Wikipedia). Grammatical gender is part of a broader phenomenon of noun classes which exist in many of the world’s languages.

Noun classes divide up a language’s nouns into groups, often with different agreement patterns on related adjectives, pronouns, verbs, and even prepositions. (Example from French: the grammatically feminine Rose (as a name) takes a feminine agreement on its adjectives, so “Rose is mean” would be Rose[+feminine] est méchante[+feminine].) French is pretty tame about agreement; some Bantu languages have up to 16 noun classes and they have to agree their noun classes on pretty much everything else in the sentence (including prepositions). Are you still whining about French?

Sometimes noun classes are logically connected to some idea; for example, in Tshiluba (a Bantu language of the Congo) there’s a noun class that means the noun in question is small. Some nouns are always in this class (like peanuts) and other nouns can be taken from their normal class and made small by marking them with the ‘small’ class. But then again, others classes can be completely arbitrary, and nouns inside the classes might have nothing at all in common.

Alright, I can hear you saying (those of you who have indulged me this far), maybe I can see the logically-connected-to-meaning noun classes being useful to humans, what with our tendency to classify and analyze the world around us. But what about the systems with no apparent motivation (like French)?

Well, there’s one problem we face when trying to figure this out: lazy scientists still haven’t invented time travel.² You see, a lot of these noun class/gender distinctions go back to before the historical record began. Even the historically-reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language (the ancestor of languages as distantly-related as Hindi, Farsi, Greek, Lithuanian, French, and English, to name a few) is believed to have made a noun class distinction. According to some researchers (sources 1 [warning: PDF], 2, 3), this was probably a distinction between animate (usually this is a class including humans and other animals capable of movement) and inanimate nouns (plants and other things). Hey, look at that: it started out as a non-arbitrary, motivated distinction. So what happened? Later, a lot of Indo-European languages for which we have historical records can be seen to have three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter (many languages still have this, e.g. German). The neuter gender is close to what they think used to be the inanimate class, while the animate class split off into masculine and feminine by analogy to natural gender.

All that basically goes to say that, as time goes on, languages change and split off into multiple languages, and then those languages change, and so on. English used to have grammatical gender, but gave up on it sometime between the 12th and 15th century (good for us, right?). What probably began as a motivated distinction underwent changes that removed the original meaning of the distinction. By this view, grammatical gender in French and related languages is essentially like human vestigial parts such as the appendix: it used to serve a purpose, but no longer does; the organism (/language) keeps it because it gets passed on from parent to child. This may come as a surprise to you, but no one really cares about adult language learners; you just have to deal with all the irregularities and weirdness. Crying about it takes up valuable memorization time, unless you manage to look at your flash cards through the tears.

This brings me to a final point, going back to the idea of cognitive cost. One argument against keeping no-longer-functional noun classes is that it takes effort to learn and use these forms. But here’s the thing: child language learners don’t care. They seriously do not care. English has hundreds of irregular verbs, but by they time they hit puberty, cognitively normal native English speakers have no problem with them. Or how about the fact that something like 80% of Arabic nouns have an irregular plural form? No problem for a human child. They start to figure this stuff out while they’re still pooping in their pants. Given that capacity, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal for a kid to classify every noun in their language by two, three, or 16 different classes. It’s a relatively small task in the grand scheme of acquiring a human language.

Now stop complaining.

 

¹Seriously, if you are actually willing to engage me in a conversation about this stuff, I will love you forever. That can be platonic or romantic; just let me know.

²I’m kidding, scientists, you’re not all lazy. But you guys could probably pick up the pace a bit, don’t you think?

France in an alternate universe

Google Books is always good for some interesting light reading. The biggest set of free books are the ones that have fallen out of copyright (meaning that they’re old). And, as I was skimming through a book from 1901, written by an Englishman and entitled The French People, I realized just how many different ways the past could have gone.

french people

Whoa. “Representative institutions are unsuited to the French people”. The French people in the early 20th century must have been desperate for a dynasty of Napoleons who would dominate Western Europe. When the last vestiges of the Revolution finally fizzled out, rejected as much for their abuse of power as their failure to govern effectively, Napoleon VI would rally the nation from its depression and poverty, call for a new nationalist French movement, and lead the people on to a glorious new future where la patrie would rule the world. The year would be 1932. Rallies would be held, the streets lined with Jeunes Légionnaires in uniform, saluting as the Emperor’s convoy passed. The United Kingdom, still believing in appeasement, would barely bat an eye when l’Empire began to annex its neighbors. But eventually, they would have to face the truth when bombing raids began to fly over their own island.

Long story short: France could have been the bad guy in the world war of an alternate universe.

Oh, and here’s the link to that book.

The rumors aren’t true: The French language

I believe it was Rousseau who wrote that the French language was logical and rational (but I can’t find the quote right now- anyone want to do that for me?) at a time when logic and rationality were very fashionable. Learners of French prepositions and personal pronouns (among many other concepts) would beg to differ. Common complaints list the irregularity of forms and spellings, the verbal system, and grammatical concepts that don’t exist in English. So which is it: is French the language of enlightenment and reason, or is it a chaotic mess of nonsense designed to ruin your life?

I’m going to spoil the anticipation and tell you that it’s neither. What you need to understand is that French is just another human language; it’s not particularly special or unique in any way, either in its features or its history. In fact, when compared with languages like Navajo or Arabic, French practically looks like “English with a silly accent”. Or vice-versa.

exceptional

Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss dude who wrote in French, influenced the field of modern linguistics a ton. One of his best-known and most thoroughly-debated ideas is l’arbitraire du signe (the arbitrariness of the sign). To put it simple, this idea states that, for example, there is nothing naturally dog-like about the word ‘dog’, or chien, or كلب or any word you like that means dog. It’s just sounds which, by the unspoken agreement of speakers of a language, symbolizes the real-world creature which we call ‘dog’ in English.

So there’s nothing logical about most words. How about stringing them together into grammatical sentences? I hate to break it to you, but this is another area in which things appear to be pretty arbitrary. Take the idea of basic sentence order: different languages use different orders for subjects (S), objects (O), and verbs (V). SOV / SVO / VSO / VOS / OSV / OVS— all of these are possible orders for the basic parts of a sentence. There’s nothing more or less logical about any of the possible orders.

OK, so if vocabulary and grammar are arbitrary, what does that say about logic vs. chaos? In relative terms, languages are more or less equal in their chaos. In absolute terms, yeah, they’re all crazy and weird, but in different ways. If languages weren’t adequate for their speakers, they (the speakers) would either change them or pick a different language.

That doesn’t mean that all languages are equally hard to learn. But the biggest factor that changes how hard they are is the language you’re coming from, and how similar or different it is to/from the language you’re trying to learn. English to French? Not so bad, because they have a lot of vocabulary, grammar, and history in common. English to Tshiluba? (That’s a real language, spoken in the Congo, by the way) They’re two unrelated languages with very little history in common. The grammar and vocabulary are very different, and so it’s going to be a bit tougher.

Now you know: everyone is wrong. French isn’t logical, and it isn’t a total mess. Like pretty much all human languages, it does what it needs to do for its speakers. It does OK.

Babies and brains

Babies are amazing, as this comic points out. They sit there, eating and sleeping and making a mess of themselves, and without any special instruction or methods (or textbooks, I might add) they somehow just know that language is a thing, they find the patterns in the noises they hear coming out of adult mouths (patterns which the adults are often unaware of) and within a few years, they’re able to perform soaring feats of syntax, morphology, and semantics.

baby grammar

Believe it or not, those weird symbols all mean things, and the things they mean are going on in your brain right now.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to learn more languages that way? The classical school of grammar didn’t think so. They held that the best way to know a language was to memorize, organize, and memorize some more. The chaotic way that babies just take all the input and figure out the tangle must not have sat well with the Romans or the wanna-be Romans of later European history, because they went in almost the exact opposite direction of language learning.

bathroom

I don’t know how to ask that question in Latin.

Sometime in the 1960s or 70s, though, the field of language teaching, fueled by the free spirit of the times, distanced itself from rote memorization and began developing other methods. Many of them were a return in the direction of the baby method, but since that way doesn’t need books (or teachers), the teachers had themselves figuring more prominently in the new methods, while still treating their students like babies. Methods like Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) and the Inductive Method put learners in contact with the language (and may even ask them to use it) before telling them how it works.

As I see it, the main problem with this approach is that you and I are no longer babies. The pros outweigh the cons, I believe: sure, you can’t brilliantly learn an entire language with native proficiency in just a few years, but you also already have a language, and you can dress and feed yourself, too, I hope. Already having a language can be a bit problematic for a learner, though. It means that when you think about a different language, you’re doing so in your native one. You can be tempted to make assumptions (usually incorrect) about how the language you want to learn works. And instead of a clean slate, you kind of have a clutter going on in your head. No offense.

One more beef with these baby-like methods, especially CLT: they’re forced to work with bad ratios in a classroom. One teacher is likely to have 30 students, which is much less attention per student than all but the most unfortunate babies get. That means that students are often interacting with each other (or told to, anyway) in the target language, when none of them really know how it works. They’re spitting errors at each other right and left, and they don’t even know it. This can lead to reinforcement of those errors, which follow learners all the way to advanced study or embarrassment in another country. The metaphor I was going to use (like a room full of babies trying to learn language with limited adult input) is, unfortunately, a real thing. A study comparing crowded Romanian orphanages and biological families showed that “Children who were institutionalized and children in foster care for a brief time showed substantial language delays, with some of these children not yet producing intelligible words.”

baby language

“Look, this is going nowhere. We’re just not communicating.”

Why am I telling you this? Well, I’ll be honest and tell you that I’d really like people to buy What The French?! This rant about language teaching methods and babies comes from me studying the field of language teaching and being frustrated by both sides of the spectrum: the stodgy Romans obsessed with charts and the wild-child hippies of language learning today. When my distinguished colleague and I wrote What The French?!, we tried to find a middle ground. We never hide the mechanics of grammar from you, because you’re not a baby. But the main strength of the book is that, after explaining the grammar in non-linguist terms, we show how it plays out in the language itself with example sentences. You can use an understanding of how the parts of language fit together to be more confident in your own use of those parts. And to make sure you can produce the structures, there are always interactive quizzes at the end of a chapter in What The French?!

I think it’s a pretty good book if you’re trying to learn French for the first time in a room full of non-babies, catch up in a grammar class that’s going way too fast, or brush up after not using the language for a while. But I co-wrote the thing, so I have to say that (and I’m not allowed to review it on the online store. Could you do that? That would be great).

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