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Silent Spellings

Having worked as a French teacher in the US, I was forced not only to learn French grammar but also reflect on how to explain it and make it understandable to English speakers. I can confidently say that one of the hardest parts of learning French, for beginners anyway, is learning French spelling particularly because of all of the silent letters. However, I was surprised to find after living in France that the French themselves have problems spelling.

Whereas certain languages such as Spanish and Italian are phonetic, meaning words are spelled as they sound, for French this is not the case. English is also particularly difficult for spelling, and like French, is also not a phonetic language. Think about it, why are the pronunciations of ‘enough’ ‘through’ and ‘though’ all different? This is very difficult for people learning English. School spelling bees are a great example of a way we have tried to make an activity out of learning English spelling.

To specify the particular difficulties of French spelling, I’m not talking simply about the equivalent to our sayings like ‘i before e except after c’ or other rhymes to help us remember the order of letters. French spelling is difficult because it reveals, quite simply, if the person writing knows the rules of French grammar or not. Think of it as the difference between writing ‘they’re’ ‘their’ or ‘there’ or writing ‘its’ instead of ‘it’s’. These are the types of spelling traps that French is full of, and as I said, the French are just as prone as non-native speakers to making these mistakes. To prove my point, I took a picture of a handwritten note left on the lockers of the gym I belong to, reminding gym-users to remove their locks from the lockers.


 Translation with grammatical/spelling error : We remind you that it is not allowed to leave locks on lockers in the lockeroom. Any locks left at the end of the day will be to break and to remove in 2 days time. Thank you for your cooperation.

The same type of spelling error is repeated twice in this note, the word casser (to break) is in the infinitive form, and should be in the adjective form cassé (broken). The same goes for the word retirer (to remove) which should be retiré (removed). A French person would make this kind of mistake for the same reason that an English speaker could make a mistake between ‘their’ and ‘they’re’, that is, the pronunciation of casser and cassé in French is exactly the same.

What’s the point of looking at this kind of error ? It demonstates not only the difficulty of French spelling (this is a pretty tame example, but I’ll give a more difficult one later), but also shows that understanding French grammar is very important to be able to write in French, for both native and non-native speakers. The French learn their language and its grammar rigorously in school. Obviously, not everyone learns it well but people simply would not be able to write grammatically correct French if they didn’t learn the grammar of their language. English is much more forgiving in this sense and, in my opinion, requires less explicit grammar study in order to write.

To give a more complex but still very common example, I will approach the domain of direct and indirect object pronouns. This was one of the hardest things to teach to English-speaking students, and if you search ‘direct’ and ‘indirect object’ in French, you will come across many French people asking the same questions on internet forums. Two example sentences to illustrate my point :

Ma sœur s’appelle Jane. (My sister’s name is Jane.)
Correct : Je l’ai vue la semaine dernière. (I saw her last week)
Incorrect : Je l’ai vu la semaine dernière. (I saw her last week)  

In French, when you have a direct object pronoun that precedes a verb in past tense (passé composé) you must make agreement between the object and the verb. In other words, when you have a feminine pronoun (a word like she) you have to mark the verb in your sentence with an ‘e’. The difficulty, again is that the pronunciation between the correct and incorrect sentence is exactly the same. When children learn French growing up they can’t hear these distinctions in grammar, and so they wouldn’t naturally write them. They learn them through grammar lessons and writing practice.  

As I mentioned earlier, writing correctly the sentence above involves solid knowledge of French grammatical rules. The writer has to identify an object pronoun as direct or indirect, remember that you make agreement only in certain tenses, and only when the pronoun is before the verb.  Pretty complicated stuff.

Incidentally, a book I read this summer about the history of French (called quite simply The Story of French) talks about this almost ridiculous complexity between French grammar and spelling, which generally is only visible in writing. The authors of the book point out that many languages, English in particular, will often accept grammatical errors as the ‘norm’ when they become commonly used (such as the loss of the relative pronoun ‘whom’ in English). When the majority of the population misuses certain words or ignores certain grammatical rules, it can become generally accepted to no longer observe those rules in writing.

This type of transformation would make sense in French. Perhaps not for the locker example, but certainly for the direct object pronoun example, where the presence or absence of an ‘e’ is only apparent in writing. But according to the authors of this book the French do not even broach the subject of such changes in writing, for fear of appearing "ignorant or illiterate". This is also probably heightened by the fact that written French is clearly in a higher register than spoken French (whereas in American English, we tend to write as we speak).

It’s true that France is a very hierarchical society, and the French language is a key element in upholding this hierarchy. Changing what seems like superfluous grammar to me probably also indicates my underlying American ‘pragmatism’ and the fairly fluid use and modifications we accept in American English. In other words, I suppose I’m approaching a very French issue with a very American perspective.

So rather than waiting for the French to revise their spelling rules, my time will probably be better spent reviewing some of those tricky grammar points on internet forums.  

Quotation : Jean-Benoît Nadeau, Julie Barlow, The Story of French. St. Martin’s Press : New York, 2006, p. 374.   


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