Off-topic ( cacographies: French and English spelling, Montreal)

From: Patrick Andries (
Date: Mon Dec 13 1999 - 17:10:23 EST

Alain LaBonté wrote :

> "oñõ" is the standard French prononciation... almost the same as English
> "onion" (it is the same word indeed, just spelled differently), but with
> the "on" nazalized, "à la française".
> The reason for the "wa" to be pronounced "o" in front of "gnon"[ñõ], imho,
> is just that it is difficult to pronounce without slowing down for most
> French speakers. « oñõ » is much easier to pronounce for everybody, in
> particular in "un oignon"... With the liaison, "<u~>n_wañõ" would be a
> bit too much...
This explanation has a major problem: « oignon » has apparently never been pronounced with an initial « oi ». Oignon stems from the Latin unio, -nis, the word is first spelled in French as « oingnun » (1260), « ognon » (1275) and then « oignon » (1332). It is part of a series of words where « ign » was used to represent the « ɲ » sound (the velar-palatal transcribed today by «gn»): montagne/montaigne, encognure/encoignure. The latter word is now only written as « encoignure », it has been a favorite of pronunciation dictionaries for many centuries. All stressed that the « i » should not be pronounced. Today, as literacy has increased (but only so much !?), this older pronunciation is fast losing ground to the modern « speak as you write » tendency, more and more people thus say « a~kwaɲyR ».

The spelling of several related nouns today in French can only be explained by the fact that the same sound could earlier be written « ign » or « gn » (as well as «ngn» and «igni»): cf. moignon, poignet, poigne vs. trogne, trognon, pogne, pognon. The fact that the words in « oign » were pronounced « ogn » is amply attested in Renaissance grammars, dictionaries as well as the writings of spelling reformers from the XVIth century (Mégret, Ramus, etc.). Modern day pronunciation has about completely aligned itself with the spelling of these words. Only place names (e.g. Jodoigne in Belgium) and regional terms (for instance, po(i)gner in Quebec) still seem to resist alongside the notorious « oignon ».

> Alain LaBonté
> Montréal (pronounce Mõ-ray-al, the t is mute),
> because it is 2 words(*) indeed, agglutinated,
> and ending t's are not prounonced in French.
> *: "Mont réal" old French for "Mont royal", i.e. "Royal Mount".

It is not certain Montreal stems from an Old French form since real had evolved into roial and then royal as early as the XIIth-XIIIth century (long before the Island was discovered), it is more likely a popular southern (cf. Spanish and Camino Real) that could have contaminated the northern French name given to the main landmark of the island. Jacques Cartier who discovered the island in 1535 does not speak about Montreal but names its hill « Mont Royal » (« Nous nommasmes icelle montaigne le Mont Royal. ») , a northern and modern form. It is only 40 years later, in 1575, that a cosmographer (de Belleforest) apparently erroneously named the Indian town discovered by Cartier « Montréal », Cartier had called the town Hochelaga and no one had returned since...

Today, no less than 20 place names in France are called Montréal, among which 6 villages, 1 South of Paris but in Langue d'oïl territory (Yonne), 5 in Langue d'oc (Aude, Gers, Drôme, Ardèche) or Franco-Provençal territory (Ain). In the southern part of France, a « swapped » form also exists: « Realmont » (Tarn), its equivalent northern form is « Royaumont » (Val-d'Oise).

Patrick Andries

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