From: Philippe Verdy (email@example.com)
Date: Sat Mar 27 2004 - 19:09:15 EST
From: "Peter Kirk" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
> When I learned French at school we were taught that all French initial
> h's were silent. But I'm sure there is a lot wrong with French as I was
> taught it.
Well it's true that we almost NEVER pronounce any leading h like in English or
German (at least with the most common French accent), this does not mean that
all leading H are equal.
In fact we have a VERY STRONG rule which is both orthographic/lexical and
phonetic where we differentiate really silent leading 'h' (that occur before a
vowel, and always look like if they were never present), this case being less
common than the "aspirated" h (in fact there's no aspiration at all for the most
common accent or with normal pronunciation, unless one wants to emphsaize the
difference in ambiguous contexts for example between "un être" (a being) and "un
hêtre" (name of a tree, starting with a "aspirated" h either silently or with an
The "aspirated" h prohibits making any voiced linking with a previous
For example: "un hêtre" or "des hêtres" must be pronounced /u~: è:tR(e)/ and
but not like "un être" or des êtres" pronounced /u~nè:tR(e)/ and /dèzètR(e)/
It also PROBIBITS the ellision of the final vowel of articles:
"le hêtre", "le bois de hêtres", but definitely NOT "l'hêtre" or "le bois
So an "aspirated h" acts like a full consonnant because it clearly separates two
syllables which must never be linked together with a diphtong or by assimilating
a previous vowel or consonnant with the next vowel or consonnant. All is as if
there was a voiced h, except that it has a null duration.
On the opposite, the more rare "unaspirated" h acts as if there was no
consonnant at all, and so REQUIRES linking with a previous consonnant:
"un habit" or "des habits" pronounced /u~nabi:/ or /dèzabi:/, exactly like if
there was not any "h", i.e. like with:
"un être" or "des êtres" pronounced /u~nè:tR(e)/ and /dèzètR(e)/ (the final n or
s is pronounced)
This differenciation is so strong in French that it is marked in French
dictionnaries, as it affects both the spoken language (pronounced consonant
links) and the written language (it's even a grammatical rule for the case of
probihition or requirement of article ellisions with apostrophes).
The convention used in "Le Petit Larousse", and "Le Petit Robert" (the most
popular French dictionnaries, often cited as references for modern French), but
also in other dictionnaries like the "normative" traditional "dictionnaire de
l'Académie Française", or in reference books like encyclopaedias, or foreign
editions, or in translation dictionnaries) is to mark the dictionnary entries at
the letter H with a leading asterisk before all words that have an aspirated h
(of course this is only a "standard" notation in dictionnaries, there's no need
to use the asterisk in normal texts).
You'll see in any good French dictionnary that a majority of entries are shown
with that leading asterisk, just meaning that most leading h in French are
aspirated and thus have a distinctive phonetic. You you can't really say that
these H are completely silent because most of the time they can be heard
(additionally, a aspirated h often has the effect of lengthening the duration of
the vowel sound that follows it, so here also you can "hear" the presence of
these aspirated h which is a leading vowel modifier that affects the rithm of
I have been told that Italian has a similar behavior for its words with leading
H that are normally not pronounced. With IPA I think that the notation for such
unpronounced consonnant that acts as a strong phoneme separator is /(h)/ which
corresponds to this "aspirated h". And other silent h are simply NOT noted in
IPA (as if they were not written at all in the orthograph).
--- Note finally that French is nearly toneless, in complete opposition to Chinese where tonality is so much important: French tones are not used for lexical differentiation, but to allow emphasizing some words and mark the grammatical structure of a sentence, and so you can "sing" French very easily with lots of freedom on tones. French children often have a monotonal speech, and adults use tonality much more often to mark their intention or feeling, without changing any words or even the phonetic. This explains why French have so much difficulties to learn to speak or even understand Chinese as they can't hear lexical differences marked by tonality, also notably because French uses a much narrower and more grave band of frequencies for the differentiation of phonemes (we have very few diphtongs in French, unlike English, but we use nasalisation of short vowels, and there's not a strong differentiation between short and long vowels). And why the "French" accent with foreign language includes so many errors in the correct tonality and rythm of English, Spanish or German. This also explains why non French natives have difficulties to understand regional French accents which vary often by their rythm or "musical" tonality (this is not a problem though for native frenches, as long as vowels, or more importantly consonnants, are not affected too much). And unlike English, the french orthograph is much nearer and more regular from its phonetic (French and Italian have however a more complex grammar with lots of "exceptions", but even these exceptions are reflected similarly in both the speech and the written form). Not a lot of French words have a irregular spelling. The lexical orthographic difficulties come often with unvoiced final e, or with the irregular conjugated verbs or the plural of some words. But a child in school can successfully learn to read correctly in just 1 year nearly every French word, even if he does not know its meaning or has never heard it before. What is difficult for French children is not reading words themselves, but adding rythm and tonality to give sense to the read sentences according to their grammatical and semanctic meaning. French lexical writing difficulties come with the various ways to write the same phonemes (for example "au" or "eau", or some single/double consonnants, or other silent consonnants like "t" or "d", "s" or "x", or the difference between "ê" and "è" which is not clear in modern French as the circumflex often notes a missing "s" which was removed from the modern speech) and to recognize the presence of feminine and plural forms for adjectives or plural forms of nouns (which are most often not pronounced in French as they are in English). Most of these characteristics occur similarly in Italian, except that Italian speech has a very fast rythm which makes it difficult for French natives to parse consonnants, because French speech generally uses long and very distinctful consonnants which require more "breath", and consequently more frequent "pauses"; these pauses are marked in French by punctuation according to the general grammatical structure of phrases and the semantic of sentences. This tends to create longer sentences containing more information in the same sentence. The slower rithm of native spoken French is more natural than the "modern" rythm found in translations of native English films, because it requires more efforts to mark the grammatical structure with tonality. But this slower rithm of french also allows taking the time to think about the sentence and how to articulate it with grammatical constructions that are then more important in French than in English, and also allows choosing among a wider range of terms to mark small differences of semantic or style or emotion.
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