Re: What is the principle?

From: Philippe Verdy (
Date: Sat Mar 27 2004 - 19:09:15 EST

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    From: "Peter Kirk" <>
    > 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
    /dè: è:tr(e)/
    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
    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
    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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