Why Does French Have So Many Unpronounced Letters?

Ever struggled with French pronunciation? We explore why French spelling and speaking don’t match up, and how you can learn to live with that.
fountain pen writing french word

One of the greatest obstacles to speaking French for a non-native is literally pronouncing it. True, pronunciation can be an issue in any foreign language, but French pronunciation is especially tough. And one of the main problems is that it seems like the French language has arbitrary rules about not pronouncing certain letters. What is it that makes French pronunciation so difficult?

We looked into the matter to pinpoint what makes French pronunciation such a challenge for English speakers. Along the way, we look at the alphabet, dive into French’s history and try to see if there are any helpful hints that will make it easier for you to parle parfaitement le français (speak French perfectly, that is).

How Does An Alphabet Work?

If you’ve only ever spoken and read a language that uses the Latin alphabet, you probably haven’t thought too much about how it works. An alphabet is based loosely on the principle that spelling should match pronunciation. Ideally, each letter corresponds to a specific sound, which makes this different from other writing systems that are based on symbols and meaning.

If you’re not a native English speaker, you may think it’s pretty hypocritical for us to point at French pronunciation and writing and claim that their spelling system is weird. And, well, yes, you’re right. English is notoriously difficult because words that look nothing alike — wrought and rot — are pronounced the same, whereas words that look similar — tear (paper) and tear (drop) — are pronounced differently. And any attempts to simplify the spelling, like President Theodore Roosevelt’s endorsement of the Simplified Spelling Board in 1906, have failed. So yes, English is horrible to learn to speak, too.

An ideal use of the alphabet would be something similar to what happens in the Spanish language. In Spanish, the pronunciation of a word is entirely predictable based on how it’s spelled, because Spanish letters are (almost) always pronounced the same way. It’s not perfect, but it’s an example of clear, easy-to-comprehend spelling.

Why Is French So Liberal With The Alphabet?

We’ve established how the alphabet works, so now it’s time to look into exactly why French seems to ignore its own spellings. And to be fair, while the French adherence to alphabetical “rules” is loose, it’s probably not any worse than English. One thing French has that English doesn’t is the Académie française, which is an institution that conserves the French language and keeps it from changing as much as it would naturally. But in spite of that, English and French have similar reasons for why their pronunciation is tough for second language learners.

The biggest reason for unpronounced letters is that, at one time, the letters were pronounced. Spelling tends to reflect the language as it was spoken when the language was standardized, rather than how it’s pronounced today. French spelling went through various phases of reformation — no language stays still forever — but some words can trace their spelling back nearly 1,000 years.

One such change is that the last syllable of French words were pronounced less and less historically, which is why today, you often don’t pronounce the last letters in French words. A similar thing happened in English; the silent “e” at the end of words used to actually be pronounced. It’s only because spelling doesn’t evolve together with French speaking that the mismatch occurs.

Another contributor to alphabetical weirdness is “etymological spelling.” Sometimes, a word will reflect the language it comes from, even if it was never actually pronounced that way. The French word paix never pronounced the “x,” but the “x” is still there to reflect the Latin word it comes from: pax

Again, these factors aren’t that unusual for any language. English has just as many quirks for similar reasons; it just manifests in different ways. And if you’re raised speaking a language, you tend not to notice how aggravating the language can be to non-native speakers.

So…Any Tips On How To Handle French Pronunciation?

Sadly, knowing why French elides letters doesn’t necessarily help you pronounce it any better. But there are a few methods you can use to make this easier for you.

  1. Learn the rules. The unpronounced letters aren’t entirely unpredictable in French. You can learn rules, like about le e muet, or “the silent E.” Similarly, you can work on knowing which letters aren’t pronounced when they come at the end of a word (hint: most of them). It’ll take a little bit to get a handle on it, but learning rules is a great shortcut for acquiring a second language.
  2. Listen to the language as much as you can. This one’s a bit obvious, but can’t be stressed enough. If your goal is to speak the language rather than read or write in it, it could be worth it to try to ignore the weird spellings at first to get a grasp on the sound of the language itself. But if you want the full learning experience, try to combine listening and reading so you can cement both of them in your memory together.
  3. Don’t forget to practice. Sometimes, especially when you’re not in a group learning setting, it can be tempting to not actually try pronouncing French words. Again, this should be obvious, but reading along in French and copying how the words sound is a great way to get your brain to wrap itself around the weird spellings. It might take a little longer for you to feel comfortable than it would with other languages, but you’ll see improvement over time.
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