Phonological history of French

Old French History of French Liaison (French)

French exhibits perhaps the most extensive phonetic changes (from Latin) of any of the Romance languages. Similar changes are seen in some of the northern Italian regional languages, such as Lombard or Ligurian. Most other Romance languages are significantly more conservative phonetically, with Spanish, Italian, and especially Sardinian showing the most conservatism, and Portuguese, Occitan, Catalan, and Romanian showing moderate conservatism.[1]

French also shows enormous phonetic changes between the Old French period and the modern language. Spelling, however, has barely changed, which accounts for the wide differences between current spelling and pronunciation. Some of the most profound changes have been:

Only some of the changes are reflected in the orthography, which generally corresponds to the pronunciation of c. 1100–1200 CE (the Old French period) rather than modern pronunciation.

This page documents the phonological history of French from a relatively technical standpoint. See also History of French#Internal history for a less technical introduction.


A profound change in very late spoken Latin (Vulgar Latin, the forerunner of all the Romance languages) was the restructuring of the vowel system of Classical Latin. Latin had thirteen distinct vowels: ten pure vowels (long and short versions of a, e, i, o, u), and three diphthongs (ae, oe, au).[2] What happened to Vulgar Latin is set forth in the table.[3]

Essentially, the ten pure vowels were reduced to the seven vowels /a ɛ e i ɔ o u/, and vowel length was no longer a distinguishing feature. The diphthongs ae and oe fell in with /ɛ/ and /e/, respectively. Au was retained, but various languages (including Old French) eventually turned it into /ɔ/ after the original /ɔ/ fell victim to further changes.[citation needed]

Development of French pronunciation over time
("to sing")
Latin Old French Modern French
spelling pronunciation spelling pronunciation
Infinitive cantāre chanter /tʃanˈtæɾ/ chanter /ʃɑ̃ˈte/
Past Part. cantātum chanté(ṭ) /tʃanˈtæ(θ)/ chanté /ʃɑ̃ˈte/
Gerund cantandō chantant /tʃanˈtant/ chantant /ʃɑ̃ˈtɑ̃/
1sg. indic. cantō chant /tʃant/ chante /ʃɑ̃t/
2sg. indic. cantās chantes /ˈtʃantəs/ chantes /ʃɑ̃t/
3sg. indic. cantat chante(ṭ) /ˈtʃantə(θ)/ chante /ʃɑ̃t/
1pl. indic. cantāmus chantons /tʃanˈtuns/ chantons /ʃɑ̃ˈtɔ̃/
2pl. indic. cantātis chantez /tʃanˈtæts/ chantez /ʃɑ̃ˈte/
3pl. indic. cantant chantent /ˈtʃantə(n)t/ chantent /ʃɑ̃t/
1sg. subj. cantem chant /tʃant/ chante /ʃɑ̃t/
2sg. subj. cantēs chanz /tʃants/ chantes /ʃɑ̃t/
3sg. subj. cantet chant /tʃant/ chante /ʃɑ̃t/
1pl. subj. cantēmus chantons /tʃanˈtuns/ chantions /ʃɑ̃ˈtjɔ̃/
2pl. subj. cantētis chantez /tʃanˈtæts/ chantiez /ʃɑ̃ˈtje/
3pl. subj. cantent chantent /ˈtʃantə(n)t/ chantent /ʃɑ̃t/
2sg. impv. cantā chante /ˈtʃantə/ chante /ʃɑ̃t/
2pl. impv. cantāte chantez /tʃanˈtæts/ chantez /ʃɑ̃ˈte/

Vowel length became automatically determined by syllable structure, with stressed open syllables having long vowels and other syllables having short vowels. Furthermore, the stress on accented syllables became more pronounced in Vulgar Latin than in Classical Latin. That tended to cause unaccented syllables to become less distinct, while working further changes on the sounds of the accented syllables. That especially applied to the new long vowels, many of which broke into diphthongs but with different results in each daughter language.[citation needed]

Old French underwent more thorough alterations of its sound system than did the other Romance languages. Vowel breaking is observed to some extent in Spanish and Italian: Vulgar Latin focu(s) "fire" (in Classical Latin, "hearth") becomes Italian fuoco and Spanish fuego. In Old French, it went even further than in any other Romance language; of the seven vowels inherited from Vulgar Latin, only /i/ remained unchanged in stressed open syllables:[citation needed]

Furthermore, all instances of Latin long ū > Proto-Romance /u/ became /y/, the lip-rounded sound that is written u in Modern French. That occurred in both stressed and unstressed syllables, regardless of whether open or closed.

Latin au did not share the fate of /ɔ/ or /o/; Latin aurum > OF or, "gold": not *œur nor *our. Latin au must have been retained at the time such changes were affecting Proto-Romance.

Changes affecting the consonants were also quite pervasive in Old French. Old French shared with the rest of the Vulgar Latin world the loss of final -M. Since this sound was basic to the Latin noun case system, its loss leveled the distinctions upon which the synthetic Latin syntax relied, forcing the Romance languages to adapt a more analytic syntax, based on word order. Old French also dropped many internal consonants when they followed the strongly stressed syllable; Latin petram > Proto-Romance */ˈpɛðra/ > OF pierre; cf. Spanish piedra ("stone").

Table of Old French outcomes of Latin vowels
Letter Classical
Early Old French
(through early 12th c.)
Later Old French
(from late 12th c.)
closed open closed open
a /a/ /a/ ⟨a⟩ /a/ ⟨e, ie⟩ /æ, iə/ ⟨a⟩ /a/ ⟨e, ie⟩ /ɛ, jɛ/
ā /aː/
ae /ai/ /ɛ/ ⟨e⟩ /ɛ/ ⟨ie⟩ /iə/ ⟨e⟩ /ɛ/ ⟨ie⟩ /jɛ/
e /e/
oe /oi/ /e/ /e/ ⟨e⟩ /e/ ⟨ei⟩ /ei/ ⟨oi⟩ /oi/ > /wɛ/
ē /eː/
i /i/ /ɪ/
y /y/
ī /iː/ /i/ ⟨i⟩ /i/
ȳ /yː/
o /o/ /ɔ/ ⟨o⟩ /ɔ/ ⟨uo⟩ /uə/ ⟨o⟩ /ɔ/ ⟨ue⟩ /wɛ/ > /ø/
ō /oː/ /o/ /o/ ⟨o⟩ /o/ ⟨ou⟩ /ou/ ⟨o(u)⟩ /u/ ⟨eu⟩ /eu/ > /ø/
u /u/ /ʊ/
ū /uː/ /u/ ⟨u⟩ /y/
au /aw/ /aw/ ⟨o⟩ /ɔ/

In some contexts, /oi/ became /e/, still written oi in Modern French. During the early Old French period, it was pronounced as the writing suggests, as /oi/ as a falling diphthong: /oi̯/. It later shifted to become rising, /o̯i/, before becoming /o̯e/. The sound developed variously in different varieties of oïl: most of the surviving languages maintain a pronunciation as /we/, but Literary French adopted a dialectal pronunciation, /wa/. The doublet of français and François in modern French orthography demonstrates the mix of dialectal features.[citation needed]

At some point during the Old French period, vowels with a following nasal consonant began to be nasalized. While the process of losing the final nasal consonant took place after the Old French period, the nasal vowels that characterize Modern French appeared during the period in question.[citation needed]

Table of vowel outcomes

The following table shows the most important modern outcomes of Vulgar Latin vowels, starting from the seven-vowel system of Proto-Western-Romance stressed syllables: /a/, /ɛ/, /e/, /i/, /ɔ/, /o/, /u/. The vowels developed differently in different contexts, with the most important contexts being:

Note that the developments in unstressed syllables were both simpler and less predictable. In Proto Western Romance there were only five vowels in unstressed syllables: /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/, as low-mid vowels /ɛ/, /ɔ/ were raised to /e/, /o/. These syllables were not subject to diphthongization and many of the other complex changes that affected stressed syllables. This produced many lexical and grammatical alternations between stressed and unstressed syllables. However, there was a strong tendency (especially beginning in the Middle French period, when the formerly strong stress accent was drastically weakened) to even out these alternations. In certain cases in verbal paradigms unstressed variant was imported into stressed syllables, but mostly it was the other way around, with the result that in Modern French all of the numerous vowels can appear in unstressed syllables.

Table of modern outcomes of Vulgar Latin vowel combinations
Gallo-Romance Context 1 Proto-French Later Old French Modern French Example
Basic vowels
/a/ closed /a/ /a/ /a/ partem > part /paʁ/ "part"
closed followed by /s/ /ɑ/ /ɑ/ bassum > bas /bɑ/
open /æ/ /ɛ/ /ɛ/; /e/+#1 mare > mer /mɛʁ/ "sea", amātum > /aiˈmɛθ/ > aimé /eˈme/ "loved"
before Gallo-Romance /u, o/ or /w/ /ɔ/ /ɔ/, combines with next element (/w, u, o, ɣu, ɣo/) to make a new diphthong, /ɔw/ /u/ fagum > Gallo-Romance /faɣo/ > Old French fou /fɔw/ + diminutive -et > fouet /fwɛ/ "beech tree";[5] bavan (< Gaulish) > /bɔwə/ > boue /bu/ "mud"
palatal + open /iæ/ /jɛ/ /jɛ/; /je/+#1 medietātem > Vulgar Latin /mejeˈtate/ > /mejˈtʲate/ > Early Old French /meiˈtiɛθ/3 > Late Old French /moiˈtjɛ/ > moitié /mwaˈtje/ "half"; cārum > Old French chier /tʃjɛr/ > cher /ʃɛʁ/ "dear"
/ɛ/ closed /ɛ/ /ɛ/ /ɛ/ septem > sept /sɛt/ "seven"
open /iɛ/ /jɛ/ /jɛ/; /je/+#1 heri > hier /jɛʁ/ "yesterday"; pedem > pied /pje/ "foot"
/e/ closed /e/ /ɛ/ /ɛ/ siccum > sec /sɛk/ "dry"
open /ei/ /oi/ > /wɛ/ /wa/ pēram > poire /pwaʁ/; vidēre > early Old French vedeir /vəˈðeir/ > Old French vëoir /vəˈoir/ > voir /vwaʁ/ "to see"
palatal + open /iei/ /i/ /i/ cēram > cire /siʁ/ "wax"; mercēdem > merci /mɛʁˈsi/ "mercy"
/i/ all /i/ /i/ /i/ vītam > vie /vi/ "life"; vīllam > ville > /vil/ "town"
/ɔ/ closed /ɔ/ /ɔ/ /ɔ/; /o/+#1 portam > porte /pɔʁt/ "door"; *sottum, *sottam > sot, sotte /so/, /sɔt/ "silly"
closed followed by /s/, /z/ /o/ /o/ grossum, grossam > gros, grosse /ɡʁo/, /ɡʁos/ "fat"
open /uɔ/ /wɛ/ /œ/, /ø/ 2 novum > neuf /nœf/ "new"; cor > *corem > cœur /kœʁ/ "heart"
/o/ closed /o/ /u/ /u/ subtus > /ˈsottos/ > sous /su/ "under"; surdum > sourd /suʁ/ "mute"
open /ou/ /eu/ /œ/, /ø/ 2 nōdum > nœud /nø/ "knot"
/u/ all /y/ /y/ /y/ dūrum > dur /dyʁ/ "hard"; nūllam > nulle /nyl/ "none (fem.)"
/au/ all /au/ /ɔ/ /ɔ/; /o/+#1 aurum > or /ɔʁ/ "gold"
followed by /s/, /z/ /o/ /o/ causam > chose /ʃoz/ "thing"
followed by Gallo-Romance /w/, /ɣu/, /ɣo/ /ɔ/ combining with second element to make /ɔw/ /u/ *traucon (<Gaulish) > Gallo-Romance /trauɣo/ > Old French /trɔw/ > trou /tʁu/ "hole" [6]
Vowels + /n/
/an/ closed /an/ /ã/ /ɑ̃/ [ɒ̃] annum > an /ɑ̃/ "year"; cantum > chant /ʃɑ̃/ "song"
open /ain/ /ɛ̃n/ /ɛn/ sānam > saine /sɛn/ "healthy (fem.)"; amat > aime /ɛm/ "(he) loves"
late closed /ɛ̃/ /ɛ̃/ [æ̃] sānum > sain /sɛ̃/ "healthy (masc.)"; famem > faim /fɛ̃/ "hunger"
palatal + late closed /iain/ > /iɛn/ /jɛ̃/ /jɛ̃/ [jæ̃] canem > chien /ʃjɛ̃/ "dog"
/ɛn/ closed /en/ /ã/ /ɑ̃/ [ɒ̃] dentem > dent /dɑ̃/ "teeth"
open /ien/ /jɛ̃n/ /jɛn/ tenent > tiennent /tjɛn/ "(they) hold"
late closed /jɛ̃/ /jɛ̃/ [jæ̃] bene > bien /bjɛ̃/ "well"; tenet > tient /tjɛ̃/ "(he) holds"
/en/ closed /en/ /ã/ /ɑ̃/ [ɒ̃] lingua > langue /lɑ̃g/ "tongue"[citation needed]
open /ein/ /ẽn/ /ɛn/ pēnam > peine /pɛn/ "sorrow, trouble"
late closed /ẽ/ /ɛ̃/ [æ̃] plēnum > plein /plɛ̃/ "full"; sinum > sein /sɛ̃/ "breast"
palatal + late closed /iein/ > /in/ /ĩ/ /ɛ̃/ [æ̃] racēmum > raisin /rɛzɛ̃/ "grape"
/in/ closed, late closed /in/ /ĩ/ /ɛ̃/ [æ̃] quīnque > *cīnque > cinq /sɛ̃k/ "five"; fīnum > fin /fɛ̃/ "fine, thin (masc.)"
open /ĩn/ /in/ fīnam > fine /fin/ "fine, thin (fem.)"
/ɔn/ closed /on/ /ũ/ /ɔ̃/ [õ] pontem > pont /pɔ̃/ "bridge"
open /on/, /uon/ /ũn/, /wɛ̃n/ /ɔn/ bonam > bonne /bɔn/ "good (fem.)"
late closed /ũ/, /wɛ̃/ /ɔ̃/ [õ] bonum > OF buen > bon /bɔ̃/ "good (masc.)"; comes > OF cuens "count (noble rank) (nom.)"
/on/ closed, late closed /on/ /ũ/ /ɔ̃/ [õ] dōnum > don /dɔ̃/ "gift"
open /ũn/ /ɔn/ dōnat > donne /dɔn/ "(he) gives"
/un/ closed, late closed /yn/ /ỹ/ /œ̃/ > /ɛ̃/ [æ̃] v̄nvm > un /œ̃/ > /ɛ̃/ "one"; perfūmum > parfum /paʁˈfœ̃/ > /paʁˈfɛ̃/ "perfume"
open /ỹn/ /yn/ v̄nam > une /yn/ "one (fem.)"; plv̄mam > plume /plym/ "feather"
Vowels + /s/ (followed by a consonant)
/as/ closed /ah/ /ɑː/ /ɑ/ bassum > bas /bɑ/ "low"
/ɛs/ closed /ɛh/ /ɛː/ /ɛ/ festam > fête /fɛt/ "feast"
/es/ closed /eh/ /ɛː/ /ɛ/ bēstiam > bête /bɛt/ "beast"
/is/ closed /ih/ /iː/ /i/ abȳssimum > *abīsmum > abîme /abim/ "chasm"
/ɔs/ closed /ɔh/ /oː/ /o/ costam > côte /kot/ "coast"
/os/ closed /oh/ /uː/ /u/ cōnstat > *cōstat > coûte /kut/ "(it) costs"
/us/ closed /yh/ /yː/ /y/ fūstis > fût /fy/ "bole"
Vowels + /l/ (followed by a consonant, but not /la/)
/al/ closed /al/ /au/ /o/ falsum > faux /fo/ "false"; palmam > paume /pom/ "palm"
/ɛl/ closed /ɛl/ /ɛau/ /o/ bellum > beau /bo/ (but bellam > belle /bɛl/) "beautiful"
late closed /jɛl/ /jɛu/ /jœ/, /jø/ 2 melius > /miɛʎts/ > /mjɛus/ > mieux /mjø/ "better"
/el/ closed /el/ /ɛu/ /œ/, /ø/ 2 capillum > cheveu /ʃəˈvø/ "hair"; *filtrvm > feutre /føtʁ/ "felt"
/il/ closed, late closed /il/ /i/ /i/ gentīlem > gentil /ʒɑ̃ˈti/ "nice"
/ɔl/ closed /ɔl/ /ou/ /u/ follem > fou (but *follam > folle /fɔl/) "crazy"; colaphum}} > *colpum > coup /ku/ "blow"
late closed /wɔl/ /wɛu/ /œ/, /ø/ 2 volet > OF vueut > veut "(he) wants"
/ol/ closed /ol/ /ou/ /u/ pulsat > pousse /pus/ "(he) pushes"
/ul/ closed, late closed /yl/ /y/ /y/ cūlum > cul /ky/ "buttocks"
Vowels + /i/ (from a Gallo-Romance palatal element)
/ai/ all /ai/ /ɛ/ /ɛ/ factum > /fait/ > fait /fɛ/ "deed"; palātium > palais /paˈlɛ/ "palace"; plāgam > plaie /plɛ/ "wound"; placet > /plaist/ > plaît /plɛ/ "(he) pleases"; paria > paire /pɛʁ/ "pair"
palatal + /iai/ > /i/ /i/ /i/ iacet > gît /ʒi/ "(he) lies (on the ground)"; cacat > chie /ʃi/ "(he) shits"
/ɛi/ all /iɛi/ /i/ /i/ lectvm > /lɛit/ > lit /li/ "bed"; sex > six /sis/ "six"; peior[4] > pire /piʁ/ "worse"
/ei/ all /ei/ /oi/ /wa/ tēctvm > /teit/ > toit /twa/ "roof"; rēgem > /rei/ > roi /ʁwa/ "king"; nigrvm > /neir/ > noir /nwaʁ/ "black"; fēriam > /ˈfeira/ > foire /fwaʁ/ "fair"
/ɔi/ all /uɔi/ /yi/ /ɥi/ noctem > /nɔit/ > nuit /nɥi/ "night"; hodie > /ˈɔje/ > hui /ɥi/ "today"; crvcem > /ˈkɔisə/ > cuisse /kɥis/ "thigh"
/oi/ all /oi/ /oi/ /wa/ bvxitam > /ˈboista/ > boîte /bwat/ "box"; crucem > croix /kʁwa/ "cross"
/ui/ all /yi/ /yi/ /ɥi/ frv̄ctvm > /fruit/ > fruit /fʁɥi/ "fruit"
/aui/ all /ɔi/ /oi/ /wa/ gaudia > /ˈdʒɔiə/ > joie /ʒwa/ "joy"
Vowels plus /ɲ/ (from /n/ + a Gallo-Romance palatal element)
/aɲ/ closed, late closed /aɲ/ > /ain/ /ɛ̃/ /ɛ̃/ [æ̃] ba(l)neum > /baɲ/ > /bain/ > bain /bɛ̃/ "bath"; > sanctvm>/saɲt/ > /saint/ > saint /sɛ̃/ "holy"
open /aɲ/ /ãɲ/ /aɲ/ montāneam > /monˈtaɲ/ > montagne /mɔ̃ˈtaɲ/ "mountain"
/ɛɲ/ unattested?
/eɲ/ closed, late closed /eɲ/ > /ein/ /ẽ/ /ɛ̃/ [æ̃] pinctvm > /peɲt/ > /peint/ > peint /pɛ̃/ "painted"
open /eɲ/ /ẽɲ/ /ɛɲ/ insigniam > enseigne /ɑ̃ˈsɛɲ/ "sign"
/iɲ/ closed, late closed unattested?
open /iɲ/ /ĩɲ/ /iɲ/ līneam > ligne /liɲ/ "line"
/ɔɲ/ closed, late closed /oɲ/ > /oin/ /wɛ̃/ /wɛ̃/ [wæ̃] longe > /loɲ/? > /loin/ > loin /lwɛ̃/ "far"
open /oɲ/ /ũɲ/ /ɔɲ/ *frogna (Gaulish) > frogne /fʁɔɲ/ "frown"
/oɲ/ closed, late closed /oɲ/ > /oin/ /wɛ̃/ /wɛ̃/ [wæ̃] pvnctvm > /poɲt/ > /point/ > point /pwɛ̃/ "point"; cvnevm > /koɲ/ > /koin/ > coin /kwɛ̃/ "wedge"
open /oɲ/ /ũɲ/ /ɔɲ/ verecvndiam > vergogne /vɛʁˈɡɔɲ/ "shame"
/uɲ/ closed, late closed /yɲ/ > /yin/ /ɥĩ/ /ɥɛ̃/ [ɥæ̃] iv̄nivm > /dʒyɲ/ > /dʒyin/ > juin /ʒɥɛ̃/ "June"
open unattested?

^1 "Context" refers to the syllable context at the Vulgar Latin or Gallo-Romance stage. The contexts are as follows:

Changes that occurred due to contexts that developed during the Old French stage or later are indicated in the "Modern French" column. In particular, "+#" indicates a word-final context in modern French, which generally evolved due to loss of a final consonant in Old French or Middle French. For example, loss of /θ/ in aimé "loved" (originally /aiˈmɛθ/) occurred in Old French, while loss of /t/ in sot "silly" occurred in Middle French (hence its continuing presence in spelling, which tends to reflect later Old French).

^2 Both /œ/ and /ø/ occur in modern French, and there are a small number of minimal pairs, e.g. jeune /ʒœn/ "young" vs. jeûne /ʒøn/ [ʒøːn] "fast (abstain from food)". In general, however, only /ø/ occurs word-finally, before /z/, and usually before /t/, while /œ/ occurs elsewhere.

^3 The changes producing French moitié /mwaˈtje/ were approximately as follows:

  1. medietātem (Classical/Late Latin form)
  2. /medjeˈtaːtẽː/ (pronunciation c. 1 AD)
  3. /mejjeˈtate/ (Proto-Romance form, with /dj/ > /jj/ and loss of vowel length)[when?]
  4. /mejˈtate/ (loss of intertonic /e/)[when?]
  5. /mejˈtʲate/ (late palatalization of /t/ by preceding /j/)[when?]
  6. /mejˈtʲade/ (first lenition of second /t/, but first one protected by preceding consonant /j/)[when?]
  7. /mejˈtʲaːde/ (lengthening of stressed vowel in open syllable)[when?]
  8. /mejˈtʲaːd/ (Gallo-Romance loss of final unstressed /e/)[when?]
  9. /mejˈtʲaːð/ (second lenition)[when?]
  10. /mejˈtʲaːθ/ (final devoicing)[when?]
  11. /mejˈtiæθ/ (Proto-French changes in "palatal + open" context, with the long /aː/ reflecting the former open-syllable context)[when?]
  12. /meiˈtiɛθ/ (Early Old French vowel changes)[when?]
  13. /moiˈtjɛ/ (Late Old French changes: /ei/ > /oi/, /iɛ/ > /jɛ/, loss of /θ/)[when?]
  14. /mweˈtje/ (Changes to Middle French: /oi/ > /we/, final /ɛ/ > /e/)[when?]
  15. /mwaˈtje/ (Changes to modern French: /we/ > /wa/)[when?]

Chronological history

From Vulgar Latin through to Proto-Western-Romance

To Proto-Gallo-Ibero-Romance

To Early Old French

To Old French, c. 1100

To Late Old French, c. 1250–1300

Changes here affect oral and nasal vowels alike, unless otherwise indicated.

change condition notes
/o/ > /u/ everywhere
/ue/, /eu/ > /œ/ everywhere Nasal /wɛ̃/ segments, for which there had dialectal variation with nasal /ũ/ previously, are all shifted (or returned) to /ũ/ (ultimately becoming /ɔ̃/) before this can occur.
  • Rising diphthongs develop when the first element of diphthong is /u/, /y/, /i/.
  • Stress shifts to second element.
everywhere Hence /yi/ > [yj] > [ɥi]
/oi/ > /we/ everywhere Later, /we/ > /ɛ/ in some words like français; note doublet François.
/ai/ > /ɛ/ everywhere afterward, ⟨ai⟩ is a common spelling of /ɛ/, regardless of origin.
/e/ > /ɛ/ In closed syllables.
  • /ts/ > /s/
  • /tʃ/ > /ʃ/
  • /dʒ/ > /ʒ/
Phonemicization of /a/ vs. /ɑ/ [ɑ] was initially an allophone of /a/ before /s/, /z/ that was phonemicized when /ts/ > /s/.
  • *[ˈtʃatsə] > /ʃas/, chasse ("he hunts").
  • *[ˈtʃɑsə] > /ʃɑs/, châsse ("reliquary, frame")

Later losses of /s/ produced further minimal pairs.

word-internal syllable-final position Consonants in coda position word-internally underwent weakening and loss (Gess 1996). This affected /S/ ([z] before voiced consonants and [s] before voiceless ones), /N/ (=nasal consonants), /l/, and to some extent the most sonorous coda consonant, /r/. Syllable-final /S/ reduced to [h] before deleting. Borrowings into English suggest that the process occurred first when the following consonant was voiced but not when it was unvoiced (this explains the English pronunciations isle vs. feast). This process was accompanied by compensatory lengthening of the preceding vowel. Preconsonantal ⟨s⟩ was retained as a marker of vowel length (sometimes non-etymologically) until being substituted by ⟨ˆ⟩. Syllable-final nasal consonants nasalized and then were absorbed into the preceding vowels, leading to phonemic nasal vowels. Syllable-final /l/ (probably already velarized in this position) vocalized to [w] and fused with the preceding vowel to produce falling diphthongs. Where syllable-final /r/ was weakened and lost word-internally, it was later restored because its deletion was harshly condemned by grammarians.

To Middle French, c. 1500

Changes here affect oral and nasal vowels alike, unless otherwise indicated.

To Early Modern French, c. 1700

To Modern French, c. 2000


Progressive nasalization of vowels before /n/ or /m/ occurred over several hundred years, beginning with the low vowels, possibly as early as 900, and finished with the high vowels, possibly as late as c. 1300. Numerous changes occurred afterwards that are still continuing.

The following steps occurred during the Old French period:

The following steps occurred during the Middle French period:

The following steps occurred during the Modern French period:

That leaves only four nasal vowels: /ɛ̃/, /ɑ̃/, /ɔ̃/, and /œ̃/, the last often no longer being distinguished from the first.

See also


  1. ^ "Sardegna, isola del silenzio, Manlio Brigaglia". Archived from the original on 2017-05-10. Retrieved 2018-08-24.
  2. ^ In this article:
    • Italics indicate Old French and other Romance language words;
    • An *asterisk marks a conjectured or hypothetical form;
    • Phonetic transcriptions appear /between slashes/, in the International Phonetic Alphabet.
  3. ^ The changes occurred in the majority of Vulgar Latin, specifically the Italo-Western Romance area, which underlies the vast majority of Romance languages spoken in Italy, France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, and Andorra. However, different vowel changes occurred elsewhere, in the Vulgar Latin underlying modern Romanian, Sardinian, Corsican, and a few modern southern Italian varieties.
  4. ^ a b Found as pēior "worse" in many 19th and 20th century editions, but was actually pronounced /ˈpej.jor/, with a short /e/ followed by a geminate /jj/; writing the macron is a convention to mark the resulting syllable weight.
  5. ^ Pope, Mildred K. From Latin to French, with Especial Consideration of Anglo-Norman. Page 183 section 481
  6. ^ Pope, Mildred K. From Latin to French, with Especial Consideration of Anglo-Norman. Page 183 section 481.
  7. ^ Deborah L. Arteaga. Research on Old French: The State and the Art. pp. 162–164.
  8. ^ Operstein, Natalie. Consonant Structure and Prevocalization. Pages 109-110, 112-118
  9. ^ Pope, Mildred K. From Latin to French, with Especial Consideration of Anglo-Norman. Page 185, Section 489.
  10. ^ Huchon, Mireille, Histoire de la langue française, pages 214 and 223.
  11. ^ Mildred Katharine Pope. From Latin to Modern French with Especial Consideration of Anglo-Norman. Manchester University Press. p. 94.
  12. ^ Robert McColl Miller; Larry Trask. Trask's Historical Linguistics. Between the fifth and eighth centuries, French borrowed a number of Germanic words with [h]... and [h] thus rejoined the French phonological system... the [h]s had disappeared by the eighteenth century.