...by which I mean, how to make phrases flow more smoothly
We’ll take a look at the following:
1. The glottal stop
2. When euphony is required
3. When it is optional
4. When it should not be used
We might all have our own idea about which languages sound the loveliest, but most people probably agree that certain ones seem to flow more smoothly. I was lucky enough to spend a bit of time in Hawai’i in my youth, and whilst I might well choose the word ‘beautiful’ to describe the people, the food, the scenery and the music, I’m sorry to say that I could not use that word for the language.
To my untrained ear, it all seemed rather 'jerky'. After conducting some research, it became clear that this was quite a good way to describe it. There are so few consonants in the Hawai’ian alphabet that they introduced a way of separating the long strings of vowels that can make up words: the glottal stop, which is written as an apostrophe, actually counts as a letter, and is a common feature of the language. The Hawai’ian ‘w’ is sounded like a ‘v’ (as it is in German), so the name of the island chain is properly pronounced: “Have I. Ee”
I couldn't think of a suitable image for "euphony", so here's a euphonium. I wonder whether or not you consider this particular instrument "easy on the ear"...
The glottal stop: euphony’s nemesis!
Linguist also refer to the glottal stop as a hiatus, but what is it exactly? Imagine the sound, or rather the lack of sound, in the middle of the word, when a Danny Dyer pronounces “bottle”.
If nature abhors a vacuum, then the French language abhors the vacuum created by a glottal stop. This would happen naturally when the end of one word and the beginning of the following word are both vowel sounds. When this happens in French there is usually the option* to elide the words, purely to make the phrase easier on the ear.
To/In the United States: “Aux Etats Unis”
If we follow the Level One rules of French pronunciation, we would treat the final –x and the final –s as silent letters, but most of us by now have learnt, if only idiomatically, that the three words unite into one flowing utterance: “Ose-etaz-oonee” (!) I really don’t like writing these words phonetically like this, but sometimes it kinda works.
We do the same thing in English, to a much lesser extent:
“An elephant” is easier to say than “a elephant”.
Side note: this has been responsible for a couple of structural changes to English words: orange and apron, both ultimately from Arabic, used to be “norange” and “napron”, but enough people made the false assumption that “a norange” was actually “an orange”, and it stuck.
In French, many of these euphonic techniques are required; others sound ‘good’, some are a no-no.
a. Elisions / Liaisons
Most single-syllable words drop the –e when the next word begins with a vowel sound.
Je + ai = J’ai J’ai un chien
se + est = s’est Il s’est réveillé de bonne heure
me + as = m’as Tu m’as vu ?
b. Euphonic adjectives
There are several adjectives that change their form in front of vowels.
Ma + amie à mon amie (even though the friend is feminine)
sa + idée à son idée (idée is a feminine word; the lack of context means it is not possible to identify the gender of the person whose idea it is)
Un + beau + endroit à un bel endroit (a beautiful place)
un + nouveau + an à un nouvel an
un + vieux + homme à un vieil homme
ce + homme à cet homme
These are a bit different from the mon/ma examples. Some adjectives have a special masculine euphonic form, which sound like the feminine, but are written in these abbreviated ways.
Does it go without saying that all of these changes occur only to facilitate pronunciation? If another word were to go in between, then the first word would have no need of the euphonic sound shift:
Ma meilleure amie
Sa bonne idée
c. Euphonic inversion
If a verb ends in a vowel and is followed by il, elle, or on, then it requires the addition of ‘t’ in between: this is called ‘le T euphonique’.
on va à va-t-on
elle parle à parle-t-elle
il y a à y a-t-il
This also applies, even if the verb already ends in ‘—te’, so the schwa* should be pronounced between the two ‘t’ sounds.
il monte --> monte-t-il
on écoute --> écoute-t-on
elle déteste --> déteste-t-elle
However, -t is not added when the verb ends in a consonant, because that consonant is enough to make a liaison (required) with the vowel that follows.
elle sait --> sait-elle
il met --> met-il
on rend --> rend-on
In front of the pronouns y and en, the tu form of the imperative maintains s at the end. This is also known as ‘le S euphonique’.
va + y = vas-y
3. Optional* euphonic technique
Would-be silent sounds at the end of words are sometimes transferred onto the word that follows.
les arbres à les_arbres (the trees)
Optional euphonic techniques
Have you ever noticed the definite article l’ preceding the subject pronoun ‘on’. This is partly to help the sentence flow more smoothly, but in this particular case, the addition of the ‘l’ has an added bonus: in a sentence such as:
Qu’est-ce que l’on fait ?
…it prevents the awkwardness of the sound “qu’on” in the middle of the phrase, which sounds just like “con” – the French for “fool”, but rather stronger!
Similarly, l’ may precede the indefinite pronoun un.
un de vos enfants à l’un de vos enfants
4. When not to elide
« Liaisons interdites »
Look below at the list of when all of the above rules go out the window. Sometimes this is to avoid confusion with other expressions that could sound similar; sometimes it in respectful deference to names and foreign words, and other times… well, good luck finding the logic!
1. Before h aspiré
en haut Don’t pronounce the ‘n’ (upstairs, up top)
les haies Don’t pronounce the ‘s’ in ‘les’ (hurdles)
deux homards Don’t pronounce the ‘x’ (lobsters)
2. Before onze and oui
les onze membres de l’équipe
deux oui et un non
3. After proper names
Laurent a un nouveau chiot. (the ‘t’ is still silent)
Thomas est son prénom. (the ‘s’ is still silent)
4. After singular nouns
mon chat aime le fromage (don’t pronounce the ‘t’ of chat)
un garçon intelligent (the ‘n’ of garçon is still that dull, nasal sound, not an English ‘n’)
5. After ‘et’*
avant et après
un homme et une femme
6. After question words and toujours
Comment est-il ? (the ‘t’ of comment is silent)
Combien en vois-tu ? (the ‘n’ of combien is nasal, not a strong ‘n’)
Quand est-ce que tu aimes étudier ? (the ‘d’ of quand is silent)
Il est toujours aimable (the ‘s’ of toujours is silent)
7. After inversion
A-t-on osé ?
Parlez-vous anglais ?
Ont-elles acheté cette maison ?
1. Linguistic snobbery
You often have the option to elide or not. Doing so marks you out as well-educated, as it highlights the fact that you must know how to spell the word. In the past, the literate classes would emphasise it as much as possible, and it became a source of snobbery. I have heard, anecdotally, that when a French politician chooses whether or not to elide his/her words, it is the rough equivalent of British politicians who deliberately start dropping their ‘t’s in order to sound more like one of the people.
2. The schwa
The schwa is what linguists call that dull, non-sound that appears in every English phrase and many a French one. When you say “Thank you for the present” in natural English, the ‘o’ in ‘for’ and the second ‘e’ in ‘present’ are not pronounced in the way we were taught at primary school! Try saying it out loud. You’ve just said a couple of schwas.
3. ‘Et’ and ‘est’
Two of the most common French words are “est” (is) and “et” (and). At one level they sound exactly the same, due to the silent letters.
When “est” precedes a vowel sound, the ‘t’ may be pronounced, following the above rules:
Ma femme est_anglaise. My wife is English.
The ‘s’ however must never be pronounced, because if so, the word would mean “east”.
A much simpler rule: the ‘t’ of ‘et’ must never be elided.
Andrew Wenger, SameSky Languages