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Credit: Lim Ashley

Why Does French Sound the Way It Does?

Why does French have so many silent letters? This is the question that struck me while taking French lessons on Duolingo. Answering this question then took me down a rabbit hole on language evolution, with some speculation as to where language is headed.

The silent letters in French are so pervasive, that when I don’t know how to pronounce a word, I simply drop and slur a few letters and pray it sounds right. Usually it does. For example, les hommes (the men) is pronounced “leh-zhome.” Go figure. Apparently, the ancestors of the French, the Gauls, applied a lot of lenition and assimilation. In lenition, consonants become silent, such as the dropped t in bon vivant. In assimilation, the consonants blend in with neighboring vowels, so seconde is pronounced seu go(n)d rather than seu ko(n)d.

But just saying that French has a lot of lenition and assimilation doesn’t get at an explanation. Why lenition? Why assimilation? My starting hypothesis is that since French sounds sexy, lenition and assimilation might have been the means of getting there. Maybe the Gauls had an informal or street dialect relative to other Frankish/Germanic languages, similar to how African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) drops letters from American-English. For example, in rap songs, you might hear “just a’ the rappers” instead of “just ask the rappers.” Maybe I’m biased because I like hip-hop, but to me, this linguistic feature sounds cool in both French and AAVE.

Can languages be sexy, though? The subject of language aesthetics is thorny in linguistics. As an undergrad at Stanford, I asked my Intro to Linguistics professor whether we prefer certain words because they’re more pleasant, and he quickly listed the words for “love” in different languages. The Finnish call it rakkaus and the Latvians call it mīlestība, far cries from the Italian’s amore. In other words, the professor was saying, beauty is subjective. I then searched for articles on the subject, only to discover that there are plenty of common sense observations like my own, set against a conspicuous absence of academic support.

Writer Bernd Brunner, quoting Charles Nodier, puts it more eloquently:

In 1828, Charles Nodier, a French Romantic thinker, gushed about the “sublime emphasis” of Greek, which he felt echoed “the sound of the waters of Peneios.” He thought Italian rolled “like the rushing of a waterfall and the trembling of olive trees.” In cold countries, he explained, words are rough and consonant-heavy: Nodier claimed, “their clanging, rough sounds remind us of the whispering of wild streams, the cry of fir trees bent by the storm, and the din of cliffs falling away.” Even if we are willing to accept the premise that there’s a link between a language and its landscape, questions remain. Is “hard” always ugly and “soft” necessarily beautiful? Are people who speak hard-sounding languages automatically drawn to softer-sounding ones?

Brunner then follows up with a frustration similar to my own: “… I knew that I would never find aesthetic judgments about specific languages from a credible linguist. No respectable scholar would come out in favor of some languages over others.” Part of this absence is due to academia’s troubled past in making broad sweeping generalizations about cultures, leading to accusations of racism. And even if we could collect surveys about the beauty of languages today, they wouldn’t tell us much about how they came to be that way. While we have plenty of artifacts for how languages were written, there are few for how languages were spoken.

But there are indirect ways we could grasp at a theory of language aesthetics. First, we can focus on relative subjectivity, instead of absolute. Certain languages, such as Italian or French, uniformly sound beautiful to European speakers, but they might sound harsh to Russians. Second, we can also study how people inflect their dialect to please the ears of their audience. For example, I remember a study on how Texan waitresses switch to formal American-English when talking to business customers, but then speak with a Southern drawl when talking to locals and regulars. Also, anecdotally, as a newcomer to Texas, I’ve caught myself selectively using “y’all” in different contexts with different motivations, sometimes just to get a rise out of people who haven’t heard a Californian-Asian say it. There are many ways that aesthetics shows up as an aspect of language, albeit a malleable one.

Some general patterns about language evolution are also well-studied, such as how contemporary languages often derive from vulgar ones. For example, the Romance languages come from Vulgar Latin, and Shakespearean English was vulgar English at the time. The language of the Gauls was vulgar compared to the invading Romans, only to become contemporary and “sexy” as the French language centuries later. The Lourve is now the most popular museum in the world, and Paris along with Rome, are the most iconic representations of European style. The conquered have become the conquerors.

So if we assume that lenition and assimilation are common features in informal dialects, and if we assume that vulgar tongues eventually become mainstream, then it casts AAVE in a different light. We can imagine a future, centuries from now, where the slang of American rappers is how all Americans talk. Maybe one day instead of foreigners developing Paris syndrome, they’ll develop New Orleans syndrome or San Francisco syndrome, whereby tourists faint upon first encountering the beauty of America, whose future inhabitants all speak a sexier form of English.