French and its Secret Liaisons

Ok, they’re not so secret in French. I just love the word liaison and I’m fascinated by the obligatoire, facultative and interdite liaisons in French pronunciation.

Liaison is the reason why a lot of people think French pronunciation is hard. Many French words end in consonants that are normally silent, unless the next word begins with a vowel sound – then that consonant sound is pronounced at the beginning of the next word (though sometimes it is not the actual consonant sound represented in the orthography, but its voiced or voiceless counterpart) unless the next word begins with an h aspiré in which case there is no liaison. Easy, right??

There are many rules as to when you should or should not do liaison, but of course it can vary with how formal or informal the speaker is being, as well as their age. (Older people tend to use more liaisons.)

OBLIGATOIRE : The required liaisons happen after…

  • determiners: un, les, des, ces, mon, ton, quels, etc.
  • pronouns: nous, vous, ils, elles, les, etc.
  • preceding adjectives: bon, mauvais, petit, grand, gros, etc.
  • monosyllabic prepositions: chez, dans, sous, en, etc.
  • some monosyllabic adverbs: très, plus, bien, etc.
  • comment when referring to health
  • est

FACULTATIVE : But liaison is optional after…

  • some monosyllabic adverbs: pas, trop, fort
  • quand when it precedes est-ce que
  • all other forms of être

INTERDITE : And liaison should never happen…

  • after et
  • before onze
  • before letters (le A) or citations (les “ah”)
  • before words beginning with an h aspiré
  • after singular nouns or proper names
  • after plural noun subjects
  • after interrogative adverbs (but see comment and quand above!)
  • in plural forms of compound words
  • after on, ils and elles in inversion, when followed by past participles or infinitives

Pronunciation Changes: First you need to remember when to do liaison and then you need to remember what the final consonant of the word is so that you can change the pronunciation of the following word. If the written word ends in -s or -x, the pronunciation will be /z/ while words ending in -d or -t will be pronounced /t/. Another common one is -n, which is pronounced as the nasal /n/ instead of a nasal vowel. Less common liaison pronunciations are -r as /R/ and -p as /p/. Words ending in -g are supposed to be pronounced as /k/ in formal speech, but this is often ignored in informal speech and it is left as /g/ or there is no liaison. The -f of neuf is pronounced as /v/ but only with the words ans and heures.

Here are some examples from the French Phonetics page:

elles arrivent mon amour
ils ont les ours
vieux arbres dans un sac
dix heures très aimable
attend-il ? plus ouvert
grand ami il est allé

Confused? If you are not already confused enough, it gets worse. Sometimes liaisons can create even more confusions. Il est tout vert is pronounced the same as il est ouvert, so is it all green or is it open??  In spite of these what-appear-to-be-random rules for forming liaisons, it actually isn’t that hard to get used to. In the beginning, it does cause a lot of problems for learners who are trying to understand each word because French phonology is not based on word boundaries like English. All the sounds are linked together in a phrase in French, which gives the language its smooth flow but also makes it so difficult to understand.  In English we tend to pause more often between words, but in French this happens between phrases, whether it’s prepositional, adverbial, etc. (And I’m using the word phrase in a specific sense – a group of words with a single grammatical function.)

I remember trying to learn the liaisons long ago in class, but I don’t really remember what worked best for me. Nowadays I have no problems with liaisons – it’s just automatic.  I like to think I simply picked it up after hearing enough examples, but I’m sure it took a while and I made a lot of mistakes along the way. I always wonder how native speakers learn it too. Is it taught in school? Is it easier to learn spelling first or does it not matter? (This is mostly unrelated, but I’ve also always wondered about learning the gender of nouns. Do French kids have vocabulary tests where they have the identify the gender? Is using the wrong gender a grave mistake?)

Cheese leads to /p/. And the reason why I was thinking about liaison today is because of a cheese commercial. I’m not even kidding. A man says /tRo pepɛ/ and at first I thought he was talking about a grandpa (pépé) but then I realized he was actually saying trop épais (too thick). I don’t know why exactly, but I really don’t like liaison when it involves /p/. I like that -s becomes /z/ and -d becomes /t/ but I hate that -p is actually pronounced as /p/. It just doesn’t fit. It’s a bilabial for goodness sake, it doesn’t belong with alveolars! (Sadly yes, I am that obsessive compulsive about symmetry and patterns…) I cannot bring myself to do liaison with trop, but I’ve been hearing a lot of people do it lately and I find it very odd. I hope I’m not the only person who is this crazy about liaisons involving /p/…

Anyway, that was your French pronunciation lesson of the day because of a TV commercial.

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  • http://laprochainefois.blogspot.com/ cathy

    thanks for the mini but indepth tutorial!
    one liaison that no one french i know has agreed on is “pas encore.” i’ve heard it with and without liaison, and even though one might be “correct” i still always hear both versions.
    .-= cathy´s last blog ..3×1 =-.

  • http://laprochainefois.blogspot.com cathy

    thanks for the mini but indepth tutorial!
    one liaison that no one french i know has agreed on is “pas encore.” i’ve heard it with and without liaison, and even though one might be “correct” i still always hear both versions.
    .-= cathy´s last blog ..3×1 =-.

  • http://www.soyezlabienvenuechezmoi.blogspot.com/ Dedene

    Fascinating, really! The /p/ annoys me too when you hear it. Sounds sloppy.
    I just try to mime what I hear other people saying.
    .-= Dedene´s last blog ..Another French Foodie Holiday =-.

  • http://www.soyezlabienvenuechezmoi.blogspot.com Dedene

    Fascinating, really! The /p/ annoys me too when you hear it. Sounds sloppy.
    I just try to mime what I hear other people saying.
    .-= Dedene´s last blog ..Another French Foodie Holiday =-.

  • http://www.ukuleleinrouen.blogspot.com/ Kinzie

    Ugh, I also hate liasons with /p/! Also, as I read this post, I found myself muttering under my breath, each of the words and phrases… I never really thought about liasons as something to … think about, I guess, until I started teaching intro French classes. Then we would mark up texts with little liason marks to indicate when the words slur together and how it’s done. And yes, Cathy, I also never quite know what to say for pas encore — I tend to alternate!
    .-= Kinzie´s last blog ..Bon. Je fais quoi ces jours là, quoi? =-.

  • http://www.ukuleleinrouen.blogspot.com Kinzie

    Ugh, I also hate liasons with /p/! Also, as I read this post, I found myself muttering under my breath, each of the words and phrases… I never really thought about liasons as something to … think about, I guess, until I started teaching intro French classes. Then we would mark up texts with little liason marks to indicate when the words slur together and how it’s done. And yes, Cathy, I also never quite know what to say for pas encore — I tend to alternate!
    .-= Kinzie´s last blog ..Bon. Je fais quoi ces jours là, quoi? =-.

  • http://lsk22.blogspot.com/ Leah

    You are definitely not alone. I can’t handle the P! I’ve been hearing it a lot lately with ‘beaucouP aimée’ and I refuse to use it. The other I can’t stand and am not sure if its a correct liason (but I hear often) is after ‘moins’. It just doesn’t sound right.

  • http://lsk22.blogspot.com Leah

    You are definitely not alone. I can’t handle the P! I’ve been hearing it a lot lately with ‘beaucouP aimée’ and I refuse to use it. The other I can’t stand and am not sure if its a correct liason (but I hear often) is after ‘moins’. It just doesn’t sound right.

  • http://france-bienvenue.fr/ Anne

    Hello Leah, Yes the liaison after “moins” is absolutely correct , as in “C’est moins important”. It doesn’t sound right if you don’t link moins and important. It sounds very, very informal. It just feels more comfortable to link those words. Otherwise there’s a “gap” and it’s harder to pronounce each word. Same thing with “plus”. But with other words liaisons are not as common as before. It has become quite acceptable not to link words that were always linked when I was a kid !… I don’t know why. For example, I find it a bit hard now to link “trop” and “épais”… Not sure why!
    Former President Jacques Chirac uses liaisons a lot ! And he doesn’t sound natural at all !

  • http://france-bienvenue.fr Anne

    Hello Leah, Yes the liaison after “moins” is absolutely correct , as in “C’est moins important”. It doesn’t sound right if you don’t link moins and important. It sounds very, very informal. It just feels more comfortable to link those words. Otherwise there’s a “gap” and it’s harder to pronounce each word. Same thing with “plus”. But with other words liaisons are not as common as before. It has become quite acceptable not to link words that were always linked when I was a kid !… I don’t know why. For example, I find it a bit hard now to link “trop” and “épais”… Not sure why!
    Former President Jacques Chirac uses liaisons a lot ! And he doesn’t sound natural at all !

  • Melissa

    Me too, I’m fine with most liaisons (and even find it cool to discover places it should or can be done!) but I just can’t bring myself to liaise final /p/ + initial V combinations. It just feels clumsy!

  • Melissa

    Me too, I’m fine with most liaisons (and even find it cool to discover places it should or can be done!) but I just can’t bring myself to liaise final /p/ + initial V combinations. It just feels clumsy!

  • http://www.gwannelsandiego.blogspot.com/ Gwan

    Thanks for that, liaisons confuse me! Maybe if I read it 30 or 40 times I’ll get there. This is probably something I should know, but… something like “ils entrent et puis” would end up something like entrée, right? I mean, that’s an exaggeration, but you wouldn’t pronounce the -nt in any case? Or am I COMPLETELY wrong, as usual en français?

  • http://www.gwannelsandiego.blogspot.com Gwan

    Thanks for that, liaisons confuse me! Maybe if I read it 30 or 40 times I’ll get there. This is probably something I should know, but… something like “ils entrent et puis” would end up something like entrée, right? I mean, that’s an exaggeration, but you wouldn’t pronounce the -nt in any case? Or am I COMPLETELY wrong, as usual en français?

  • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie Wagner

    @Gwan: ils entrent et puis would reduce to something like izentrépis. You definitely don’t pronounce the final -ent in verb conjugations; plus in fast informal speech, ils drops the l sound and a lot of people just say pis instead of puis.

  • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie

    @Gwan: ils entrent et puis would reduce to something like izentrépis. You definitely don’t pronounce the final -ent in verb conjugations; plus in fast informal speech, ils drops the l sound and a lot of people just say pis instead of puis.

  • http://ausoleillevant.blogspot.com/ au soleil levant

    I can comment a little about how the French learn French… Little kids in France learn the same things we do in introductory French classes – genders of nouns, conjugations, correct use of prepositions, when you use etre or avoir as auxiliary, pronunciation as it relates to spelling, etc. They spend tons and tons of time on spelling and on learning homophones like ca vs sa or c’est vs s’est. Not totally relevant to your blog post, but in case you were interested, you have some info now.
    .-= au soleil levant´s last blog ..Some movie reviews because I need a break from food =-.

  • http://ausoleillevant.blogspot.com au soleil levant

    I can comment a little about how the French learn French… Little kids in France learn the same things we do in introductory French classes – genders of nouns, conjugations, correct use of prepositions, when you use etre or avoir as auxiliary, pronunciation as it relates to spelling, etc. They spend tons and tons of time on spelling and on learning homophones like ca vs sa or c’est vs s’est. Not totally relevant to your blog post, but in case you were interested, you have some info now.
    .-= au soleil levant´s last blog ..Some movie reviews because I need a break from food =-.

  • http://www.correresmidestino.com/ Zhu

    You managed to make grammar sound sexy :lol:

    I’m glad I was born French because it’s pretty difficult to explain pronunciation to non-French people. Plus, we don’t always agree among ourselves!
    .-= Zhu´s last blog ..Hockey Day In Canada =-.

  • http://www.correresmidestino.com Zhu

    You managed to make grammar sound sexy :lol:

    I’m glad I was born French because it’s pretty difficult to explain pronunciation to non-French people. Plus, we don’t always agree among ourselves!
    .-= Zhu´s last blog ..Hockey Day In Canada =-.

  • http://twentyeighthofmay.wordpress.com/ Sally

    Interesting post – thanks!
    .-= Sally´s last blog ..Facebook is such a waste of time =-.

  • http://twentyeighthofmay.wordpress.com Sally

    Interesting post – thanks!
    .-= Sally´s last blog ..Facebook is such a waste of time =-.

  • Léa

    Hi, Im french and I think that for a french kid the more difficult is to learn whan you can’t do a liason (and not when you can) for exemple: Des haricots: a kid will say it with a liason.

  • Léa

    Hi, Im french and I think that for a french kid the more difficult is to learn whan you can’t do a liason (and not when you can) for exemple: Des haricots: a kid will say it with a liason.

  • http://barncathollow.wordpress.com/ Lucas

    Jennie, thank you for being inspired by a commercial and posting this. The voiced/voiceless consonant paradigm is something I didn’t realize. How would you pronounce trop épais?
    .-= Lucas´s last blog ..Chest & Arms; Logan vs Boys 2008 CNSC =-.

  • http://barncathollow.wordpress.com Lucas

    Jennie, thank you for being inspired by a commercial and posting this. The voiced/voiceless consonant paradigm is something I didn’t realize. How would you pronounce trop épais?
    .-= Lucas´s last blog ..Chest & Arms; Logan vs Boys 2008 CNSC =-.

  • http://travellingamber.blogspot.com/ Amber

    My hubby and I were talking about this subject yesterday and I thought of your post. I heard a southerner on television say “beaucoup aimé” liasoning the p. DH says it’s a southern thing to make P liasons. To the “pas encore” subject, I’ve heard that’s regional — in Nantes they do it and in Normandy they don’t, for example — but my hubby said you rarely hear young people making that liason.
    And to Gwan and anybody else who is curious, it is okay to pronounce the -ent in the north. I often hear people saying ‘ils peuvent’ like “il peuvt”, making a liason with a verb like etre afterwards and writing it off as the northern accent. But then again they also say “on pouvons”. I just can’t bring myself to say either.
    .-= Amber´s last blog ..Funk officially over =-.

  • http://travellingamber.blogspot.com Amber

    My hubby and I were talking about this subject yesterday and I thought of your post. I heard a southerner on television say “beaucoup aimé” liasoning the p. DH says it’s a southern thing to make P liasons. To the “pas encore” subject, I’ve heard that’s regional — in Nantes they do it and in Normandy they don’t, for example — but my hubby said you rarely hear young people making that liason.
    And to Gwan and anybody else who is curious, it is okay to pronounce the -ent in the north. I often hear people saying ‘ils peuvent’ like “il peuvt”, making a liason with a verb like etre afterwards and writing it off as the northern accent. But then again they also say “on pouvons”. I just can’t bring myself to say either.
    .-= Amber´s last blog ..Funk officially over =-.

  • http://shakesrear.livejournal.com/ shakesrear

    I actually like the liaison with the ‘p’ – it really struck me the first time I heard it and I always take special notice of it. I have a hard time daring to do it myself though. The hardest one though is the 3rd person plural verb liaisons.

    I think children learn them from hearing them. But I think the gender comes first from hearing some and then the rule mechanism kicks in. My children are only 4 and 2 and they automatically use the correct adjectives for the gender of the nouns (except they always use ‘noirte’ for some reason, as in ‘la jupe noirte’).
    .-= shakesrear´s last blog ..the kids =-.

  • http://shakesrear.livejournal.com shakesrear

    I actually like the liaison with the ‘p’ – it really struck me the first time I heard it and I always take special notice of it. I have a hard time daring to do it myself though. The hardest one though is the 3rd person plural verb liaisons.

    I think children learn them from hearing them. But I think the gender comes first from hearing some and then the rule mechanism kicks in. My children are only 4 and 2 and they automatically use the correct adjectives for the gender of the nouns (except they always use ‘noirte’ for some reason, as in ‘la jupe noirte’).
    .-= shakesrear´s last blog ..the kids =-.

  • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie Wagner

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who finds liaison with /p/ strange!! Lucas, I would pronounce trop épais as simply /tRo epɛ/ with no liaison at all.

    I have heard some people make liaisons with the final -t of the 3rd person plural verb conjugations too, but I don’t know how common it is.

  • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who finds liaison with /p/ strange!! Lucas, I would pronounce trop épais as simply /tRo epɛ/ with no liaison at all.

    I have heard some people make liaisons with the final -t of the 3rd person plural verb conjugations too, but I don’t know how common it is.

  • http://www.learningtobefree.net/ Tyler Hamilton

    you and Laura don’t appear to agree on ‘être’ http://french.about.com/library/pronunciation/bl-liaisons-o.htm … she says even est is optional which I hope is true because I think a liaison with the ‘t’ in ‘est’ is awkward sounding.

  • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie Wagner

    Not sure what her source is, but my source is D’Accord – La Prononciation du Francais Internationale: Acquisition et Perfectionnement. Even though they’re called obligatoire, that really just means that most native speakers maintain the liaisons but there is always variation depending on the person and the register. Personally I’ve heard liaison with est much more often than not, and not hearing or doing the liaison would be weird to me.

  • http://www.learningtobefree.net/ Tyler Hamilton

     I see.  Thanks for the reply!

  • Jo

    Hey ! Non, nous n’apprenons pas le genres des noms ni les liaisons entre les mots. Les enfants n’ont pas de cours de genres ou de liaisons à l’école, cet apprentissage se fait comme celui de l’accent ou des intonations, naturellement. Tout ça relève de l’exercice oral : avant de tomber sur ton site, je ne connaissais même pas toutes ces règles, alors que je suis française, que j’ai toujours étudié en France et que c’est ma langue maternelle. Ton-liaison obligatoire-article m’a donc beaucoup-liaison facultative-intéressée ! Sache que les liaisons facultatives sont surtout utilisées pour parler le français formellement : pour un entretien, lorsqu’on parle à quelqu’un d’important, un discours, ou lorsqu’on veut paraître sérieux. Les petits français par contre ont beaucoup de mal à apprendre à placer les accents aigus, graves (e, a) ou circonflexes (o, u, i), à apprendre à orthographier correctement les terminaisons des verbes dont le son est “é” ( é/éés/és/ée/er/ait/ais/ai/êt/..) selon le temps. Beaucoup de français se trompent sur le genre de quelques mots, à cause de leur sonorité, qui est soit douce, soit plus dure, ou à cause de leur sens contextuel, par exemple beaucoup disent
    “une pétale” alors que c’est “un pétale”
    “une armistice” alors que c’est “un armistice”
    “une tentacule” alors que c’est “un tentacule”
    “un apostrophe” alors que c’est “une apostrophe”…
    et le genre de certains mots définissent leur sens, par exemple
    “le vase” -> the vase
    “la vase”-> the mud
    “un voile”-> a veil
    “une voile”-> a sail
    “un somme”-> a nap
    “une somme”-> an addition
    “un tour”-> a round, a turn
    “une tour”-> a tower

    etc
    Voilà, je voulais juste partager quelques anecdotes à propos de ma langue …
    Salut !
    Jo

Why is Jennie no longer in France?

I created this blog in September 2006 when I moved to France from Michigan to teach English. Many of the earlier posts are about my personal life in France, dealing with culture shock, traveling in Europe and becoming fluent in French. In July 2011, I relocated to Australia to start my PhD in Applied Linguistics. Although I am no longer living in France, my research is on foreign language pedagogy and I teach French at a university so these themes appear most often on the blog. I also continue to post about traveling and being an American abroad.

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