French and its Secret Liaisons: Why everyone thinks French pronunciation is hard

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??

French and its Secret Liaisons: Why everyone thinks French pronunciation is hard

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.

Dr. Wagner has a PhD in Linguistics and is dedicated to learning and teaching languages online and abroad. She has studied in Quebec and Australia, taught English in France, and is currently based in the US.