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Lesson Transcript

Hi everybody! Candice here. Welcome to Ask a Teacher, where I'll answer your most common French questions.
The question for this lesson is Why are French words spelled so differently from how they are pronounced?
French spelling and pronunciation may be one of the biggest stumbling blocks for French learners. And there are lots of reasons why French words look so different from how they are pronounced.
The main reason is history. The French language is often called a mix between Latin, from the Romans, and Gaulish, the ancient language of Gaul, or modern-day France and Belgium. Latin was used as the writing system. But over time, as more people became literate, French also became a written language. The only problem was that there was no standardized way of spelling. Guérir, “to heal,” was sometimes spelt with an a. Fromage was sometimes spelled formage. François was famously spelt with a y. And remember that many of the people who could read and write also knew Latin. So when l’Académie Française was tasked with standardizing French, there was a big debate – should French be spelled the way it sounds or should it show its Latin roots?
In the end, there was a little bit of both. For this reason, it might feel like you are only pronouncing half a word. This is to show its Latin origins which were once pronounced. Or, just as important, the pronunciation might have changed while the spelling stayed the same. For example, the -ent ending of third person plural verbs used to be pronounced. Now it’s silent and just sounds like the third person singular. It also led to some interesting spelling innovations. For example, the circumflex. This accent means that an s used to follow the letter. Fête used to be “feste” or “feast.” Bête used to be “beste” or “beast.”
So the short answer is that oral language changes while spelling often stays the same. However, in 2016, the Academy made spelling reforms. If you pay attention, you can see language changing all the time.
Pretty interesting, right?
If you have any more questions, please leave a comment below!
A bientôt, see you soon!