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Sur le pont d'Avignon, l'on y danse tous en rond.

What is l' doing here? When is it generally used like this?

I'm assuming it's a pronoun, but y already refers to pont, so it's not quite like je l'ai vu — or is it? I've seen it a lot in novels too. I've asked a Frenchman this question but he couldn't tell me out of hand.

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à vrai dire je n'ai pas trouvé de source pour le confirmer… –  Knu Sep 8 '11 at 2:40
@Knu: Je me sens comme tournant tout en rond: Wikipedia anglaise a tous, mais la française a tout! Quoi croire? –  Cerberus Sep 8 '11 at 2:51
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2 Answers

up vote 23 down vote accepted

To the best of my knowledge, the l added in front of “on” generally does not have a particular grammatical purpose: it is purely euphonic, and a sign of polished language (it softens the otherwise familiar overtones of using "on").

It is more often added when “on” does not start a proposition, such as when introduced by a conjunction:

Il faut que l'on y aille.

instead of:

Il faut qu'on y aille.

In such cases, the euphonic use is a lot more obvious due to the bad association of the sound “qu'on” in French.

In this present case, I would say poetic license, and the will to avoid a disharmonious collision between “pont” and “on”, are the reasons for adding that euphonic l.

As for the origin of this l (and why it is not t), the French Wikipedia entry on phonème éphelcystique tells us:

[...] le [l] qui précède parfois le pronom personnel indéfini on en début de phrase ou devant voyelle (ex. : « Ici l'on fume, ici l'on chante, ici l'on dort. », L'Auberge, Paul Verlaine, « L'on prétend que… ») est pleinement étymologique. Il s'est effectivement conservé dans des contextes littéraires, peut-être pour des raisons euphoniques, mais c'est le vestige de l'article défini qui précédait le on substantif (ancien français on, om ou hom, « homme », du nominatif latin homo). De même, dans « aide-t'en », « va-t'en », « rapproche-t'en », etc., le t correspond au pronom de la deuxième personne, te, élidé devant voyelle.

It is indeed a relic of the definite article le (whereas t comes from “te”).

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Hah, qu'on sounds rather inappropriate indeed, never thought about that. Thanks for your explanation. Any reason why l was chosen instead of t, as in a-t-il? And is it never le in any other sentence, i.e. does it only ever occur before a vowel? –  Cerberus Sep 8 '11 at 2:44
@Cerberus: added a wikipedia citation that gives the origin of both "l" and "t". –  Dave Sep 8 '11 at 2:51
Ahh merci beaucoup! That makes sense. This is exactly what I was looking for. I had no idea the t came from te, very interesting. –  Cerberus Sep 8 '11 at 2:56
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Je recommande la lecture de ce petit article sur « on » et « l'on ». On y trouve la réponse à la question, l'origine de cette construction, et les cas dans lesquels il convient de l'employer.

Petit extrait choisi :

Le l apostrophe de l'on n'est pas à l'origine une consonne euphonique, mais l'article défini : l'on était synonyme de l'homme en général. Au fil des siècles, ce nom on s'est transformé en véritable pronom indéfini (désignant un individu non déterminé) et son article défini est devenu facultatif. Cette évolution pourrait se schématiser avec ces trois exemples :

  L'homme est bien peu de chose.
  L'on est bien peu de chose.
  On est bien peu de chose.

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Merci beaucoup! Your answer is just as good as Dave's, and your link in fact provides even more information—exactly what I needed! I've already ticked his answer off as accepted, but you both deserve ticks! –  Cerberus Sep 9 '11 at 14:34
@Cerberus One would expect three-headed ticks from someone like you but... ;-) –  Romain VALERI Mar 31 at 11:30
@RomainVALERI: If I had more than one tick mark to give out, I would give you one! But, alas, I cannot take away the one I already gave to Dave. And he needs it more, given his lower score... –  Cerberus Mar 31 at 17:26
@Cerberus Sorry, just a lame pun attempt around Cerberus (the mythical dog) and ticks ... I'm just slightly ashamed I admit. –  Romain VALERI Apr 1 at 7:29
@RomainVALERI: Ohh you mean the arthropod haha. Got it! But, no, my ticks are my nemeses; they do not share my noble polycephaly! –  Cerberus Apr 1 at 8:22
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