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Everywhere I read, it says “ouïr” is archaic and has been replaced by “entendre.” Is this completely true? Do people still know the verb? How long ago was it still used regularly—the 50s, or more like the 1600s? If I was jokingly talking in an old-fashioned way, would people even understand if I used this verb? Am I likely to come across it at all in older texts or movies?

Alright, sorry for ten questions. But you get the idea. Please tell me about ‘ouïr.’

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Il y a, il me semble, une différence entre j'ai ouï dire et j'ai entendu dire. Le second laisse supposer qu'il n'y a pas d'intermédiaire, alors qu'on a ouï dire ce que d'autres ont eux-mêmes entendu dire. Mais, hors effets stylistiques, c'est sûrement l'un des rares cas où l'on peut trouver une utilité à ce verbe. –  Stéphane Gimenez May 28 '12 at 20:48
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Qu'a ouï l'ouïe de l'oie de Louis ? Elle a ouï ce que toute oie oit. [Raymond Devos] –  Stamm May 29 '12 at 10:00
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up vote 11 down vote accepted

Today, you are likely to find some French people who do not understand the verb ouïr. You should be safe (but you'll sound old-fashioned) in writing if you stick to the (not very) common tenses and set phrases (ouïr, j'ouïs (past simple, but you may see it used as a present tense), avoir ouï(-)dire, oyez). Orally, ouïr or ouï(s) sounds like the very common word oui (yes), so a person hearing it is likely to think of the affirmative word even in a verb position.

The verb has been on its way out for a long time. The first edition of the Dictionaire de l'Académie française (in 1694) already noted that the verb is defective, which is a sign that it is not very common. It would still have seemed normal usage at the time, however.

Il n'a guere d'usage qu'à l'Infinitif, au Preterit, & aux temps formez du participe.

The first edition of the Dictionaire used ouïr in the definition of entendre, without expressing a preference for one or the other.

Il veut dire encore, Oüir. J'estois si loin que je ne le pouvois entendre. il n'entend pas bien clair, entendre dur.

Note that at the time, understand was still given as the primary meaning of entendre. The 4th edition (1762) gave ouïr as the primary meaning of entendre, and this lasted until the 8th edition (1932) which changed the wording to percevoir par l'ouïe.

Littré (1872) argued that the verb was not that uncommon and should be used more. That's a sure sign that the disuse of the verb was already well-established.

Cette conjugaison, très régulière, est inusitée, excepté à l'infinitif présent et au participe passé, selon l'Académie ; mais il faut ajouter comme usités encore le parfait défini et l'imparfait du subjonctif ; les autres temps ne s'emploient que dans le style marotique ; pourtant il serait bien utile de remettre en usage oyant, et de dire en oyant, au lieu de en entendant, qui est si désagréable à l'oreille.

Google's book database shows a marked decrease of the use of the verb in the early 19th century, but beware that this may be due to a sampling bias (the database is skewed and has a high proportion of misdates in this period).

ouïr,oyez,ouï dire,ouïs

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Avoir ouï dire, et un ouï-dire ; pourquoi ce trait d'union entre parenthèses ? –  Stéphane Gimenez May 28 '12 at 21:29
    
@StéphaneGimenez Parce que j'ai souvent vu l'expression avoir ouï-dire avec ce trait d'union étymologiquement incorrect (et, au cas où tu ne l'aurais pas remarqué, j'ai certaines tendances descriptivistes). –  Gilles May 28 '12 at 21:36
    
@Giles: kom tu veu –  Stéphane Gimenez May 28 '12 at 21:38
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@Aerovistae All the dictionaries (Académie, Littré) I cite are online. Dictionnaires d'autrefois is useful for old dictionaries; all editions of the Dictionaire de l'Académie are linked from Wikipedia; the Trésor de la langue française is a modern, fairly complete dictionary. I discovered Google ngram on English Language & Usage; it has a French book database as well, but smaller than its English collection. –  Gilles May 28 '12 at 23:26
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Oh, @Gilles, you and your excruciatingly complete posts. ;) –  Evpok May 29 '12 at 0:45
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It seems to me that "ouïr" covers the part of the meanings of "écouter" as well as those of "entendre".

It is probably known by most adults, but probably used only in the way you intended to use it: purposely old-fashioned language.

I think it fell into disuse before the XIXth century, but that's more because I think I would have noticed if it was used in the books of that period I've read (the style is distinctive, but the language didn't change so much). Older books use too many non common words and words we know have a different meaning for me to have a gut feeling about when "ouïr" was used.

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As for your second statement, I am not quite sure. I don't think that if we would poll all adult French-speakers in the world (or even in France) we would get more than 70%. –  Evpok May 28 '12 at 17:19
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@Evpok, Who doesn't know "Oyez, oyez"? –  Un francophone May 28 '12 at 17:23
    
Wow I didn't make that connection. –  Aerovistae May 28 '12 at 18:56
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@Unfrancophone Not so few people, i think. But even though, how many know oyez is ouïr? –  Evpok May 28 '12 at 20:28
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