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I asked my French teacher last time, and she said she didn't know, but she will ask. Can anyone give clear and simple reason for this?

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up vote 23 down vote accepted

The attachment of O and E (or of other letters) is called a typographic ligature. Ligatures were often used in ancient languages (such Latin and ancient Greek) to mark a diphthong or sometimes simply to make writing easier in pre-press times.

In modern French, the œ ligature is linguistic as opposed to aesthetic. It bears an important linguistic role, mainly because oe and œ are not pronounced the same. When you have an œ in your word, you will not pronounce the o and the e separately, like you would in coefficient, for example. As a rule of thumb, words of Latin origin will pronounce œ as /œ/ or /ø/ 1 (for example œuf, sœur, œil, cœur) and words of Greek origin will pronounce it /e/ (like fœtus, Phœnix, Œdipe). There are also a few words that pronounce it as /ɛ/ (like œstrogène).

1 This is IPA for French, if you don't know it, there's a nice chart on Wikipedia.

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It isn't a typographic ligature (or the substitution would be optional and could be systematic), it is a linguistic ligature. –  Un francophone Jan 18 '13 at 22:03
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@Unfrancophone Œ in and of itself is a typographic ligature, which in French is not purely aesthetic. I was talking about it in general, hence the new paragraph about modern French, but I will edit to make it clearer. –  Kareen Jan 18 '13 at 22:57
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@Unfrancophone: I was about to make this same remark, before you posted it. Eventually, I abstained. It's a lexical (or linguistic) ligature and it's not purely æsthetic… but of course it is typographic. How could it not be? –  Stéphane Gimenez Jan 18 '13 at 23:11
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@StéphaneGimenez, It is the traditional usage, see for instance Orthotypographie "Voilà pourquoi je préfère la distinction traditionnelle entre ligatures « linguistiques ou orthographiques » et ligatures « esthétiques ou typographiques » " and further he makes a distinction between "fi" and "ct" calling the first "technique" and the second "esthétique". Here is one source in English making the difference between lexical and typographic ligature. –  Un francophone Jan 19 '13 at 8:32
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BTW, the story about the fact that "œ" is missing from IS-8859-1 is that the French representative didn't know it was a linguistic ligature and agreed to its removal. –  Un francophone Jan 20 '13 at 6:44
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Essentially, the "oe" together tells you how that vowel is to be pronounced, as in the word "œuvre". Think of it as an extra vowel that has it's own distinct spoken sound (pronunciation). I remember learning this in elementary school. Hope that helps.

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