It looks pretty intuitive to me if the participle of avoir is avant, but it's actually ayant. What is the story behind this V vs Y difference?

  • What I wonder is why would avant look more intuitive to you than avoyant ?
    – MC68020
    Dec 24, 2018 at 21:46
  • 4
    @aCOSwt: As a learner, I was taught the rule to form the present participle on the same stem as the present-tense indicative first person plural. Avons gives us av-, not avoy-.
    – sumelic
    Dec 24, 2018 at 21:59
  • @sumelic : Fair enough. Thanks for the info.
    – MC68020
    Dec 24, 2018 at 22:10
  • @aCOSwt Adding to that, if you build the participle that way, there are only 3 exceptions: étant, ayant, sachant.
    – iBug
    Dec 25, 2018 at 2:05
  • You provide a rationale. Fair enough. I misunderstood your pretty intuitive. With regards to the irregularity of avoir, I was interested to know more about intuition. How intuition governs numerous irregularities.
    – MC68020
    Dec 25, 2018 at 9:49

4 Answers 4


I think ayant was built on the subjunctive stem (found in ayons, ayez). The present participle of the Latin verb habeo had the stem habent-, which wouldn't be expected to develop to French ayant. (However, see Eleshar's answer for information on an alternative form of the present participle that apparently existed in later Latin.)

How the subjunctive stem evolved from Latin forms with -be-

The present subjunctive forms of habeo in Latin have a -bea- sequence where the e would have evolved into a semivowel [j].

According to a book I found, Romance Languages: A Historical Introduction (by Ti Alkire and Carol Rosen, 2010), in “Popular Latin” -b- had already been lost entirely before [j] in forms of habeo. For example, Alkire and Rosen give *[ajatis] as the “Popular Latin” ancestor of Modern French ayez. The complete loss of -b- in this context does not seem to have been a regular sound change, but rather an irregular reduction that occurred because habeo was a frequent verb that was often used as an auxiliary (p. 140).

I’m not sure whether this reduction was complete before the split of the Romance languages, since Italian has -bbi- in the present subjunctive. But Spanish seems to agree with French in this: it has the present subjunctive stem hay-.

If habeo had developed regularly, I think the intervocalic -be- would have evolved to [βj] > [dʒ] > [ʒ] instead (see TKR's answer to the Linguistics SE question How did French lose the Latin -v-?). So the [β]/[v] would still have been lost, just later on.

Why the subjunctive stem?

I don't know why the present participle of avoir would have been built on the subjunctive stem; maybe dimitris's suggestion about avoiding homophony is correct. Sachant, one of the two other French present participles that currently has an irregular form, also shares its stem with the present subjunctive (but in the case of sachant, the form looks like it might be traced back etymologically to the Latin present-participle form sapient-).

Ewert (1960) says

  1. The close connection of the present participle-gerund with the pres. ind. and subjv. results in its being frequently re-modelled on these tenses, with or without the added support of the infinitive: ayant for avant (habentem), pleuvant for plouvant, voyant for veant, croyant for creant (which survives in archaic mécréant); O.F. vueillant (beside voulant < volentem) survives in bienveillant, malveillant; (as)seyant and (as)soyant crowded out (as)seant (< sedentem) which survives as a substantive and in bienséant, malséant. Other verbs in which both forms survive (one as the pres. part.-gerund, the other in a specialized use which has isolated it from the rest of the verb) are: pouvant—puissant ([by analogy with] puis, puisse); sachant ([by analogy with] sache) (twelfth-century)—savant being used only as an adj. or substantive since the sixteenth century; valant—vaillant ([by analogy with] vail, vaille) now a pure adj. except in n'avoir pas un sou vaillant; en son vivant, sur son séant are survivals of the O.F. substantival use of the gerund.
  • didn't notice ayant comes from subjonctif présent! This reminds me of sachant.
    – iBug
    Dec 25, 2018 at 1:56
  • 1
    Pour ce qui est de pourquoi le subjonctif. Il n'y a pas de raison. Il faut partir de l'observation qu'il s'agit ici d'un cas de supplétion. Puis la ranger, avec les autres, dans un espace thématique et mentionner sur ce sujet l'hypothèse avancée par Morin (1987) de l'existence de règles d'implication. Ces "régles" sont des règles par défaut.
    – MC68020
    Dec 25, 2018 at 10:11
  • 1
    Le comm ci-dessus laisse évidemment entrevoir un travail long et compliqué. C'est pourquoi, en regrettant encore ici que l'OP ne poursuive pas son pretty intuitive, je préfère, pour ma part, rejoindre Claire Blanche-Benveniste et observer que avoir est un des 5 verbes les plus utilisés en français. Et que, comme c'est aussi le cas dans beaucoup d'autres langues, les verbes les plus utilisés sont aussi les plus irréguliers.
    – MC68020
    Dec 25, 2018 at 10:22
  • 1
    Toujours à propos de mon 1er comm, Peut-être peut-on retrouver sur le net un travail mené dans les années 2000 sur le sujet par Gilles Boyer de l'Université de Nancy.
    – MC68020
    Dec 25, 2018 at 10:25
  • Gilles Boyé. Pardon!
    – MC68020
    Dec 25, 2018 at 13:47

For habere, there is attested active participle form habeant-, probably from late Latin that evolved to the French dialect of proto-romance. From there, it would be the same evolution as the subjunctive itself.

The forms based on habeant- are easy to find just by googling, but if you need some better source, e.g. Foley,J: Theoretical Morphology of the French Verb indicates there seem to be quite a few other verbs where the late Latin seems to have used the subjunctive stem as a source for the active participle. My guess would be this was an analogy with the prevalent a-form verbs of the first conjugation, ending with -ant- along with the pressure to maintain the stem vowel -e-.

  • 1
    I thought -vj- would be expected to merge with -bj- and also develop into -ž-. This Linguistics SE question gives the example of alleger from alleviare and the linked duplicate gives the example of abbreviare to abréger.
    – sumelic
    Dec 24, 2018 at 23:28
  • Actually, I see that you wrote the answer to the duplicate there!
    – sumelic
    Dec 24, 2018 at 23:33
  • Good point. No idea about the exact rules - abbreviare gives abréger. Might have something to do with timing perhaps? Earlier /vj/ > /ž/, later/secondary /vj/ > /j/? Or perhaps stress comes into play? Will have to research more. In any case the subjunctive-like participle form goes back to Latin.
    – Eleshar
    Dec 24, 2018 at 23:47
  • I added a cite to my answer that gives an explanation. The -be- is supposed to have been reduced to -[j]- already in “Popular Latin”, as a special reduction in the verb habeo
    – sumelic
    Dec 24, 2018 at 23:49

Just a guess (and not quite obvious as I thought initially). In this way the confusion with the fundamental word avant was avoided.

  • L'explication est séduisante. Néanmoins... bon... faut... hmmm... faut voir... ;-)
    – MC68020
    Dec 24, 2018 at 18:42
  • @aCOSwt J'ai dis plusieurs fois : Non locuteurs natif:-)!
    – Dimitris
    Dec 24, 2018 at 18:45
  • @aCOSwt avoir vient du latin habeo, avant du bas latin abante. Si avant est apparu le premier c'est bon. Autrement, il me faut...effacer la réponse:-)!
    – Dimitris
    Dec 24, 2018 at 18:48
  • @aCOSwt Littre : Avant : Bourguig. aivan ; provenç. avant ; ital. avanti ; du latin abante (qu'on trouve dans des inscriptions), de ab, de, et ante, avant (voy. ⤷AINZ).
    – Dimitris
    Dec 24, 2018 at 18:53
  • 2
    @MatthieuBrucher: Latin V is pronounced as [u] (as a vowel), as [w] (as a semivowel), or as [β] or [v] (as a consonant that developed from the semivowel [w]). It wasn't ever pronounced like "y".
    – sumelic
    Dec 24, 2018 at 21:16

I can find nothing else but a piece of puzzling information that could concern the origin of this form; it's the present participle of the verb « ( avair) » in Gallo;

This verb correspond to « avoir », however no claim is made of « ayant » having been borrowed.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.