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Dans ma classe de français, nous avons appris que la plupart des noms féminins finissent avec "e". J'ai essayé de chercher pour une raison historique pour cela mais je n'ai pas pu la trouver. Quelle explication peut-on donner ?

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  • Bienvenu à FSE. J'ai corrigé quelques fautes et ai modifié légérément votre question.
    – Dimitris
    Dec 3, 2022 at 21:51
  • Does this answer your question? Is there any general rule to determine the gender of a noun based on its spelling?
    – livresque
    Dec 3, 2022 at 23:35
  • @livresque, not really. I want to know a reason, if there is any. Dec 4, 2022 at 1:54
  • Bref, words are arbitrary, so there is no real reason, but there are tendencies based on other arbitrary tendencies from related languages all going back to further arbitrary older tendencies and rules in roots of Latin, Greek, PIE...we all wonder. Please see the related questions. [Linguistics] has related questions as well.
    – livresque
    Dec 4, 2022 at 4:19
  • Un raison assez importante est que toute les nom latin en -A ont généralement évolué jusqu'au français en -E muet final et que même les nouveau mots formés depuis ont suivi plus ou moins ce modèle.
    – XouDo
    Dec 5, 2022 at 13:41

2 Answers 2

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Most French words derive from Latin. Latin nouns have declensions: the ending of the noun varies depending on the noun's case, which indicates the noun's function in the sentence (subject, direct complement, indirect complement, etc.). A majority of Latin nouns follow a model (first and second declensions) where:

  • singular feminine nouns end in -a, -am, -ae¹ depending on the case;
  • singular masculine nouns end in -us, -e, -um, -i, -o depending on the case;
  • singular neuter nouns end in -us, -e, -um, -i, -o depending on the case.

As Latin transitions into Old French, declensions eroded. Note how feminine nouns consistently have an [a] vowel in the last syllable, whereas masculine and neuter nouns have different vowels depending on the case. This made the vowel ending more robust in feminine nouns: it tended to evolve to a consistent [a], then a consistent [ə], which is often silent in modern French. The highly variable ending of masculine and neuter nouns was more likely to disappear altogether.

Keep in mind that this is just a trend, not a rule. Many feminine nouns don't end in -e for various reason: because they come from Latin words with different endings (e.g. soror/sororem/sororis/sorori/sororesœur, ratio/rationem/…raison, manus/manui/manumain), or because they were imported or constructed later (e.g. foresta/forestam/forestaeforêt, words ending in -tion), because they don't come from Latin, or just because they didn't follow the general pattern. It's a common enough trend that it does make new feminine nouns more likely to end in -e.

Latin adjectives also have declensions, and many follow the same model, which explains why feminine forms tended to keep a final [a] then [ə] (e.g. longa/longam/longaelongue, where the u is silent was added to indicate that the pronunciation is [g] and not [ʒ]), whereas masculine forms tended to erase the declensions altogether (e.g. longus/longum/longi/longolong). Then, because this was a common pattern, adding -e for the feminine form evolved into a rule even where for adjectives that had followed different patterns in Latin (e.g. grandis/grandem/grandis/grandi for both feminine and masculine, but grand vs grande in French).

¹ I'm ignoring vowel lengths, which disappeared in French, although I don't know when they disappeared compared to the erosion of declensions.

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Oui, 80 % des noms communs féminins se terminent par un E. Ce n'est cependant pas suffisant pour attribuer un genre grammatical aux noms communs se terminant pas un E puisque 33 % sont néanmoins masculins¹.

Une explication qui semble couler de source pour expliquer cette prédominance du -E est que beaucoup des mots féminins issus du latin vulgaire se sont terminés par un -A dans les langues romanes, par exemple une rose se dit una rosa dans beaucoup d'entre elles mais ce -A final a correspondu à un -E lors de l'apparition du français.

¹ Voir Is there any general rule to determine the gender of a noun based on its spelling?

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  • Thanks! May I ask why did it change from "a" to "e"? Dec 4, 2022 at 1:55
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    @MeltedStatementRecognizing classical change of a vowel into schwa when unstressed. Happens in other romance languages too (for example portugese, catalan).
    – XouDo
    Aug 30, 2023 at 8:47
  • @XouDo thank you! Aug 30, 2023 at 22:20

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