What is the reason why the first syllable in « quatuor » and « quartette » are pronounced like /kwa/, whereas most other words that begin with "qua" (like « quart » and « qualité ») are pronounced like /ka/? Wiktionary mentions unadapted borrowing from Latin. Are there other examples of Latin-derived words where the pronunciation is more Latinate than French?

  • 4
    Quetsche , quartz, aquarium ... [Les lettres qu peuvent se prononcer de trois façons différentes : [k], [kw] ou [kɥ]](vitrinelinguistique.oqlf.gouv.qc.ca/23645/la-prononciation/…).
    – None
    Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 7:32
  • Merci de partager cette page ! @None
    – angryavian
    Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 15:27
  • 2
    "unadapated borrowing" (mentioned for English and for French), refers to the spelling, not to the pronunciation.
    – None
    Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 7:51

1 Answer 1


Wiktionary's borrowing categories are all over the place. There are learned-borrowings, i.e. borrowings from a dead language, and semi-learned-borrowings, i.e. learned borrowings transmitted early enough to experience sound change. Since Latin is a dead language, it seems that any learned borrowing which is not semi-learned is therefore unadapted.

A loanword that has not been conformed to the morpho-syntactic, phonological and/or phonotactical rules of the target language. […] Unadapted borrowings are often learned ones; see learned borrowing.


Those rules are not broken, since French actually has the phoneme [kw] as in quoi. Thus it appears that the categorization is just a matter of sentiment.

However, this depends on another problem, namely "Latin” as a category of language which experienced significant change over the course of centuries. Old to Classic Latin and reconstructions of Vulgar Latin would go as inheritance into French. By the time of Old French, however, a marked difference to Medieval Latin has to be made, which is quite difficile. Beyond that, Neo-Latin may be considerable in science but is not included in the Latin category, e.g. tele-vision (PS: one might argue that intervocal /l/ would be regularly assimilated, so tele- is unadepted, not to mention the root is Greek; see also bouteille, OFr. botele "bottle").

The difference between a dead language and thriving school education at a critical age cannot be decided once and for all.

That said, Tresor de la Langue Francais (TLFi) shows quatuor to be fairly recent:

Etymol. and Hist. 1. 1705 mus.[ical] (Brossard: Quartet, or Composition for Four Voices, or Parts) […]

https://www.cnrtl.fr/etymologie/quatuor (auto-translated from French)

This might be Neo-Latin, but a more reasonable assumption beginning with Medieval Latin (which is difficult, as said) would be influence of separate languages in many cases such as Italian (quartetto, "four-head"?), Spanish (id.), English (compare squad, German Schwadron, Geschwader), Polish (whence e.g. MLat. granica "border") etc. in order to establish a line of derivation. Without a more specific etymology, this seems not possible for the time being.


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