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I was listening to my most recent audio book for learning French: "Learn French with Paul Noble for Beginners - Complete Course". It was highly rated with multiple glowing reviews.

Within the first chapter he taught the formal "you have" but when I heard the pronunciation I shuttered. The speaker said "vous avez" without sounding the s liaison. I thought it was weird but continued.

Eventually he explained that this sound was completely optional and I could choose to use it or not. I read some of the reviews and only one complained that words are basically pronounced incorrectly as a teaching opportunity.

I have never heard this rule before and have been called out so much for missing liaisons. I wonder if maybe those that learn French as a second language put special emphasis on liaisons.

Is it true that I can simply never use liaisons? Are there situations in which you absolutely must use a liaison?

3 Answers 3

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There are three types of liaisons in French: Mandatory, Impossible and Optional.

The liaison in "vous avez" is mandatory so what he says is completely false. Some liaisons are optional but definitely not all and not this one. It seems that the bad reviews and complaints are justified on this one.

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  • Thanks for the link and the info, it really helps clear things up. Nov 27, 2023 at 20:22
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The answer to this is that although some liaisons are optional, others absolutely are not.

To continue with your example, vous avez is always pronounced with a liaison in normal speech. The only case where the liaison is dropped is when the words are pronounced with a break between them (for whatever reason), although even then one would sometimes expect /vu - zave/ if that break is short.

In fact, as jlliagre points out in a comment, a mere break is not sufficient. Dropping the liaison is only justified if we are dealing with a sequence of unconnected words, not when reading the words of a sentence while stopping after each one.

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    Yes, that must be a seriously long break for the liaison to be dropped. Would be not any more a sentence but like reading random words.
    – jlliagre
    Nov 27, 2023 at 17:49
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    A common mistake made by amateur actors is to not drop optional liaisons after a break between two words, because they learned their text by heart with the liaison, and it does sound weird when making an optional liaison despite a break. But for "vous avez"... even with an astonishingly long break I think you have to keep the liaison. It sounds horribly weird without the liaison.
    – Stef
    Nov 28, 2023 at 23:24
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    It's so strong that even if we drop the vous in casual speech, we still realize the liaison: "z'avez vu ?" Nov 29, 2023 at 10:22
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Liaison is a very robust phenomenon in French. As far as I know, there is no variant of French that does not have liaisons. Liaisons exist and follow a pattern of mandatory/optional/forbidden in Europe, Québec, subsaharan Africa... Even many French-based creole languages incorporate liaisons, sometimes in non-standard way (e.g. a noun might incorporate an n or z prefix that migrated from the French article un/des).

Very young children might get liaisons wrong. A typical example is that they might learn a noun that starts with a vowel as if it had an extra n or z prefix, because they heard it with an article. For example a child might say « *des nenfants » *[de.nɑ̃.fɑ̃] because they heard « un enfant » [œ̃.nɑ̃.fɑ̃] and generalized it as being the noun « *nenfant », or conversely « *un zenfant » *[œ̃.zɑ̃.fɑ̃] from an invalid generalization « des enfants ». And a child might end up saying « *un / enfant » *[œ̃.ɑ̃.fɑ̃], because they don't master liaisons and they don't know when to do it. But the phenomenon of liaisons is present in early speech. Studies 1 2 tend to show that mandatory liaisons tend to be mostly acquired at kindergarden age.

For certain types of optional liaisons, some speakers might consider that particular type mandatory, or some speakers might consider that particular type forbidden, while other speakers could make it or not depending on the circumstances. But there is a core of liaisons that is mandatory for all speakers.

The association between a subject pronoun and the following verb is very strong in French, to the extent that linguists often analyze the subject+verb in colloquial spoken French as a distinct lexical element in some cases. For example, « je sais » (I know), formally pronounced [ʒə.sɛ], is often contracted into [ʃɛ], which could be written « chais » (« Je ne sais pas » ≈ “I do not know”, « Chais pas » ≈ “I dunno”). This is not a liaison, but it illustrates the more general point that the pronunciation of the subject pronoun is not independent of the verb. Coming back to liaisons, in colloquial spoken French, some subject pronouns can be abbreviated when they are followed by a verb that starts with a vowel sound to the point that only the liaison remains : « on » → [n], « vous » → [z], « ils » → [z]. For example, « vous avez » [vu.z‿a.ve] can be colloquially pronounced « z'avez » [z(‿)a.ve]. In a sentence: « N'avez-vous pas honte ? » (formal: “Are you not ashamed?”) = « Vous avez pas honte ? » (informal, neutral or emphasized) = « Z'avez pas honte ? » (informal, not emphasized).

The only circumstance in which I can imagine a native French speaker pronouncing « vous avez » as *[vu.a.ve] is if they are simulating a foreign speaker.

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