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In this prior question, the evolution of French's silent consonants was addressed, and how the nature of Latin's pronunciation over time led to the diminution of those sounds until they were entirely absent.

What isn't answered or addressed there is why this was unique to French. Several other languages descended from Latin but did not arrive at this same result. Neither Italian nor Spanish have this, and I'm not entirely sure about Portuguese but it certainly has it much less if anything than French does. Can't speak to Romanian.

Why did French uniquely evolve this way among the Latin descendants? Why didn't the written version of its words get updated over time to match the spoken version, whereas each of the other languages kept their written and spoken words in sync?

One of the answers to the other question notes that "French is more conservative and reluctant to accept changes," but I wouldn't really call that an explanation of why. Is there no better answer than "historically speaking, that's just how the people living in this region are"?

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  • It's not always "kept", it's sometimes "added" (see doigt). And it's not alway really "silent" either : when 2 or 3 letters compose a digram or trigram, for exemple.
    – XouDo
    Apr 2 at 7:56
  • Why do you think any ?living language doesn't continue to undergo spelling changes? Colour me skeptical.
    – livresque
    Apr 6 at 4:10
  • I speak rather fluently Romanian but I have not study it in school. Afaik there are no silent letters. In fact its pronunciation is the easiest of the languages I know (greek, french, english, roumanian, german).
    – Dimitris
    Apr 6 at 20:17

3 Answers 3

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It has more to do with conservative (and dating centuries back) language policies on the state level, than with the language evolution per se. Like in English, where the archaic spelling only approximately reflects the modern pronunciation (see English spelling reform)

As an opposite example - Russian has undergone multiple reforms, notably under Peter the Great and the Communists, dropping silent letters, simplifying spelling, etc. - see Reforms of Russian orthography Note that in both cases the sovereign had dictatorial-like powers to effect such a change, which had never been the case in Britain in the last few centuries.

What is peculiar to France is that, while L'Académie Française exercises strong authority over the language norms, it appears to be rather conservative in reforming it. It appears that the major reason for this is preserving etymological form of words, rather than to reflect the pronunciation (this might be challenging to a beginning learner, but perhaps advantageous to more advanced one - see also the remarks):

French orthography was already (more or less) fixed and (from a phonological point of view) outdated when its lexicography developed in the late 17th century and the Académie française was mandated to establish an "official" prescriptive norm. Still, there was already much debate at the time opposing the tenets of a traditional, etymological orthography, and supporting those of a reformed, phonological transcription of the language.

César-Pierre Richelet chose the latter (reformed) option when he published the first monolingual French dictionary in 1680, but the Académie chose to adhere firmly to tradition in the first edition of its dictionary (1694).

Various other attempts at simplification followed, culminating in the "rectifications" of 6 December 1990.1 Some more radical proposals also exist to simplify the existing writing system,2 but they still fail to gather interest.

The above mentioned reform of 1990 changed spelling of about 2000 words.

Among Romance languages, Spanish and Portuguese have undergone relatively recent spelling reforms: Spanish

The Spanish Royal Academy (RAE) reformed the orthographical rules of Spanish from 1726 to 1815, resulting in most of the modern conventions. There have been initiatives since then to further reform the spelling of Spanish: from the mid-19th century, Andrés Bello succeeded in making his proposal official in several South American countries, but they later returned to the standard of the Spanish Royal Academy.

Portuguese

The Portuguese language began to be used regularly in documents and poetry around the 12th century. Unlike neighboring Romance languages that adopted formal orthographies by the 18th century, the Portuguese language did not have a uniform spelling standard until the 20th century. The formation of the Portuguese Republic in 1911 was motivation for the establishment of orthographic reform in Portugal and its overseas territories and colonies. Brazil would adopt an orthographic standard based on, but not identical to, the Portuguese standard a few decades later.

Italian was apparently codified as a written language much later, when the pronunciation was relatively close to the modern one, as discussed here.

Likewise, modern Romanian spelling has been established relatively recently.

Remark:

  • Not that in the case of most languages mentioned above, there exist variation between the spelling conventions used in different countries where the language is spoken (France/Quebec, Spain/Latin America, Portugal/Brasil.)
  • As an example of how spelling matters and influences our thinking: I have witnessed once several French adults gasp, as a child declared that Sandra est la mère de Cendrillon. The child correctly noticed the phonetic similarity, but was unaware of different (etymological) spelling.
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    I'm not sure I would even blame L'Académie Française here. Yes, they are conservative... but they're not the only ones. Any proposed reform tends to make the headlines, and every time there are scathing critiques, suggestions that the reform will kill French culture, etc... The (minimal) reform from 1990 is still a subject of contention. Apr 2 at 14:24
  • @MatthieuM. I have just expanded the answer. In fact, the conservatism is not necessarily a negative thing here, as it preserves etymological spelling of words.
    – Roger V.
    Apr 2 at 14:31
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    Indeed, I personally actually like that etymology is preserved. The word "éléfant" is just... alien to me. I just wanted to make it clear that it's not like the Académie Française is holding the French people hostage here, a significant part of the population agrees with their conservatism. Apr 2 at 15:12
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    Although French spelling is certainly more conservative than various other Romance orthographies, it is still worth noting that a lot of the sound changes, even many of those particular to French, had already happened by the time French spelling started to separate from Latin, and lots of etymology from before then is lost even in French. For example, dîner and déjeuner are not written the same, despite being historically the same word (from Latin dis-jejunāre ‘de-fast = break the fast’), derived/borrowed at different stages of French. Apr 2 at 15:32
  • 3
    A more sociological view of the resistance of the public against spelling reform is that the current system promotes social stratification by making full written proficiency impossible for a subset of speakers and limiting full access to the administrative and juridical system, as well as a lot of more lucrative employment opportunities, to those who have acquired that proficiency. This is true as well of the very large difference between registers that exists in French. Reforming the spelling system inevitably involves eroding the social capital language users have accumulated through (cont.) Apr 3 at 6:15
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What is unique to French compared to other Romance languages is that it is the only one among them to prioritize etymology over pronunciation.

That might have been different. See Orthographie et orthographe.

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    One thing to consider (I don't know whether I'm correct in this or not) is that silent letters still have some use with regard to liaison. If the final letters of sans and grand were the same, how would you know to say sanz omme and grant omme? You'd have to memorize it, and is that any better than the current system of spelling? Apr 5 at 17:25
  • @PeterShor Not only does it mean more (granted ultimately arbitrary) spelling to memorize, it changes the meaning. Il faut une belle dictée Bernard Pivot ?
    – livresque
    Apr 6 at 2:34
  • @PeterShor Native speakers do memorize liaisons naturally without reference to how words are written. Even illiterate people are still good a doing most liaisons. A more phonetic oriented orthography of French might represent liaisons by extra letters like we already do when a liaison not backed by the regular orthography needs to be represented. e.g.: entre quatre-z-yeux.
    – jlliagre
    Apr 6 at 2:56
  • 1
    Everything is aural and oral first, thank you. Good pataquès example and you could include in your answer how naturally liaison is acquired at home (like everything you hear, it's practically UG), and you apply the rules automatically. T'as déjà répondu 20/20 avec tant de recherche mais la question posée cette fois-ci est un peu différente. D'hommage.
    – livresque
    Apr 6 at 3:54
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One reason why (though French has changed):

Liaison and hiatus can also change meaning. Take away the "silent" h in haut for example and what is the difference between en haut /ɑ̃.o/ and en eau /ɑ̃no/ ? Drowning.

The silent letters are not so silent in mandatory liaison for a reason.

Some other examples from Orthodidacte on la liaison et l'orthographe :

Prenons quelques cas concrets. Je prononce deux cents [z] euros, donc je mets un s à cents. Je prononce prends-[z]-en, donc il y a un s à la fin de prends, p, r, e, n, d, s. Même raisonnement pour l’expression de fond en comble : on entend un [t] de liaison, qui correspond au d de fond, f, o, n, d. Autres exemples : avait-[t]-il participé ?, ils sont [t] amis, un léger [ʁ] accent, c’est trop [p] idiot.

To clarify that first example, take away "silent" -nds from the spelling of prends-en and you get ?/prɑ̃ɑ̃/. Ambiguous. Some are mandatory, some are blocked, some are facultative, some are differences in sociolectes.

Changements phoniques dans les liaisons BDL gives the classic example of being pregnant with twins: un garçon et une fille. [eynfij] No liaison with et (ever) clear here. Taking away the optional "silent s or t" est would result in spelling both just ?"e", making the second clause difficult to parse.

Guylaine est enceinte de jumeaux : un garçon et une fille. [eyn]

It looks like @Peter Shor touched on this in a comment and it is a part of the picture.

If the final letters of sans and grand were the same, how would you know to say sanz omme and grant omme? You'd have to memorize it, and is that any better than the current system of spelling?

There's a difference between 100 hommes or sans homme.

French has changed its spelling; see any work of literature including Molière Himself. The difference today is a governing body on the language and the existence of an official national language in France (and many Francophone countries). The existence of an official language is not a given for some countries.

One could argue that the only languages that no longer undergo spelling changes are dead languages, but even the Latin that bore les langue d'oc et langue d'oïl takes on neologisms in many circles.

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