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There are two ligatures, “œ” and “æ”, but they are now often not used because of the layout of the most common keyboards used in French-speaking countries. Yet, they cannot be changed for “oe” and “ae” in formal and literary texts.
French spelling, like English spelling, tends to preserve obsolete pronunciation rules. This is mainly due to extreme phonetic changes since the Old French period, without a corresponding change in spelling. Moreover, some conscious changes were made to restore Latin orthography (as with some English words such as “debt”):
- Old French doit > French doigt “finger” (Latin digitus)
- Old French pie > French pied “foot” [Latin pes (stem: ped-)]
French is a morphophonemic language. While it contains 130 graphemes that denote only 36 phonemes, many of its spelling rules are likely due to a consistency in morphemic patterns such as adding suffixes and prefixes. Many given spellings of common morphemes usually lead to a predictable sound. In particular, a given vowel combination or diacritic generally leads to one phoneme. However, there is not a one to one correlation from a phoneme to its related grapheme, which can be seen in how tomber, tombai,and tombé all end with the /E/ phoneme. Additionally, there are many variations in the pronunciation of consonants at the end of words, demonstrated by how the x in paix is not pronounced though at the end of Aix it is.
As a result, it can be difficult to predict the spelling of a word based on the sound. Final consonants are generally silent, except when the following word begins with a vowel (see Liaison (French)). For example, the following words end in a vowel sound: pied, aller, les, finit, beaux. The same words followed by a vowel, however, may sound the consonants, as they do in these examples: beaux-arts, les amis, pied-à-terre.
French writing, as with any language, is affected by the spoken language. In Old French, the plural for animal was animals. The /als/ sequence was unstable and was turned into a diphthong /aus/. This change was then reflected in the orthography: animaus. The us ending, very common in Latin, was then abbreviated by copyists (monks) by the letter x, resulting in a written form animax. As the French language further evolved, the pronunciation of au turned into /o/ so that the u was reestablished in orthography for consistency, resulting in modern French animaux (pronounced first /animos/ before the final /s/ was dropped in contemporary French). The same is true for cheval pluralized as chevaux and many others. In addition, castel pl. castels became château pl. châteaux.