What do combs, muscles and castles all have in common?
Each of those words has silent letters in English!
Luckily, silent letters don’t pose much of a problem for native English speakers who are well beyond their elementary days of spelling tests.
Well… unless we’re learning French!
If you’re anywhere along the rewarding journey of learning French vocabulary, you’ve probably realized one thing: There’s something up with French spelling.
And I’m not talking about accent marks! Thanks to language evolution that’s taken place over thousands of years, French spelling seems completely illogical in some places. The result? The spelling of words on the page doesn’t always correspond properly with what speakers actually say.
Sound familiar, English speakers?
And that’s one of the most confusing parts of French spelling—that there are a lot of silent letters that do not get pronounced. And when I say a lot, I mean on almost every single word of every single sentence.
While they’re challenging for French learners, these silent letters play an important role in spelling—despite not being pronounced. Some silent letters distinguish the grammatical gender of a noun. Others denote the number or plurality of a noun. And then, of course, there’s verb agreement.
But before you get overwhelmed, take a deep breath and check out this handy guide. Besides, sometimes, silent letters are kinda fun. It’s like playing hide and seek or keeping a juicy secret!
The Essential Guide to Mastering Silent Letters in French Spellings
So, now that you’ve realized why people kept giving you funny looks when you pronounced some French words, let’s break down the most common silent letters. There are three categories of silent letters in French.
The first category is e muet, and it includes the instances of silent –e. The second category includes two instances of the same letter: h muet and h aspiré (silent h and aspirated h). While both of the h‘s are technically not pronounced in French, they behave in different ways in certain situations. The third and final category is final letters, and this vast category includes sub-categories that I’ll break down later.
By far, the mostly common letter that is not pronounced in the French language is –e. Known as a process called élision, French is notorious for throwing this poor letter around—inserting it places that don’t necessarily make sense at first glance, and then ignoring it. It’s like bringing your annoying younger brother to a party because your mom said you had to, and then telling the poor kid to keep quiet while you barricade yourself and your friends in another room.
I digress. In general, an e muet is more likely to occur in an unstressed syllable. They also occur in these nine single-syllable words:
- Ce (it)
- De (of)
- Je (I)
- Me (me/myself)
- Le (the)
- Ne (particle used in the negative construction ne… pas).
- Que (that)
- Se (itself)
- Te (you/yourself)
With those single-syllable words in mind, here are the places where -e is not pronounced and explanations for why.
During a contraction
When a single-syllable word and a word that starts with a vowel are side by side, the e muet gets “dropped” so to speak. This means that the e muet is not pronounced and a contraction occurs (like what happens between do and not in don’t). Check these examples:
- When ce (it) and est (is) meet, they become c’est (it is).
- When je (I) and ai (have) meet, they become j’ai (I have).
- When le (the) and agneau (lamb) meet, they become l’agneau (the lamb).
At the end of a word
Generally, all instances of -e at the end of a word are silent, or at the very least, are pronounced optionally.
For example, the -e at the end of the word autre (other) is normally not pronounced (so the word sounds something like OH-tr). Some speakers will pronounce the -e as a very short schwa (almost like the -a at the end of the English word sofa) if a consonant follows; however, this does not happen if the word autre is followed by a word starting with a vowel (as in the case of autre agneau). This same pronunciation happens with other words like elle (she) and île (island).
H Muet and H Aspire
In French, the letter h is always silent. So, why are there two types of silent h?
The answer has to do with the contraction that I talked about above between single-syllable words and following words starting with a vowel. An h muet will allow the contraction to happen. In the example j’habite, the h in habite (live, from habiter – to live) is an h muet, so the -e on je (I) is dropped and the contraction forms.
For h aspiré, this contraction cannot happen. For example, the word hibou (owl) starts with an h aspiré, so when the word le (the) joins it, contraction does not take place. Both words remain separate, like this: le hibou (the owl). But remember, even in these cases, the h is still not pronounced.
Other words that have the h aspiré include the word hache (axe) and the word haine (hate). You can find a list of words that start with h aspiré here.
In French, e and h aren’t the only letters that don’t get pronounced. In fact, a lot of word final consonants don’t get pronounced. Check out this list of the most common ones:
- D as in froid (cold) or chaud (hot)
- G as in sang (blood) or long (long)
- M and n as in balcon (balcony) or parfum (perfume) – These consonants tend to nasalize their preceding vowels.
- P as in beaucoup (much, a lot)
- S as in trois (three) or vous (you)
- T as in salut (salutations)
- X as in deux (two)
- Z as in riz (rice)
Other silent letters, however, aren’t inherent to the word itself like the examples above are. What I mean to say is that some silent letters are added due to grammatical agreement, but they are not necessarily pronounced. Check out what I mean.
In French, subjects and verbs must agree depending on the conjugation of the verb and the person of the noun. For example, if you wanted to conjugate the verb parler (to speak) with the subject il (he), you would have to drop the -er from the infinitive and add -e. This -e, however, is not pronounced. In fact, most of them aren’t. The ending letters that are not pronounced but are added for verbal agreement are bolded.
- Je parle (I speak).
- Tu parles (You speak).
- Il/Elle parle (He/she speaks).
- Nous parlons (We speak).
- Vous parlez (You speak).
- Note: The ez combination at the end of this verb makes the word pronounced like “par-LAY.”
- Ils/Elles parlent (They speak).
These silent letters get added all the time to almost all verbs undergoing conjugation.
Nouns and adjectives must also agree depending on gender and number. For example, if I have the word hibou and I want to make it plural, I would add an –x to make hiboux (owls). This letter does not get pronounced, however.
Further, a surprisingly number of nouns will add an –e to make a noun feminine. For example, the masculine word avocat (lawyer) has a silent final t. The feminine version is avocate. Ironically, the added -e is not pronounced, but because it was added, it actually makes the t pronounced in the feminine word. Talk about confusing!
This is actually a common difference between masculine and feminine nouns though, so you’ll get used to it.
Practice Your French Spelling
Annoyed yet? Worry not. I’ve got you covered. Here are three online spell-checkers you can use to check your spelling: Bon Patron, Reverso and JSpell. Further, you can test your spelling ability with fun spelling games like these.
Take some time to let these silent letters settle in, and then keep your eyes open for them as you digest French content.
And if you think French spelling is hard, just be glad you don’t have to explain English spelling to someone—now that’s tough!
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