Even though it is true that the pronunciation of individual French words can be guessed by how they are spelled, there is a slight complication in the language that tends to drive French learners crazy: the pronunciation of the last character in the word may or may not be silent, depending on which word comes after it in the sentence. Let me give you an example:
- Je vois deux oiseaux et un chat.
- I see two birds and a cat.
The main word whose pronunciation is context-dependent here is “deux”. By itself, it is pronounced just like “deu”, as if the “x” was silent, but the next word begins with a vowel (oiseaux), and is not separated from it by any punctuation. In this case we need to make a “liaison”, or a link between the two words, by pronouncing the “x” as a [z] sound.
This type of liaison is not optional: it must be pronounced or the sentence will probably not be understood. There is, however, an optional liaison in this sentence: “oiseaux”. It is followed by “et”, which starts with a vowel. Once again, if the liaison was made I would pronounce the “x” letter as a [z] sound.
Why is the first liaison required, and not the second? I thought I had a simple answer to this, but once I get into all the different variations, my basic rule doesn’t hold up anymore. So, to keep with the theme of simplicity, while still staying true, here is a quick run-down:
- The word being linked ends with a silent consonant (e.g. un, des, vont)
- The word immediately following the slient consonant starts with a vowel (a, e, i, o, u or y) or a mute “h” (e.g. un homme)
- There is no punctuation between the two words
- The liaison is not part of the “liaison exceptions” list, and is not optional
Study the list of rules which make liaisons either optional or unwanted, and what you will have left will be the list of required liaisons.
I can easily add a comma between “oiseaux” and “et”: this would enable me to add an item to the list of animals I can see:
- Je vois deux oiseaux, un chat et un chien.
- I see two birds, a cat and a dog.
Now, because of the punctuation between “oiseaux” and “un”, there is no longer a need to make the “liaison”, and the “x” becomes silent again.
Here is a little list of the cases when the liaison is optional:
- After plural nouns (“oiseaux et un chat”)
- In verbal structures with 2 verbs, between the two verbs (“Je vais aller” “I’m going to go“)
- After “est” (present tense of “être”, “to be“)
- After adverbs and prepositions with more than 1 syllable (like “tellement”, “assez”, “depuis”)
- After verbs not followed by pronouns (“il”, “elle”, “un” and their plurals are the main ones)
At this stage, if you are particularly astute, you will have noticed that I have just introduced two new candidates for a liaison: the words “chat et” and “et un”. However, adding a liaison in these cases would be not only over-zealous, but actually incorrect. The reason is that both of these fall within one of the exceptions to the liaison rule.
You do not pronounce the liaison in the following cases:
- After the word “et” (and)
- After a singular noun like “chat”
- Before “onze” and “oui”
- After interrogative adverbs (“quand”, “comment”, “combien” etc…) and “toujours”
- After interrogative inversion (such as “Sont-ils arrivés?”)
- Before a “h inspiré” (e.g. “héro”, “haut”)
- Many letters at the end of French words are silent, but may be pronounced if the word following it begins with a vowel.
- A number of additional grammatical variables determine whether the liaison is required, optional or not allowed.
- The letters “s” and “x” are pronounced [z] when a liaison is applied to them.
Mastering the art of the liaison is a major step in French oral proficiency, and a clear mark of an accomplished linguist. Don’t be discouraged by the seemingly complex rules: once they have been internalised, they feel quite natural.
French learners should not worry about adding the “optional liaisons” to their speech, unless they plan to speak with a very high dignitary or academic. It is only good to know which ones they are.