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In French, most written word-final consonants are no longer pronounced and are known as latent or mute. For example, the letter s in the word les, 'the', is generally silent (i.e., dead and phonologically null), but it is pronounced /z/ in the combination les amis /le.z‿a.mi/, 'the friends'. In certain syntactic environments, liaison is impossible; in others, it is obligatory; in others still, it is possible but not obligatory and its realization is subject to wide stylistic variation.
Liaison operates in word sequences whose components are closely linked by sense, e.g., article + noun, adjective + noun, personal pronoun + verb, and so forth. This would seem to indicate liaison is primarily active in high-frequency word associations (collocations). Liaison is a form of vestigial enchainement since both involve a follow-through between a final consonant (though otherwise mute in liaison) and an initial vowel. However, what is particularly distinct for both liaison and enchainement is that the final consonant in both cases re-syllabifies with the following vowel. Liaison is therefore an external sandhi phenomenon, that is, a phonological process occurring at word boundaries. Specifically, it is a form of consonant epenthesis and generally, though not always, involves resyllabification.
Like elision (as in *je aime → j'aime), it can be characterized functionally as a euphonic strategy for avoiding hiatus. If we look at it like this, we are adopting a synchronic approach. This approach does not explain cases where the first word already ends in a consonant, such as tels‿amis, and is therefore already perfectly euphonic.
It is also possible to analyse liaison diachronically. With this approach, the liaison consonant has always been there since the days of Latin, and has merely been elided in other contexts over time. So, the s pronounced in mes amis can be seen as simply preserving the s that was always pronounced in meos amicos. Seen in this way, it is mes frères that is exceptional, having lost the s that was pronounced in meos fratres.
The (usually) silent final consonants of certain words can be pronounced, in certain syntactic contexts, when the following word begins with a vowel. Since the sound thus obtained is an ancient one, spellings that are based on the etymology of the word may not reflect the real pronunciation.
For example, final consonants are pronounced as follows in the case of liaison (the transcription uses IPA; in IPA, liaison is indicated by placing an undertie [‿] between the consonant and the vowel):
As indicated in the phonetic representations above, liaison consonants are typically realized with enchainement — that is, the originally word-final consonant is pronounced as the onset of the following syllable. Enchainement is also observed for stable word-final consonants when followed by a vowel-initial word in connected speech, as in cher ami [ʃɛ.ʁa.mi] ("dear friend"). In both cases, enchainement can be seen as a strategy for avoiding syllables without onsets in French.
The primary requirement for liaison at a given word boundary is of course the phonological or lexical identity of the words involved: The preceding word must supply a potential liaison consonant and the following word must be vowel-initial (and not exceptionally marked as disallowing liaison; see the discussion of "aspirated h" below), and the two words must not be separated by a prosodic break (pausa). The actual realization of liaison, however, is subject to interacting syntactic, prosodic, and stylistic constraints.
Grammatical descriptions of French identify three kinds of liaison contexts: Those where liaison is obligatory, those where it is impossible, and those where it is optional. Pedagogical grammars naturally emphasize what is obligatory or forbidden, and these two categories tend to be artificially inflated by traditional prescriptive rules. Speakers' natural behavior in spontaneous speech shows that in fact relatively few contexts can be said to systematically give rise to, or fail to give rise to, liaison. Any discussion of liaison must take both descriptive and prescriptive perspectives into account, because this is an area of French grammar where speakers can consciously control their linguistic behavior out of an awareness of how their speech diverges from what is considered "correct".
There are a small number of contexts where speakers consistently produce liaison in all speech styles, and where the absence of liaison is immediately perceived as an error of pronunciation. These are the contexts where liaison is truly obligatory:
Note that the first two contexts also require obligatory vowel elision for the relevant determiners and pronouns (le, la, je, me, se, etc.)
The following contexts are often listed as obligatory liaison contexts, but they are more accurately characterized as contexts where liaison is frequent:
Specific instances of these combinations reveal varying tendencies. For certain lexical items (e.g. petit, très), speakers may have a preference for liaison approaching that of the obligatory liaison contexts.
The consonant [t] is obligatorily realized between the finite verb and a vowel-initial subject pronoun (il(s), elle(s) or on) in inversion constructions. Orthographically, the two words are joined by a hyphen, or by -t- if the verb does not end in -t or -d:
|uninverted form||inverted form||translation|
|elle dort /ɛl dɔʁ/||dort-elle /dɔʁ.t‿ɛl/||she sleeps|
|il vend /il vɑ̃/||vend-il /vɑ̃.t‿il/||he sells|
|ils parlent /il paʁl/||parlent-ils /paʁl.t‿il/||they speak|
|on parle /ɔ̃ paʁl/||parle-t-on /paʁl.t‿ɔ̃/||one speaks|
The written linking consonant -t- is necessary for 3rd person singular verbs whose orthographic form ends in a letter other than -t or -d. This situation arises in the following cases:
The appearance of this consonant in modern French can be described as a restoration of the Latin 3rd person singular ending -t, under the influence of other French verbs that have always maintained final -t.
The earliest examples of this analogical t in writing date to the mid-15th century, although this practice (and the corresponding pronunciation) was not fully accepted by grammarians until the 17th century (Holbrook 1923).
There are other contexts where speakers produce liaison only erratically (e.g. due to interference from orthography while reading aloud), and perceive liaison to be ungrammatical.
Grammars mention other contexts where liaison is "forbidden", despite (or precisely because of) the fact that speakers sometimes do produce them spontaneously.
All remaining contexts can be assumed to allow liaison optionally, although exhaustive empirical studies are not yet available. Preferences vary widely for individual examples, for individual speakers, and for different speech styles. The realization of optional liaisons is a signal of formal register, and pedagogical grammars sometimes turn this into a recommendation to produce as many optional liaisons as possible in "careful" speech. The conscious or semi-conscious application of prescriptive rules leads to errors of hypercorrection in formal speech situations (see discussion below).
Conversely, in informal styles, speakers will semi-consciously avoid certain optional liaisons in order not to sound "pedantic" or "stilted". Other liaisons lack this effect. For example Ils‿ont (‿) attendu ("they have waited") is less marked than tu as‿attendu ("you have waited"), and neither liaison is likely to be realized in highly informal speech (where one might instead hear [i(l).z‿ɔ̃.ʔa.tɑ̃.dy] and [taʔa.tɑ̃.dy], or simply [taː.tɑ̃.dy].) On the other hand, the liaison in pas‿encore can be either present or absent in this register.
As can be seen, liaison, outlined above, is only obligatory in rare cases. The omission of such a liaison would be considered an error, not simply as taking liberties with the rule. In cases of optional liaison, the omission is common, and liaison appears only in careful speech.
On the other end, producing a liaison where one is impossible is perceived as an error. For example, pronouncing a liaison consonant instead of respecting hiatus before an aspirated h is taken to indicate an uncultivated or unsophisticated speaker. While all speakers know the rule, they may have incomplete knowledge about which words it must apply to. The effect is less noticeable with rare words (such as hiatus itself), which many speakers may not spontaneously identify as aspirated h words.
Errors due to hypercorrection or euphony are also observed: a liaison is pronounced where it doesn't exist (where it is possible by spelling, but forbidden, as with et (-t-) ainsi, or where it is impossible even by spelling, as with moi (-z-) avec). This phenomenon is called pataquès.
In rare cases, these liaisons may be conserved by the language and become obligatory, such as in the imperative forms donne-z-en which becomes simply donnes-en "give some [of it/them]" or va-z-y which becomes simply vas-y "go [there]", where the second-person singular imperative forms normally lack final -s.
Otherwise, they are perceived in the same way as omissions of disjunction, suggesting an "uncultivated" speaker or extremely informal speech. Such an error is sometimes called cuir ("leather") when the inserted consonant is /.t/, velours ("velvet") when it is /.z/, although dictionaries do not all agree on these terms:
The reading of poetry (whether said or sung) requires that all liaisons be used (except those described above as impossible), even those of -es in the second-person singular as well as the reading of all necessary “null e’s” (see the French article on poetry, for more details). The reading of the liaisons affects the number of syllables pronounced, hence is of chief importance for the correct pronunciation of a verse. French-speakers tend as much as possible to avoid a hiatus or a succession of two consonants between two words, in a more or less artificial way.
Careful pronunciation (but without the obligatory reading of “null e’s”) is necessary in a formal setting. The voice is a tool of persuasion: it reflects, through a pronunciation perceived as correct (according to prevailing norms), intellectual qualities, culture, self-control, and wit.
Pushed too far, the over-proliferation of liaisons can render a speech ridiculous. It has been pointed out that French politicians and speakers (Jacques Chirac, for example) pronounce some liaison consonants, independently of the following word, introducing a pause or a schwa afterwards. For example, ils ont entendu (“they heard”) is normally pronounced /il.z‿ɔ̃ ɑ̃.tɑ̃.dy/ or, in more careful speech, /il.z‿ɔ̃.t‿ɑ̃.tɑ̃.dy/.
A speaker using this "politician" pronunciation would say /il.z‿ɔ̃t | ɑ̃.tɑ̃.dy/ (where /|/ represents a pause; ils ont’… entendu). One might even hear ils ont décidé (“they decided”) pronounced /il.z‿ɔ̃t | de.si.de/ (ils ont’… décidé) or /il.z‿ɔ̃.t‿øːː de.si.de/ (ils ont’ -euh… décidé). In the first example, we have liaison without enchainement, not the normal configuration in ordinary speech. In the second, the liaison is completely non-standard, since it introduces a liaison consonant before another consonant.
French liaison and enchainement are essentially the same external sandhi process, where liaison represents the fixed, grammaticalized remnants of the phenomenon before the fall of final consonants, and enchainement is the regular, modern-day continuation of the phenomenon, operating after the fall of former final consonants. The process is the movement of final consonants across word boundaries to initial position in vowel-initial words so as to better conform to the French language's preference for open syllables (over 70%)[dubious ], i.e., V, CV, or CCV, especially where two vowels might otherwise link together (vowel hiatus). Whereas enchainement occurs in all places in a sentence, liaison is restricted to within sense units (groupes rythmiques) and are strictly forbidden across these intonational boundaries. This implies that liaison, like enchainement, is restricted by open juncture, and in general, resyllabified consonants maintain their articulatory traits as if not in onset position (see below for examples). This difference helps French-speakers distinguish between liaised consonants, pronounced as if before open juncture, and regular onset consonants, pronounced as if before closed juncture.
For example, the word grand is written grant in medieval manuscripts (grant served for both masculine and feminine gender). The orthography of that age was more phonetic; the word was in all likeliness pronounced [ɡrɑ̃nt], with an audible final /t/, at least until the twelfth century. When that consonant became mute (like the majority of ancient final consonants in French), the word continued to be written grant (the preservation of this written form is explained by other reasons; see note), and then became grand by influence of its Latin etymology grandis, with a new (analogic) feminine form grande. The current spelling with a final mute d allows to better show the alternation between grand and grande (an alternation gran ~ grande or grant ~ grande would look less regular to the eye), as well as the lexical relation to grandeur, grandir, grandiloquent, etc. The root grand is written thus regardless of whether the d is pronounced [d], [t] or mute in order for its derivatives to have a single graphic identity, which facilitates memorization and reading.
However, the ancient final [t] of grand did not cease to be pronounced when the following word began with a vowel and belonged to the same sense unit. Effectively, the consonant was no longer pronounced at the end of the word, but at the beginning of the next. Now an initial consonant rather than a final one, it did not undergo the same sound changes, so it continued to be pronounced.
Bearing in mind that stress in French falls on the final full syllable of a word, or of a group of words when they are bound grammatically, this situation can be symbolized as follows (the symbol "ˈ" indicates stress):
This has to do with what the hearer considers to be a word. If grand homme is analyzed as /ɡʁɑ̃.tɔm/, the ear in fact understands /ˈɡʁɑ̃.tɔm/, a continuous group of phonemes whose tonic accent signals that they form a unit. It is possible to make a division as /ɡʁɑ̃/ + /tɔm/ instead of [ɡʁɑ̃t] + [ɔm]. Then this /t/ will no longer be felt to be a final consonant but a pre-stress intervocalic consonant, and therefore it will resist the deletion that it would undergo if it were at the end of a stressed syllable. It can however undergo other modifications thereafter.
The written form, though, was adapted to criteria that are not phonetic, but etymological (among others): where grand is written, [ɡʁɑ̃t] is pronounced in front of certain vowels, without that being really awkward: the maintenance of the visual alternation -d ~ -de is more productive.
The other cases are explained in a similar fashion: sang, for example, was pronounced [sɑ̃ŋk] (and written sanc) in Old French, but the final -g has replaced the -c in order to recall the Latin etymology, sanguis, and derivatives like sanguinaire, sanguin. Currently this liaison is almost never heard except in one part of the singing of the Marseillaise ("qu'un san(g) /.k/ impur") or sometimes in the expression "suer sang et eau". Outside those, the hiatus is tolerated.
Finally, the case of -s and -x pronounced [z] in liaison is explained differently. One must be aware, firstly, that word-final -x is a medieval shorthand for -us (in Old French people wrote chevax for chevaus, later written chevaux when the idea behind this -x was forgotten) (except in words like voix and noix where 's' was changed to 'x' by restoration of Latin usage (vox and nux)). The sound noted -s and -x was a hard [s], which did not remain in French after the twelfth century (it can be found in words like (tu) chantes or doux), but which was protected from complete elision when the following word began with a vowel (which effectively means, when it was found between two vowels). However, in French, such [s] is voiced and becomes [z] (which explains why, in words like rose and mise, the s is pronounced [z] and not [s]).
If the final -t of grant was kept in the Middle Ages in spite of the disappearance of the corresponding [t], it is because there existed, along with this form, others like grants (rather written granz), wherein the [t] was heard, protected from elision by the following [s]. The ancient orthography rendered this alternation visible before another one replaced it (the one with d). Indeed, it would be false to state that the orthography of Old French did not follow usage, or that it was without rules.
From the sixteenth century onward, it was common for grammarians who wished to describe the French language or discuss its orthography to write documents in a phonetic alphabet. From some of these documents, we can see that the liaisons have not always been pronounced as they are today.
For example, the Prayer by Gilles Vaudelin (a document compiled in 1713 using a phonetic alphabet, and introduced in the Nouvelle maniere d'écrire comme on parle en France ["A New Way of Writing as We Speak in France"]), probably representative of oral language, maybe rural, of the time, shows the absence of the following liaisons (Vaudelin's phonetic alphabet is transcribed using equivalent IPA):
The linking of a word-final consonant to a vowel beginning the word immediately following also forms a regular part of the phonetics of other languages, including Spanish, Hungarian, and Turkish. In Spanish, for instance, the phrase los hombres is pronounced “lo som-bres.” In Italian, a final [-j] sound can be moved to the next syllable in enchainement, sometimes with a gemination: with "non ne ho mai avuti" (I've never had any) being broken into syllables as follows non-NEO-ma-ja-VU-ti" and "io ci vado e lei anche" as "jo-ci-VA-do e lei-JAN-che" ("j" as y in "yard").
An earlier version of this article was translated from the French Wikipedia.