Are there any studies on language acquisition for illiterate French people? Are they aware of the spelling of French words on a subconscious level to be able to pronounce them correctly in different sentences or do they split the words into two or more pronunciations based on sound alone?

e.g. « c'est » is /sɛ/ before a consonant or an aspirated H, and /sɛt/ before a vowel or a mute H.

Maybe another way of thinking about it is: do illiterate French people consider /sɛ/ and /sɛt/ to be the same word or two different words with the same meaning (ignoring all other possible homophones)?

I don't know if there are currently many French people who are illiterate so this question might be hard to answer.

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    Every person is illiterate before the age of 5-6.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 3:45
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    @YellowSky I wasn't. I could read (obviously not completely) at the age of 4.
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 3:59
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    From what I understand, even illiterate French speakers would not use /sɛt/ before a word that starts with a consonant, so we can rule out the idea that they would perceive /sɛ/ and /sɛt/ as "two different words with the same meaning." Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 4:02
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    I'm not sure I understand your question so I will not risk an answer, all I can tell you is that people speak by reproducing sounds they hear so obviously people who are illiterate and live in France will reproduce liaisons because they hear them. For example they will say /lezɑ̃.fɑ̃/ normally without being able to write it. And for those illiterate people who can write it will be written something like lesenfen or lesanfant.
    – None
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 16:38
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    Do illiterate English speakers consider "a" and "an" different words?
    – Anixx
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 5:58

4 Answers 4


I don't think the question of "are these two words, or one word with two forms" is particularly interesting linguistically, at least, not if you're basing the answer on the intuitions of illiterate people. If they're illiterate, they might not even have a well-defined concept of "what is a word" (even linguists don't agree entirely). To give an example from English, it seems like asking if illiterate people consider a and an the same word. I may be misunderstanding what you mean here. In any case, I think the interesting part is how people actually use forms.

There may not be a single answer here, since "liaison" in French covers various phenomena that don't all behave in exactly the same way.

My understanding is that the liaison pronunciation of "c'est" as /sɛt/ before a vowel-initial word, even though traditionally described as "obligatory," is often not truly obligatory even in adult speech. View the following page: http://www.projet-pfc.net/le-francais-explique/la-liaison/types-de-liaisons.html I don't know of a detailed account of its acquisition and use. A somewhat contrasting case is liaisons between determiners and vowel-initial nouns, which are acquired relatively early and are robustly obligatory in adult speech (aside from production errors), so I will talk about them a bit.

Liaisons between determiners and vowel-initial nouns

Here is a paper that describes some data and theoretical models of their acquisition by French-speaking children: Liaison acquisition, word segmentation and construction in French: A usage based account, by Jean-Pierre Chevrot, Celine Dugua, and Michel Fayol.

This paper supports a viewpoint that I have also seen in other literature on this subject (such as this paper by Bybee, whom the authors cite): rather than treating the liaison consonant as simply a word-final consonant, it argues for a "construction"-based model.

Here's how this works: a phrase like des filles /defij/ is considered to have a mental representation of "determiner + X" (/de/ + /fij/).

But, a phrase like "des amis" /dezami/ is not just "determiner + X" with a different word as the determiner (/dez/ + /ami/). Instead, the mental representation is postulated to be "determiner + zX" (/de/ + /zami/).

The paper terms this the "exemplar-based" model, because the hypothesis is that children first acquire the concrete forms of a noun that are prefixed by a liaison consonant (the lexical representation of a noun like ours would include /urs/ /nurs/ /zurs/ /turs/) and then learn the appropriate contexts where these are used.

The model that it argues against is the "autosegmental model" where liaisons are modeled as floating consonants attached to the preceding word (i.e. children learn underlying forms like /de.z/ for des and then combine them with vowel-initial lexical representations such as /urs/).

I haven't seen anyone advance a model where forms like /de/ and /dez/ are represented as two separate words, even for illiterate children.

Liaisons between masculine singular adjectives and vowel-initial nouns

In Concreteness in Generative Phonology: Evidence from French, by Bernard Tranel 1981 (a book with some nice discussion of liaison and other elements of French phonology) it is proposed that at least some linking forms of masculine adjectives used before vowels are suppletive. The specific examples given are bon /bɔn/ (normally bon /bɔ̃/) and bel /bɛl/ (normally beau /bo/). So in this case, they would be stored in the lexicon as separate forms. But this is not the same thing as being separate words, any more than the masculine and feminine forms of adjectives are separate words.

Other liaisons

Native French speakers (even adults) sometimes make errors where they insert a liaison consonant that is not etymologically warranted. (Omitting to make an optional liaison is not considered a mistake.) I don't see how these could be due to literacy, since the consonant is not actually present in the standard written language. In addition, these erroneous liaisons are rare, so it's unlikely the speaker learned these particular erroneous forms by hearing and repeating them. The existence of these errors provides evidence that native French speakers do not just learn liaison consonants word-by-word; they learn general rules that they can extend to create innovative, non-standard forms.

The following examples are taken from Tranel, p. 228:

  • ce règlement devra être révisé
    'this regulation will have to be revised'
  • en dépit d'une circulation que chacun continue à trouver fluide
    'despite a traffic that everybody continues to find fluid'
  • le nouveau commence à remonter
    'the new one is beginning to come back'
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    By the way, the Haitian Creole, which is derived from French and appeared among really illiterate people, has such words as zanfan 'child', zami 'friend', etc.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 7:44
  • You've quite possibly given me a far better answer than my question deserves!
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 14:14
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    Re the examples of errors, Latin (and some Old French and modern French third person conjugations, although not present indicative nor future) had a '-t' on those verbs, so it is possible that those pronunciations are not innovations but preservations. Commented Apr 28, 2016 at 11:45

I don't speak French very well, but I would assume that in the language memory of French speakers, along with the base form of the word, one stores the consonant that one uses in liaison.

It's the same way that English speakers know that the past tense of take is took, while the past tense of bake is baked, not book. The past and perfect forms of irregular verbs are somehow associated with the verbs in our memory.

And in fact, there aren't that many things you have to remember. In modern French, liaison does not apply to (most) consonants on the end of singular nouns; these are forbidden liaisons. Thus, all one has to know is the ending for adverbs, adjectives, verbs, function words, and plural nouns.

Plural nouns have the liaison consonant /z/.

The endings of verbs are regular, because the conjugated forms end in predictable consonants.

The consonants to use for liaison on the ends of adjectives are closely related to the feminine form of the adjective. For example, gros, whose consonant for liaison is z, has the feminine form grosse, where the s is still pronounced.

Most adverbs end with -ment.

And there are not all that many function words.

One wonders whether this is the reason that liaison at the end of (most) singular nouns is forbidden in modern French—people couldn't remember which consonant went with which noun, so they stopped pronouncing them. These liaisons do seem to have been made in the past; there are a few frozen expressions where one still uses liaison after nouns, for example fait accompli.


I don't know the correct answer for this, but I think that every person has an inherited innate sense for language that has developed over hundred of thousand of years of human evolution. Many linguists believe that the sense for grammar and word building for example is inherited.

An example for this innate sense: an English speaker may have never heard of the term "exponential", but he can tell that this word is an English one, while he can definitely tell that the word "lesen [le:zen]" is not English (which is German for "to read")

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    This should be comment, not an answer. Once you have earned a few points of reputation, you'll be able to comment everywhere. Commented Apr 26, 2017 at 15:27
  • Old English was first spoken about 1500 years ago, Early Modern English about 500 years ago. English hasn't been around for hundreds of thousands of years, and nor has any other language.
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented Apr 26, 2017 at 21:54
  • Early modern English is about 350 years old, and of course this English wasn't spoken thousand of years ago. How did you come to that?? The idea is that every person have an innate sense for the language. The innate sense is being inherited.
    – S. S
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 6:45

Illiterate French people have learned it the same way every literate person has. It doesn't have anything to do with the written language. No, they don't know the spelling because they are illiterate –you could say per definition. ;)

Once they have heard a word in a context where liaison occurs, they can learn that the lexeme (word) has a consonant in final position. If they then hear the same lexeme without the final consonant in a position before a vowel, they have to learn that some different lexemes do not cause liaison. This is the case in words beginning with the so-called "aspirated h".

  • Recall that the question asks "Are there any studies on language acquisition for illiterate French people". There is a competing hypothesis that speakers behavior is only partially semi-phonological (t,z,n is partially-defined contexts) and anything else is influenced by spelling. So, do you know of any actual scientific studies that address the behavior / implicit knowledge of illiterates?
    – user6726
    Commented Dec 23, 2018 at 18:21
  • No, sorry. There were several questions and I didn't catch the emphasis on the "studies" part. But that claim seems quite unrealistic to me. Yes, there is something called spelling pronunciation and features of it may become wide-spread –here's your influence. Still, spoken language has existed for such a long time and has worked without a spelling/writing system for it's longest history. Children acquire most of their native language not being able to read and illiterates can't read. They can't have any notable knowledge about spelling, else they could read. Commented Dec 24, 2018 at 9:39
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    In my opinion, we should just assume that language still works as it has for all of its history. Spelling can only be an influence: The same way that a speaker may try to imitate a spoken standard they can try to pronounce the written standard. Commented Dec 24, 2018 at 9:42
  • I just don't see how this question needs a study for an answer. It is possible that an illiterate who doesn't know any spelling conventions at all is a competent speaker. This is proven because it had been this way for every language for most of human existence. Who would conduct a study on this? And how could anyone expect this to be proven again using an empirical study? Commented Dec 24, 2018 at 10:06

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