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It would seem that much ease of use must have been lost when a lot of French letters came to be silent - I never fail to be amazed that "il parle" and "ils parlent" are homophones, and it's very easy to conjure realistic sentences where this homophony would cause a problem that required extra periphrastic or other disambiguation.

Around when, and why, did French stop pronouncing final plural-marking s, the -ent ending and so many other sounds that are meaningful?

And does anyone know of any contemporary French commentary around this time? Along the lines of "the kids are no longer pronouncing the -ent at the end of plural verbs, and the language is going to the dogs..."

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    Wikipedia has a long thorough article on the Phonological history of French. It would be good to start there, and then ask follow up questions here. If you wanted to edit this to focus on one time period and ask about contemporary commentary/grammatical discussions, that would be good too. – curiousdannii Aug 18 '16 at 13:57
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    The short answer is that French had many sound changes that deleted consonants and vowels. If would be too unwieldy to explain all of those deletions in a single answer. – user6726 Aug 18 '16 at 14:57
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    1- Are you aware of French Language Stack Exchange? 2- Are you aware final consonants are almost never pronounced in French, nothing special to verb endings? 3- No contemporary French commentary will ever say anything like "the kids are no longer pronouncing the -ent at the end of plural verbs, and the language is going to the dogs" because French conjugation has changed little since Old French. – Laure Aug 18 '16 at 18:22
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    4- "Il parle" and "ils parlent" never need disambiguating because pronouns are used in place of nouns that have been defined beforehand, and although I understand your point of concern, you could have found a better example. 5- Are you aware of all the letters that are not pronounced in English and all the homographs and homophones? Why restrict your concern to French? 6- If you are interested in the evolution of the French Language you might be interested in reading Marcel Cohen's Histoire d'une langue, le français. – Laure Aug 18 '16 at 18:22
  • This may not be a valid answer but it should be remembered that the Latin spoken in Gaul had two substrata, Celtic, and the Germanic tongue spoken by the Franks, initial stress in Frankish may have caused loss, – B. Scholl Aug 19 '16 at 8:09
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First of all, the letters did not become silent as letters are not linguistic units and the orthography of a language is quite arbitrary. In fact in French, there was a time when linguistists (or precursors thereof) were tracing Latin origins of the words and in order to make French closer to Latin, they renewed letters for phonemes that were lost long ago, like Latin "tempus" (time), which gave French "tens" (today just [tã] and reflected in the English word "tense" as in "grammatic tense") but was later changed by the grammarians to "temps" (this was sometimes done incorrectly, e.g. French "pois" - a "weigh" came from Latin "pensum", but grammarians traced it to Latin "podus" and add the letter D into the word, resulting into today's "poids").

So if we modify your question why so many original latin phonemes disappeared, the answer is fairly simple:

Ancient French, probably under the influence of Germanic invaders, developed a strong dynamic accent (compared to Latin melodic). This led to the same effect as in today's English, where accented vowels are reinforced (often diphthongised) while non-accented vowels are reduced (typically to schwa). In French, this led to loss of all post-accent syllables, which combined with the general Romance tendency to drop final consonants or consonant clusters led to what the French looks like today.

However since there were contexts where some of the consonants were still pronounced (e.g. before a vowel of a following word - today's liaison), they were kept in writing mostly ("il finit" > "finit-il?" also compare with "il parle" > "parle-t-il?", which is the same phenomenon, just the original Latin T for 3SG was dropped for the verb class entirely).

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    Another way of thinking about this might be: "Why is French writing so outdated?" (think of oie pronounced /wa/ – not a single sound of the current pronunciation was updated to writing!). The same question may be asked of English writing, and in both cases the answer probably has little to do with linguistics, but instead with sociology and historical accident. – melissa_boiko Aug 29 '16 at 18:11

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