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French verbs are conjugated depending on the subject's person and number (ex. je parle, tu parles, il parle, etc.) However in spoken language most of these sound the same anyway because the end part of the word tend to not be pronounced (this isn't the case for vous parlez and nous parlons, though).

Since when does this happen and why? Apparently it doesn't happen in other Romance languages. Why is the loss of sound and inflection in speaking not followed by in writing? Is it expected that in the future the conjugation will be much simpler, like in English? Or has there been evidence that it is currently happening?

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    Is your question related to verbs or more generally to the french pronunciation that leaves some consonants out when reading words, such as baguettes? – Alenanno Sep 23 '11 at 17:11
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    @Alenanno more to verbs and the loss of distinction between parles vs parle etc – Louis Rhys Sep 23 '11 at 17:14
  • Thanks for the clarification. By the way, it's Alenanno. :D – Alenanno Sep 23 '11 at 17:15
  • @Alen oops sorry I misspelled your name – Louis Rhys Sep 23 '11 at 17:17
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    I know I'm a bit late on that one, but I'd like to make the following remark: as you noticed, while written French has five different forms for the indicative present of 1st group verbs (parle x2, parles, parlons, parlez, parlent), Careful Spoken French has only 3 (/parl/ x4, /parlõ/, /parle/). I would only like to point out that in Casual Spoken French, the situation is even more dramatic, as one virtually never uses « nous parlons », which is replaced by « on parle ». So the true repartition is (/parl/ x5, /parle/). We manage not to be more analytic than English in that specific case! – JPP Oct 31 '11 at 10:55
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I think what you're asking is: what processes caused these changes in French so that the spelling no longer matches the pronunciation? Wikipedia provides a summary of some of the key changes that have occurred (also see the nice example of chanter conjugations with IPA):

  • The loss of almost all final consonants.
  • The subsequent loss of final /ǝ/, which caused the appearance of many newly final consonants.
  • The loss of the formerly strong stress that had characterized the language throughout much of its history and triggered many of the phonetic deformations.
  • Significant transformations in the pronunciation of vowels, especially nasal vowels.

This is a broad question: a series of sound changes produced this outcome, such as lenition resulting in latent or "mute" final consonants.

One possible reason French is different from other Romance languages in this respect is due to the different impact of its superstrate and substrate languages:

Some of the changes have been attributed to substrate influence—i.e. to carry-over effects from Gaulish (Celtic) or superstrate—influence from Frankish (Germanic).

Regarding spelling, much of French orthography was established based on the spelling from Old French, but when printing of dictionaries occurred, printers might retain or change spellings based on etymological assumptions if it "reflect[ed] corresponding distinctions in the spelling of the underlying Latin words". The Académie française also perhaps contributes to retaining historical spellings, but keep in mind that languages like English have undergone significant pronunciation change and the orthography has not kept up.

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    I believe some of the French creoles are spelled as they sound which can look quite surprising. – hippietrail Sep 23 '11 at 20:58
  • In Haiti at least, my understanding is that there's a bit of a debate going on as to whether Creole should be spelled phonemically or spelled following the French rules. (Which is why you'll sometimes see the name of the language written as Kreyòl and sometimes as Creole.) – Leah Velleman Oct 18 '11 at 19:29
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The loss of verbal conjugation has happened in other Indo-European language families as well. For example among Germanic languages, English, Swedish, and Norwegian have lost the conjugations inherited from the proto-language whereas German and Icelandic retain them (these are not exhaustive lists).

For details on the phonological processes which led to this change, see aedia λ's excellent answer. Interestingly, (some dialects of) French appears to be redeveloping conjugation, this time in the form of prefixes derived from subject pronouns. Culbertson (2010) "Convergent evidence for Categorial Change in French" (Language vol. 86.; link goes to Project MUSE) is a recent paper that gives evidence for this view.

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Although other romance languages haven't lost verb conjugations, they have lost noun declensions by essentially the same process. People frequently don't pronounce the ends of words in rushed or casual speech, and this can eventually become the norm. English lost its declensions and conjugations in roughly the same way.

French (like English) compensates for the lack of conjugations by generally requiring pronouns which can be left out in other romance languages and in Latin. Colloquial French actually goes further than English, requiring pronouns even when there is already a noun, as in "La France, c'est belle!" This may well be the root of a new conjugation system someday...

I know this wasn't the main point of your question, but it's worth remembering that in general written language tends to lag behind spoken language. The mess that is English spelling came about largely because the spoken language changed significantly without any reforms to the writing system. French has fared slightly better but is still riddled with no-longer-pronounced letters or even syllables.

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