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How do I pronounce historical French correctly from times when the language was in transition?


I sing in a choir that performs medieval and renaissance music in several languages I don't otherwise speak. When we are unclear about pronunciation, we look for recordings from reputable performers -- but this doesn't always work, and anyway I would like to better develop skill instead of just looking for sources to imitate. I find French from the 13th through 16th centuries particularly challenging in this regard.

I know that in Old French final consonants tended to be pronounced and some vowels were different. This Wikipedia page (I agree with the annotation that it is confusing and needs attention) describes several periods in the language, including (I think these are nominal end dates):

  • Old French, c. 1100
  • Late Old French, c. 1250-1300
  • Middle French, c. 1500
  • Early Modern French, c. 1700

Date ranges for language changes are always going to be approximate and might show regional variation. It's not like everybody in France woke up one day and said "we're going to do it differently now". So transitional periods are especially hard to handle. This comes up for me when looking at 13th- (and even 14th-)century French songs.

When looking at a song (or poem) and deciding on pronunciations, what internal or external clues can I rely on (other than rhymes when they occur, which isn't often)? By internal I mean: are there signals in the text itself that point to answers? By external, I mean: do we have better geographic information, so knowing that a composer lived in such-and-such area would point to an answer?

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1 answer


This are a lot of details as to how French was pronounced, so I'll focus on just this question:

When looking at a song (or poem) and deciding on pronunciations, what internal or external clues can I rely on?

The most important thing to know is if the orthography is modernized or not. If the orthography is modernized, as it usually is, there is really no way to know based on the text itself.

If the text isn't modernized, the orthography still isn't always a good clue to how to pronounce it. The pronunciation of French can't be determined from the orthography unless you learn many words individually, and this is as true for Modern French as for Middle and Early Modern French. A 17th century Frenchman would have written mesme and françois instead of modern même and français, but in these cases, your pronunciation would be more accurate if you just adopted the modern pronunciation of the word instead of reading it as it's written. But in Old French, the same words were pronounced as they were written.

This isn't to say that the orthography didn't change drastically over the centuries, just that its changes don't often correlate with changes in pronunciation. For example, the fact that faict gained a c or trosne gained an s in Middle French wasn't because of a pronunciation change. On the other hand, variant spellings in Old French often do reflect real variants.

In other words, apart from knowing when the text was written (and even then!), it's hard to know the pronunciation of a French song at the time it was written without having a large vocabulary and good knowledge of etymology, effectively learning French and its history word by word.

On the other hand, if the only need for accurate pronunciation is to sing it in a choir, you could sing as modern French people sing old poetry, as in pronouncing Frère Jacques as /fʁɛʁə ʒakə/ instead of /fʁɛʁ ʒak/ to fit the meter of the song. Arguably, since the modern pronunciation rarely interferes with the rhyme, the meter is the most important thing to preserve.


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