The evidence

In a historical approach to the language, sources and methods are the primary concern: what documents should we use and how should we use them to discover exactly how French was pronounced several centuries ago? The sources that present-day phoneticians make use of are of three types: (1) written works in general, that enable us to identify the important phonetic principles that underlie the evolution of the language, (2) pedagogical works intended for foreign learners and (3) the works of grammarians on the language. To those, we must add works that are specifically about singing.

The study of written works in general

From ancient times, Europe has produced a continuous stream of writing. From the beginning of the Common Era, we have descriptions of a popular type of Latin (Vulgar Latin), that was very different from the Classical variety, and then of the gradual appearance of Romance and its separation into the various vernaculars. We can form a picture of the development of French over a long period by studying variations in orthography, the mistakes of scribes (both corrected and not), glosses (Latin-Romance word-lists) and linguistic borrowings. In poetical texts particularly, rhyme and assonance are a vital source for showing how the same sound may be represented by different spellings or, conversely, how the same spelling can represent different sounds.

Paradoxically, the further back you go in time, the more trustworthy this indirect evidence appears to be. In the earliest period of written French1, it seems that the scribes endeavoured to write down the sounds of French as they heard them, as if they were writing in Latin. Later, though, when the first literary works in French appeared, attempts were made to establish a style independent of Latin. Traditions began to develop, and some non-phonetic usages took hold, so that French orthography gradually acquired a logic, an aesthetic and a coherence of its own, that was not necessarily modelled any longer on the actual sounds of speech. By the Renaissance, the etymological traditions of seven centuries of literature had produced an orthographical style that gives us a very imprecise idea of current pronunciation. The 16th century, though, was also a time of experimental reform, when humanists put forward new ideas about spelling, with imaginative alphabets that they tried to base on phonetic principles. These utopian reforms were little understood and rarely put into practice, but for us they offer irreplaceable evidence for the language of that time.

Phonetic principles

At the first blush, the evolution of these languages appears chaotic, depending as it does on the countless interactions of a vast number of speakers, who are, for the most part, unaware of the role they are playing. It is to the linguists of the 19th century that the credit is due for having worked out how to extract from this abundance of seemingly random data the general phonetic principles without which the study of the different ways in which an ancient language was written down would have looked like a piecemeal description of the molecules of water in an ocean. On the basis that, at a given time, all the different ways of writing down the same sound in a given context undergo the same modification, we can use these phonetic principles to summarize the evolution of the whole lexicon. Thus a more systematic understanding of the history of the language becomes possible.

Through the examination of written sources, the principles are derived that constitute historical phonetics. This is an abstract academic discipline, which, like algebra, appeals to few. It promotes a diachronic view of language, that is to say, it does not so much look at a language as a whole at any given time, but rather the evolution over time of its individual constituents. Despite the reservations that this can arouse, it is a necessary stage in the research into the sounds of old French. The singers’ task, however, cannot be limited to the study of existing treatises. They should also make an effort to gain a synchronic view, that is, to reconstitute the “there and then” of the language relative to the context of the work to be performed, and to try to bring out the features of the sung language. You will never find this dealt with by phoneticians. Finally, they must work at the art of diction, in order to give life and beauty to abstract phonetic signs.

Pedagogical works

The Norman colonization of England in the 11th century precipitated French from the vernacular to the status of a language of education, since the English had to learn the language of their lords and of the law. The earliest known pedagogical treatises date from the 13th century2. With many more in the following centuries, they sometimes dealt with problems of pronunciation. As their authors were not always native speakers of French and taught a usage influenced by the Anglo-Norman tradition, we should exercise caution in interpreting what they say.

From the 16th century, there are many treatises intended for the English, the Germans, the Italians and others. The requirements of effective explanation sometimes led to simplification and distortion. Nevertheless, in certain areas, such as prosodic features (stress and length), they show a good sense that puts to shame the French grammarians of the Renaissance.

Grammatical works

In the Middles Ages, grammar meant that of the classical languages, principally Latin. Understanding grammar was the same thing as knowing Latin. In this context, where it would have seemed outlandish to suggest that French could be governed by grammar, it is not surprising that any grammatical thought about the popular tongue remained undeveloped.

The influence of Renaissance humanism prompted the notion that French might achieve a status equal to that of the ancient languages, judged to be “perfectly regulated”. We find, then, in the 16th century, the beginnings of genuine grammatical thought about the French language. The grammarians of that time were not approaching grammar in a pedagogical fashion for the instruction of foreigners, but were writing for educated native speakers. Their intention was not that of teaching them to speak, read or write in French, but to convince them that French deserved to be counted as a learned language. Questions of orthography and pronunciation were, from the start, of prime importance.

Whereas the pedagogues twisted the facts for the sake of simplification, the grammarians did so for ideological purposes: they thought they had the power to shape the language, or at any rate its grammar and orthography, and so they often looked at it through rose-tinted spectacles. Only much later, in the 17th century, did their successors take a stand against the tyranny of “accepted usage”, which was, in effect, the polished speech of the court. Rejecting the humanists’ role of creators, and content to be thought of as recorders of good usage, they gave grammatical thought a more descriptive character.

Works related to singing

We have to wait until the 17th century for the appearance of works dealing specifically with singing and its techniques. Marin Mersenne is probably the first author to deal at any length with the pronunciation and prosody of French in music, but it is Bacilly, in his Remarques curieuses, a work unequalled to this day, who achieves the subtlest possible understanding of the relationships between text and music.

In the works about singing, a dramatic style of diction is supported, though still a traditional one, firmly established and codified, and resistant to changes arising in popular speech. When these works are set against those of the grammarians, we can notice that they often favour pronunciations that appear archaïzing, but which are in fact typical of careful speech. Sometimes, by contrast, aestheticism leads to avant-garde experimentation.

Problems of chronology

Treatises on historical phonetics generally give a date for phonetic changes to the nearest half-century. Any greater precision would make little sense, since, of course, it is not the case that all the speakers of a language will decide, of one accord, to change their usage together on one day or in one particular year. Overlaps can occur from one generation to the next, from one social level to another, from one region to another. So, singers who are aware of historical phonetics will sometimes have to choose between two opposing options. They should be guided in their choice, not so much by a fixed date, as by a knowledge of the context in which a particular phonetic change occurs, as well as a good understanding of the different linguistic levels and the ways in which they interact.

Where to begin?

The bibliography contains a selective list of references related to the subjects dealt with above. As an introduction to historical phonetics, the works of Carton, E and J Bourciez, Zink and Joly, as well as the phonetic exercises of Andrieux-Reix, are quite sufficient. One could consult Bonnard’s Synopsis, and the excellent phonetic summary that appears in Picoche’s Histoire de la langue française. For a more detailed study of the historical phonetics of French, Fouché’s treatise remains indispensable.

For the pedagogical works, Palsgrave stands out from the rest. Among French grammarians, Thurot’s impressive monograph is an essential starting-point. Complementarily, Trudeau offers a modern outlook on the role of the “inventors of good usage”. Finally, besides the treatises of Mersenne and Bacilly, those of Bérard, Blanchet, Raparlier and Lécuyer deal with the problems of pronunciation that are specific to singing.

Translation : Michael Bulley



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  1. Serments de Strasbourg (842).

  2. Lusignan, Parler vulgairement, p. 97 et sq. Kristol, Début du rayonnement parisien.