On 18/01/2013 19:28, BPJ wrote:
> On 2013-01-18 19:57, Mathieu Roy wrote:
>> I don't know if the following is true, but my French
>> teacher told me that monks in the past were paid by
>> letters and therefore were adding letters to some
>> words.

A bit of a myth, methinks. Monks weren't paid.

>> That would explain why a lot of words have for example
>> the letters "eau" pronounces as "o" (bateau, eau, beau,
>> chateau, etc.) or simply "au" pronounces as "o" (faux,
>> taux, etc.) or silent letter at the end (faux, taux,
>> etc.) or double letters that are indistinguishable from
>> one letter (balle, sale, association, etc.)

No, it does not explain any one of those things.

> It *is* true that they added letters here and there,

Yes, especially by early printers to justify lines (monks
could justify them more easily by slightly modifying width
of letters and spaces).

> but for the most part 'illogical' spellings in French
> reflect how the words were actually pronounced in the
> thirteent century.

Exactly!  Yes, for the most part modern French spelling
reflects how the language was pronounced in the 13th
century.  The reason for _eau_ and _au_ now pronounced as
/o/, is that the spellings represent the pronunciation of
the 13th century, the modern pronunciation is the result of
sound changes that have taken place since.

The reason silent letters occur at the end of words is that
they were not silent in the 13th century, but have become so
since.  The only oddity here is the final -x of some plurals
where _x_ was mistaken for a common handwritten abbreviation
of -us.

> Some were meant to approximate the spelling to their
> Latin counterpart, sometimes mistakenly.

That accounts for geminate consonants.

Others were stuck in by learned or semi-learned people after
the renaissance; the same thing happened in English.  Some,
as BPJ says, were mistaken, e.g. _sēavoir_ (<-- sapere) with
the mistaken idea it had something to with Latin _scire_,
and _dipner_ (<-- VL. *disjunįre) with mistaken idea that
somehow it was related to Greek _deipnein_!  Fortunately,
the French were, for the most part, more sensible than their
English counterparts, and dropped nearly all these
absurdities, e.g. they now write: savoir, dīner.  The only
common survival that comes to mind is the _p_ in _sept_.

"language … began with half-musical unanalysed expressions
for individual beings and events."
[Otto Jespersen, Progress in Language, 1895]