There's a widespread belief that says that the reason for French having so many silent letters is that historically the authors were paid by the letter, so they were tempted to write longer words. This is likely false for a number of reasons, but I can't find find any resources online that debunk or even discuss this idea.

В книге Жанны Агалаковой «Все, что я знаю о Париже» рассказывается красивая и забавная история, будто в Средние века писарям платили за каждую букву, вот они и старались растянуть слова до предела


Adapted Google translation

In the book, Jeanne Agalakova "Everything I know about Paris' beautiful and tells a funny story, though in the Middle Ages scribes paid for each letter, so they tried to stretch each word to the limit

Are there any websites that I can cite as reference about this?

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French Wikipedia has some things to say about this.

Orthographe française

En 1718, avec sa seconde édition, le Dictionnaire introduit de façon systématique les lettres j et v en remplacement des lettres muettes qui permettaient jusqu'alors de distinguer les mots homonymes écrits respectivement avec les lettres i et u (ainsi « apuril » devient « avril »). Par ailleurs, certaines lettres étymologiques sont supprimées, de même que certains « s » muets internes... Dans le même temps, d'autres lettres muettes font leur apparition, souvent pour rappeler l'étymologie latine (le g de doigt en référence à digitus) des mots, parfois pour d'autres raisons (le h introduit dans huile ou le l ajouté à ennuyeulx n'ont rien d'étymologique 5). En 1740, avec la troisième édition, un tiers des mots change d’orthographe et les accents apparaissent (par exemple, « throne, escrire, fiebvre » deviennent « trône, écrire, fièvre, etc. »). En 1836, pour la sixième édition du Dictionnaire de l'Académie impose que les terminaisons en « ois » qui se prononcent « è » s’écrivent désormais avec « ais » (« français », « j’étais »…).

Au début du xixe siècle, l'orthographe se fixe et, contrairement aux autres pays romans, c'est le courant étymologiste qui prévaut et non pas phonétique.

So the summary of relatively recent changes is,

  • They have been dropping (not adding) silent letters: for example "apuril" -> "avril", and dropping silent "s"
  • Spelling is dictated by the French Academy, not by "authors" or "printers"
  • Some of the silent letters are there to indicate the etymology (not pronunciation) of the word: for example the "g" in "doigt" to remind you of the latin "digitus".

Regarding pre-18th century spelling, earlier in the same Wikipedia article it says that,

  • 11th century spelling had few silent letters: the terminal consonants were pronounced (which explains why those terminal consonants existed in the words)
  • Starting in the 13th century spelling became more "ideographic" and less "phonetic": for example the (initially) silent "b" in the word "subtil" -- spelled "soutil" or "sutil" in old french, reconstructed with a "b" to match the latin word "subtilis".

The one reference to the effect alleged in the OP (i.e. of spelling being influenced by authors) is the following paragraph:

Au début du xvie siècle, l'orthographe commence à avoir un effet sur la prononciation. Des consonnes initialement muettes, introduites en suivant l'étymologie, commencent à être prononcées (le b de subtil par exemple). Sous l'impulsion d'imprimeurs et d'écrivains (notamment Ronsard), apparaît une orthographe réformée, plus proche de la prononciation : introduction des accents, suppression des lettres « grecques » (ph, th, rh, y), du y notant [i], du ez notant [e], du x final muet, remplacement de en prononcé [ɑ̃] par an. Mais le Dictionnaire francoislatin (1549) de Robert Estienne va marquer le retour à une orthographe ancienne (y notant [i], es notant [e] ou [ɛ], rétablissement des lettres grecques, suppression de la plupart des accents)4.

This paragraph talks about authors simplifying spelling (e.g. using one consonant instead of two).

However the question is about modern-day French. French spelling has changed a lot (e.g. it says above that a third of all words are changed in 1740), all under the direction of the French Academy. So I think it's fair to conclude that the spelling of modern French is entirely due to the French Academy and not to writers or printers being paid by the letter. The reason why there many silent vowels is to remind you of the latin word: assuming that you know latin, the latinised spelling makes it easier to recognize the meaning of written french.

The reference cited in the OP explains the reason for many final silent "e": they mark feminine nouns, which are inherited from corresponding Latin feminine nouns.

The example word shown in the illustration/image in the reference cited in the OP is of the word "beaucoup", whose etymology is given here: http://fr.wiktionary.org/wiki/beaucoup

In this case the final silent "p" is to show that it derives from the same word as "couper" meaning "to cut"; one of the reasons for silent letters is to distinguish homonyms: French already has another word "cou" which means "neck".

http://bbouillon.free.fr/univ/hl/Fichiers/Cours/orthog.htm gives an example of words which are homonyms in French, which are spelled differently: cinq, saint, sain, sein, seing, ceint.

The Ordonnance de Villers-Cotterêts in 1539 replaced Latin with 'the mother tongue' (i.e. French) as the language used in law: that was another reason why they wanted the spelling of French words to be regularized (across the country) and unambiguous (across homonyms), and therefore started to latinize spellings.

On the subject of Middle Ages scribes, ibid says,

Le but des scribes au Moyen Âge n'est pas de faire des effets, mais de transcrire ce qui était dit, de restituer une prononciation ; aux XIIème - XIIIème siècles encore, l'écriture est une sorte d'aide-mémoire, plus ou moins instable, à usage individuel ou restreint, dans une civilisation essentiellement orale. C'est à l'époque une orthographe pure, mais pauvre. [dixit Nina Catach, Langue Française n° 20] Une orthographe que l'on peut considérer comme phonologique, mais avec des insuffisances et des contradictions.

The above is consistent with the Wikipedia article: Old French was pronounced differently and 'extra' letters were sometimes added because that is how the words used to be pronounced, and spelling was a transcription of pronunciation.

It doesn't mention any 'baser' motives until the following in 1694,

Le mouvement de simplification lancé par les imprimeurs au XVIème siècle (appuyés par des auteurs comme Ronsard) échoue en grande partie ; l'une des raisons principales est que les gens trop en avance ont été soupçonnés de protestantisme, et ont dû s'expatrier (ex : en Hollande) ; ne sont donc restés que ceux qui étaient au service de la monarchie, et qui ont perpétué la tradition.

Le principe au XVIIème siècle est qu'on ne doit pas changer les habitudes établies. A la fin du siècle, l'académicien Mézeray écrit encore, dans un projet pour le Dictionnaire de l'Académie de 1694 :

La Compagnie declare qu'elle desire suiure l'ancienne orthographe qui distingue les gents de lettres davec les ignorants et les simples femmes, et qu'il faut la maintenir par tout, hormis dans les mots ou un long et constant usage en aura introduit une contraire.

Cependant, la " nouvelle orthographe " (simplifiée, celle des imprimeurs) continuait à vivre, en province, et dans certains milieux, comme le montre le dictionnaire de Richelet en 1680, qui simplifie des consonnes doubles, supprime des lettres qui avaient été rajoutées (y compris des lettres grecques), compensant ce manque par l'emploi de l'accent aigu, et partiellement de l'accent grave, etc.

The printers wanted to simplify spelling, but were opposed by conservative forces. Academicians wanted to keep the old orthography because of (IMO) snobbery. Nevertheless the printers' new orthography eventually prevailed.

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  • Your source does say that some letters were added. The French Academy can't but accept changes that do happen in the common spelling of the language. Thus, your source is not completely incompatible with the claim, even though it makes it more unlikely. What you are missing is evidence whether the authors were paid by the letter or not. If they were, I would maybe suspect they were tempted to choose the longest possible spelling; if they were not this would prove it's wrong conclusively. – Sklivvz Dec 25 '13 at 21:08
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    I'm not sure that's relevant. An analogy might be a claim in the OP that cars are powered by wind, my answer references a Wikipedia article about internal combustion engines, and your comment is that my answer is missing an analysis of the direction of prevailing winds. IMO the reference shows 1) Spelling is originally phonetic, from a old spoken language which pronounced its terminal consonants 2) Silent letters were removed 3) When silent letters were added, 3a) they were added for etymological (not commercial) reasons 3b) they were added by scholars and jurists, not by authors and printers. – ChrisW Dec 25 '13 at 21:45
  • The 2nd-last sentence of the Orthography article says, "Les imprimeurs forment une autre source d'influence sur l'orthographe." i.e. "printers/publishers are another source of influence on spelling" (where "another" means, in context, "after the Academy, linguists, lexicographers, and grammarians"). I understood that as meaning that their influence is non-zero, but relatively slight or negligible. – ChrisW Dec 25 '13 at 21:50
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    bbouillon.free.fr/univ/hl/Fichiers/Cours/orthog.htm mentions printers ("imprimeurs") 10 times: it says that they wanted to simplify spelling (e.g. by removing silent letters). – ChrisW Dec 25 '13 at 22:09
  • The French wikipedia articles look to be more consistent and better referenced than their English wikipedia equivalents (translations). – user5582 Dec 26 '13 at 18:14

I have only heard this claim about English spellings.

I find the opposite claim about French spellings:

French spelling, however, "is largely based on the pronunciation of Old French c. 1100–1200 CE and has stayed more or less the same since then, despite enormous changes to the pronunciation of the language in the intervening years."

However, this is unreferenced, and another Wikipedia article on reforms of French orthography says that:

Spelling and punctuation before the 16th century was highly erratic, but the introduction of printing in 1470 provoked the need for uniformity.


The third (1740) and fourth (1762) editions of the Académie dictionary were very progressive ones, changing the spelling of about half the words altogether.

Assuming that at least one of these accounts is accurate, either spelling has been relatively fixed since 1100-1200 CE (before printing), or spelling changes have been prescribed by the Académie française (not printers). It's also possible that both are true.

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