Appendix:Old French spellings

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Old French was a Romance language spoken from approximately 842 to 1339, when it became Middle French. Old French is best described as a dialect continuum with the spelling and pronunciation differing from region to region. Old French was primarily a spoken language and relatively little literature survives. Along with anonymous works, there were some well known authors, notably Marie de France, Thomas of Britain, Rutebeuf, Jean Bodel and Chrétien de Troyes.

Regional variations[edit]

While spelling could vary a lot from one author to another, certain spelling "rules" do exist.


Latin Île-de-France Anglo-Norman Picard Modern French English
camera chambre chambre canbre, cambre chambre bedroom; chamber
jardin jardin gardin jardin garden
ratiō raison, reson raisun reson raison reason
senior seignor, segnor seignur, segnur seignor seigneur lord, sire
computō conter cunter conter compter, conter to count; to tell
*gamba jambe gambe, jambe ganbe jambe leg
habeō avoir aveir avoir avoir to have
dīrectus droit dreit droit droit right; law


  • The Anglo-Norman dialect is characterized by two main features in comparison with "Francien" Old French. Early Old French -ei- remains in Anglo-Norman but becomes -oi- in standard Old French in the latter half of the 12th century, in words like avoir, droit and savoir (Early Old French and Anglo-Norman aveir, dreit and saveir). This includes conjugated/declined forms:

Franceis veient que paiens i ad tant.

(La Chanson de Roland, circa 1150)

  • The Picard dialect retains the /k/ sound from Latin in words like cevalier, canter and canbre. -iau- replaces -eau- in words like beau (biau). It also uses the -g- where other dialects would use a -j- in words like gardin and ganbe.
  • In some dialects, especially Anglo-Norman, -e- is interchangeable with -ie- in many words, especially words ending -er.
    • cuidier ‎(to think) →‎ Anglo-Norman variant cuider
    • chier ‎(dear; beloved; cherished) →‎ Anglo-Norman variant cher
    • chief ‎(head) →‎ Anglo-Norman variant chef
  • Such variation is found much less in Francien (the dialect of Paris and its surrounding area).

Latin derivations[edit]

  • The Latin endings -em, -um (accusative), -um (nominative) either become -e or are dropped all together. The Latin feminine endings -am (accusative) and -a (nominative) fe almost always become -e and are almost never dropped entirely, apart from a few isolated attestations.
    Latin: mūrum (accusative singular) →‎ Old French mur.
    Latin: palmam →‎ Old French paume (not paum).
    Latin: trānslātiōnem →‎ Old French translacion.
  • The Latin nominative masculine singular ending -us becomes -s which is why many Old French nominative singulars of masculine nouns end in -s.
    Latin: mūrus →‎ Old French murs (compare with mur above).
  • An initial Latin ex- often becomes es- or ess- before a vowel. Old French forms beginning with ex- are usually later borrowings.
    Latin: expandere →‎ Old French espandre.
    Latin: exemplum →‎ Old French essainple.

Inflected forms[edit]

Old French inflected forms are sometimes irregular.

  • Words ending in c, f, p usually drop the final letter when an s is added:
  • Words ending in a vowel plus l or il replace this with u when an s is added (which appears as z after il), unless the preceding vowel is also a u in which case the l or il is simply dropped:
  • Words ending in a consonant plus il drop the l before adding s or z (z appears when il indicates a palatal -l- [iʎ], but s appears when il indicates a normal -l- [il]
  • Wording ending in t, the ts is almost always replaced by z, but pronounced /ts/:
  • Wording ending in -al have multiple plurals. Cheval ("horse") has the plurals chevaus, chevals and chevax. X can replace us at the end of a word.
  • Conjugated forms of verbs ending in -der/-dier like comander replace the d with a t or froz for some of the singular present tense forms as following:
  • Similar changes happen to verbs ending in many consonants. In all cases the second and third singular present indicative are regular.
  • Verbs in -ter/-tier like chanter behave much like those in -der.
  • Verbs in -ber, -fer, -per, -ver lose the final consonant in the second and third singular present subjunctive, and devoice the final consonant in the first singular present, e.g. sauver:
  • Verbs in -mer change -m- to -n- before s and t:
  • Verbs in -rmer lose the -m- before s and t:
  • Verbs in -rner similarly lose the -n- before s and t:
  • In general, the changes before inflectional s and t are similar to what happens to nouns and adjectives.

Other spellings[edit]

  • Spellings vary not only from text to text, but also within the same text. For example the word moult can be attested as molt, mult, mout, mot and mut.
  • An initial h is silent, except in Germanic borrowings. Hence hoste and oste are entirely interchangeable, but honte cannot be spelt onte, because the h is aspirated.

Typography[edit]

Except from Bestiaire, Philippe de Thaon, Copenhagen manuscruipt showing a tilde on e of cointement (hence cointemẽt)

Modern published texts use modern norms to make the texts easier to read. Spelling is often left unchanged, but diacritics and capital letters are added.

  • Capital letters are not used. For example in this excerpt from The Song of Roland we can see that 'France' is written 'france'
  • Diacritics are not used apart from the tilde to indicate a nasal vowel. Modern authors write these out in full, for example from the image above, 'cointemẽt' is rendered 'cointement'
    • In terms of diacritics added by scholars, an acute accent on a final 'e' pronounced [e] is universal among scholars, as is an acute accent on the ending 'es' pronounced [es]. An acute is rarely used on the endings -ee and -ees because it's clear to a French speaker that this must represent the modern -ée, -ées endings (no ambiguity). The ending -ée can however be seen in this 1909 transcription of La Chanson des quatre fils Aymon (lines 531, 532, 533, etc.)
    • Diaereses/tremas are commonly used as they are in modern French to indicate that two consecutive vowels do not constitute a diphthong. This can be seen in the Chanson des quatre fils Aymon example above (line 538, fuï). Tremas are not included in the Godefroy or the Anglo-Norman On-Line Hub, so fuï would be rendered fui.
    • Grave accents are very rare because excluding them does not lead to ambiguity. A grave can be seen again in La Chanson des quatre fils Aymon on lines 536, 538, etc.
  • I and J are both written I. For example iardin (jardin)
  • U and V are both written U. For example ueue (veue)

References[edit]

  • Faral, Edmond, Petite grammaire de l'ancien français, Hachette, 1941
  • E. Einhorn, Old French: A Concise Handbook, Cambridge University Press, 1974, ISBN 0521098386

See also[edit]