Le, La, Les: The French Definite Article
An article is a word that is placed before a noun or adjective to indicate the type of reference being made to the noun or adjective. Articles can be definite (showing a reference to a specific person or thing) or indefinite (showing reference to any one person, place or thing out of a general group).
The definite article in English is made up of one word – ‘the’ – but in French, this is complicated by the fact that it must change form to agree with the gender and number of the noun to which it refers:
Thankfully, there is only one plural article for both masculine and feminine nouns – Les.
Note: This plural form of the definite article is particularly handy, since the French plural in nouns is regularly indicated by the addition of an –s, as in English, but in French the –s is silent in speech – and therefore, without the distinctive plural article, it would be impossible to know (in speech, but not in writing) whether the noun was singular or plural.
Thus, for the feminine, we have:
(with pomme pronounced identically in the singular and plural)
And for the masculine:
(with chat pronounced identically in the singular and plural)
The Definite Article Elided
Before a vowel or a silent ‘h’, the French definite article is elided (meaning a vowel is removed from the end of the word) to l’, for le and la alike:
(With homme pronounced ‘om’ due to the silent ‘h’)
It is thought that this feature of French exists largely for reasons of pronunciation, as putting two vowels together (and if the initial ‘h’ of a word is silent, the first thing to be pronounced is the vowel that follows) becomes linguistically awkward and inelegant with the French set of vowel sounds.
Note: An alternative device with the same purpose as the French elision in the use of the definite article, the addition of a consonant between the two vowels instead of the removal of one of them, is found in English instead of the elision (although to a lesser extent), for example when the indefinite article ‘a’ becomes ‘an’ before a noun beginning with a vowel – i.e. ‘an apple’ instead of ‘a apple’.
Interestingly, in French the plural form of the definite article, Les, is not elided when determining a noun beginning with a vowel or silent ‘h’, but remains intact:
Instead of removing a vowel, the –s simply ceases to be silent: in front of a noun beginning with a vowel or silent ‘h’, Les is pronounced ‘Lez’, thus again avoiding the awkward clash of adjacent vowels and providing a smooth vocal liaison between the article and the noun or adjective.
Silent H and H Aspirate
However, the argument for smooth pronunciation above is somewhat undermined by a whole class of words beginning with a silent ‘h’ that do not take elided articles.
Technically, these words do not begin with a silent ‘h’ (‘h’ muet) but an ‘h’ aspirate (‘h’ aspiré), which is very misleading as there is no such thing as an ‘h’ sound in French, and these words are pronounced in the same manner as those beginning with a silent ‘h’ – the first sound to be pronounced is the first vowel.
There is no easy way to distinguish between adjectives and nouns beginning with an aspirate ‘h’ and a silent ‘h’ – each case must be learned. For example, héros does not allow contraction (elision) of the article, but héroïsme and héroïne do:
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