This is the last article of a three-part series I dedicated to some French graphic signs based on this request from Oska:
I would enjoy if you could also perhaps do a lesson or two in the future on other French diacritics and ligatures, e.g. the cedilla, the diaeresis (or tréma), the ligature ‘œ’. As speakers and writers of a language which does not mostly possess such ‘baroque’ written adornments, I think Anglophones (= English speakers) find them quite fascinating. And perhaps a little bit of a barrier, which explication can help overcome.
Can you think of some French words containing an « œ » (written « Œ » in capital letters) ? Do you know what that strange fusion of letters is called? If not, keep reading to solve the mystery 😉
What is this « œ » exactly?
« Œ » is a ligature, which basically means that two letters have been linked/attached together.
In French, the “Œ” ligature can be called:
- “E dans l’O” (This literally means “ E in the O”, although I have to confess that until fairly recently, I had always thought it was « E dans l’eau », that is to say “E in the water”, which didn’t make much sense !!)
- “O-E liés” (= «O-E linked together»)
- “O-E collés” (= «O-E glued together»)
- éthel (I don’t think many French people actually know that word! I had never seen it until I did some research to write this article.)
« Œ » is found in Latin, in French, in various other languages…and in English!
Can you think of any English words with an « œ »?
There’s “fœderal » (now often spelled « federal ») or « diarrhœa » (now often written « diarrhea”, which is complicated enough!)
Origin and Function
The letters O and E became glued together as pronunciation evolved and the letters started to be pronounced as one sound/one syllable instead of two.
- When the letters are separate, they form 2 sounds.
Example: « coefficient », which will be cut like « co/ef/fi/cient and pronounced [kɔefisjɑ̃]
- When the letters are glued together (« œ » ), they form a single sound ([e] ou [ɛ])
Examples: “œuf” (=egg), pronounced [œf], like “neuf” (= number “nine”)
Pronunciation: How to read a word with « œ »
As a rule of thumb, you can learn that:
- when the « œ » is followed by a vowel it is pronounced [œ] as in « neuf »: oeuf, coeur, manoeuvre;
- when the « œ » is followed by a consonant it is pronounced [e] as in « télévision» (although we do more and more commonly hear and use the [ø] sound as in “deux”): foetus, oesophage, Oedipe.
You will find that this rule has lots of exceptions, but at least it won’t prevent you from being understood by a native French speaker – which is really what we want when things get that complicated, even for me!!
The only reliable way to guess the correct pronunciation actually requires a little knowledge about the origins of words since:
- when the word comes from Latin, the « œ » will be pronounced [ø] ou [œ] ;
- when the word comes from Greek, the « œ » will be pronounced [e] ou [ɛ].
Examples of French words with « œ »:
- [e] : Œdipe, cœlacanthe, fœtus, œcuménique, œdème, œnologie, œsophage, îles Phœnix ;
- [ɛ] : œstrogène, œstrus ;
- Pronunciation [ø] now used and tolerated : Œdipe3 ;
- [œ] : bœuf, chœur, cœur, manœuvre, mœurs, œil, œuf, œuvre, sœur, œillet;
- [ø] : bœufs, œufs, nœud, vœu.
(Adapted from Wikipedia)