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If we were to say the school in French, we would say:

L'école

The apostrophe is commonly taught to come so that vowels don't come close to each other. If we were to say 'a school' it would be:

une école

Why is it fine for vowels to come close with indefinite articles but not definite articles in French? Can this be traced back to historical reasons?

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This use of the apostrophe goes back to Old French, at a point when the final /ə/ of any word was always pronounced, unless it was followed by a vowel, in which case it was systematically elided.

In this respect, this means that le (and any other word used with the apostrophe, like se, que, je, si, de, la or (at the time) ma or sa) would have had the exact same behaviour than une (or any other words that doesn't vary orthographically whether followed by a vowel, a consonant or nothing, like cette, grande, elle or certaine). So any explanation relying on phonology seems suspect or a post facto rationalisation.

There is, however, one factor that unites all the words that show orthographic elision: they're monosyllabic (excepted compounds ending in que, that would have at first been written in a single word). Their lost vowel is their sole vowel, and they end up relying on the following word to exist. By contrast, une is more recognisable as its own unit even when followed by a vowel, since it keeps at least one syllable. This means that there was a reason to write those monosyllabic words as a unit with the word they leant on, with the apostrophe serving as a boundary between the two morphemes, while leaving polysyllabic words separate, even those like elle or une that were also clitic in nature.

In modern French, it makes a bit less sense, since said rule of /ə/ elision before a vowel isn't active anymore, and we drop /ə/ in short monosyllabic morphemes that are dependant on the following word all the time even when said word starts with a vowel. But French orthography isn't made for modern French, but for its long dead progenitor, so such inadequacies are commonplace and inevitable.

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  • How are you sure about this? Jan 15 at 0:51
  • 1
    @theonlygusti Have a look to this answer and I guess you'll be convinced Eau qui dort is quite a pro in this field, not an ordinary amateur like most of us...
    – jlliagre
    Jan 15 at 1:37
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    @theonlygusti Supporting jlliagre's comment 100%. Eau qui dort is the expert on French Language. He/she's to FL what John Lawler is to ELU. It's always a pleasure to read his/her (too rare) answers, I always learn something.
    – None
    Jan 15 at 11:05
  • Except Eau qui dort appears to actually post answers :) (And yes, I've seen Lawler's explanation for why he doesn't post answers.)
    – chepner
    Jan 15 at 18:55
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The apostrophe is commonly taught to come so that vowels don't come close to each other.

This is not stated precisely, and you might be misunderstanding. The apostrophe is a consequence of the pronunciation. What happens in French is that in some cases, two vowel sounds can't be next to each other, so the first one is removed. The apostrophe is used to replace a letter, if the usual word includes a letter with the vowel sounds.

French has many one-syllable words pronounced with a consonant followed by the vowel [ə] (schwa sound). Their spelling ends with the letter e. These words include le, de, me, te, se, que, etc. When one of these words is followed by a word that begins with a vowel sound, the [ə] sound is omitted, so the first word only contributes a consonant sound. This is reflected in the spelling by replacing the e with an apostrophe. This also applies to a few other cases, in particular la (feminine of le). For example:

  • le + oragel'orage ([lə] + [ɔ.ʁa] → [lɔ.ʁaʒ])
  • te + aimet'aime ([tə] + [ɛm] → [tɛm])
  • de + yd'y ([də] + [i] → [di])
  • la + écolel'école ([la] + [e.kɔl] → [le.kɔl])

In words that end with e and that have another vowel, the final e is normally silent (“E muet”). Since the presence of a vowel at the start of the next word doesn't (much) change how the two words are pronounced, there is no need for a change in the spelling either².

  • une + écoleune école ([yn] + [e.kɔl] → [y.ne.kɔl])
  • chaque + écolechaque école ([ʃak] + [e.kɔl] → [ʃa.ke.kɔl])

(There is one exception: in compound words where the second part is que (lorsque, puisque, etc. — not chaque where the final -que is just a coincidence), the e is elided even though it isn't normally sounded, e.g. jusque + à → jusqu'à ([ʒys.k] + [a] → [ʒys.ka])).

¹ It actually affects the syllable boundaries: a trailing consonant sound from the first word moves to the beginning of the next word if the next word starts with a vowel. But this is not reflected in the spelling.
² There are dialects where the “E muet” is actually sounded, but the spelling rule doesn't follow these dialects.

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    Ce nouveau pronom controversé, c'est presque elle, presque il, mais ce n'est pas presqu'île ! ;-)
    – jlliagre
    Jan 14 at 22:31
  • The situation is somewhat analogous to the distinction between "a" and "an" in English. One would write "a hippopotamus" but "an honor", even though both nouns are written starting with the consonant "h", and one would write "an umpire" but " a use", even though both nouns are written starting with the consonant "u". Words like "historic" are interesting because some regional dialects would pronounce the "h" while others would not, thus making the choice of "a" or "an" a function of regional dialect.
    – supercat
    Jan 15 at 19:02
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The simple reason is that in "le" the e is not silent, whereas in "une" the e is silent e.

le [lə]
une [yn]

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  • Oui bien d'accord, même si j'aurais dit que le -e de une peut être silencieux (il ne l'est pas toujours).
    – XouDo
    Jan 17 at 9:31
  • @XouDo Je ne crois pas que l'on dise « e silencieux » en français ; le terme français courant est « e muet » . « e caduc » (que je ne connaissais pas) et « schwa » (qui n'est pas approprié à mon avis) sont aussi utilisés (WordHippo), mais ça serait tout.//Le e de « une » peut être prononcé, et c'est une question de choix seulement lorsque le mot qui suit ne commence pas par une voyelle. Dans la région de Paris le choix est généralement de ne pas le prononcer.
    – LPH
    Jan 17 at 10:40
  • Effectivement, je ne savais pas trop comment traduire ce "silent e".
    – XouDo
    Jan 17 at 10:47
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The apostrophe's aren't simply "used", they are used for a purpose.

In French, as in English, apostrophes can be used to indicate that some letters have been omitted. For instance:

  • la écolel'école — the "a_" has been replace by the apostrophe.
  • do notdon't — the "o_" has been replaced by the apostrophe.

In the case of "une école", when people speak they don't drop the "e_" and say "un'école"; the barely pronounced "e" at the end of "une" naturally merges with the "é" without having to remove it. And if anyone ever did drop the "e", it would sound wrong: the article has changed gender and no longer agrees with the noun.

Consider "un ami" and "une amie", and why "un'amie" would be wrong.

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    I find this explanation confusing. The [ə] sound at the end of une (if there is one at all — it's not phonemic for most French speakers) doesn't “merge” with the next vowel (which would presumably change the way the vowel is pronounced). It simply is not pronounced at all. This doesn't change the pronunciation of the rest of the first word, however, so une [yn(ə)] doesn't get pronounced with a nasal [œ̃]. Jan 14 at 18:11
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The purpose of the elision between two words is to avoid a hiatus. There's no hiatus in une école since it is pronounced [yne'kɔl], the final e in une is not sounded.

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une ends with a vowel graphically, but it actually ends with a consonant (that is its sound ends with a consonant - the point already made by @LPH in their answer). This is similar to how some English speakers put an in front of any noun beginning with a vowel in spelling, although not all these nouns actually begin with a vowel. I am not a native English speaker to say that it is completely wrong (and I ahve seen it done in books and scientific papers), but I can't stop from shivering every time I see something like an union, although I think it is perfectly appropriate, e.g., in an urge where n comes between two vowel sounds.

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  • I believe English speakers don’t actually put “an” in front of all words beginning with a vowel in spelling. Some of them may put it in front of words like “use” but “use” used to begin with a vowel several centuries ago, and I believe it still does in some dialects. Jan 17 at 1:50
  • @PeterShor my answer clearly refers to some English speakers. Moreover, I hedged my claim by pointing out that it was a view of a non-native, used to distinguish between /u/ and /ju/, which is perhaps not a necessaity for English speakers. Therefore I am astonished by this comment (and perhaps the accompanying downvote). Jan 17 at 6:03
  • And I think it's kind of insulting for you to tell native English speakers that they're speaking (or spelling) their language wrong. Maybe you weren't trying to do this, but that's how it came across. Jan 17 at 13:06
  • @PeterShor I didn't say that English speakers are speaking English wrong - quite to the contrary - see my comment above, as well a sthe original answer: I am not a native English speaker to say that it is completely wrong. Jan 17 at 13:14
  • You implied that they were doing it because they were too stupid to know the difference between a word beginning with a written consonant and a word beginning with a spoken consonant. This is probably not what is happening here. (And I'm not the only downvoter, so maybe other people felt the same way.) Jan 17 at 13:19

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