We’ve dealt with adjectives a lot in previous Yabla lessons, and in this one we’ll focus on five of them that all share one important feature. See if you notice something peculiar about the spelling of the French words for “new” and “old” in the following examples:
Donc je vais vous présenter mon nouvel appartement.
So I'm going to show you my new apartment.
Cap. 20, Joanna: Son nouvel appartement
Ce square a la particularité d'héberger le plus vieil arbre de Paris.
This square has the distinction of housing the oldest tree in Paris.
Cap. 27, Voyage dans Paris: Saint-Germain-des-Prés
You may already know that “new” in French is nouveau (masculine) and nouvelle (feminine), and that “old” is vieux (masculine) and vieille (feminine). So where did nouvel and vieil come from?
The answer is that, for a small group of adjectives, the masculine singular form changes when the adjective is followed by a noun starting with a vowel or a non-aspirated (mute) h. So instead of nouveau appartement, you have nouvel appartement, and instead of vieux arbre, you have vieil arbre.
If you think about it in terms of pronunciation, you might get a better sense of why this happens. The phrase nouvel appartement “flows” better than nouveau appartement because the l sound prevents the little pause that occurs when you move from the “eau” of nouveau to the “a” of appartement. French pronunciation places a heavy emphasis on words flowing together smoothly (a concept called “euphony”), an idea we previously touched on in our lesson on liaisons. This little rule is just another way of making sure the language sounds pleasing to the ear.
The three other descriptive adjectives that exhibit this spelling change are beau/bel/belle (beautiful), fou/fol/folle (mad, crazy), and mou/mol/molle (soft).
Je préfère un mol oreiller.
I prefer a soft pillow.
Le fol espoir d'un rendez-vous
The mad hope of a rendezvous
Cap. 15, Oldelaf: interprète “Bérénice”
Alors, qui me fait une offre pour ce bel athlète?
So, who's making me an offer for this handsome athlete?
Cap. 25, Il était une fois… l’Homme: 6. Le siècle de Périclès - Part 3
This phenomenon also occurs with the demonstrative adjective ce/cette (this, that), which becomes cet before a singular masculine noun starting with a vowel or mute h. So if we removed the word “handsome” from the sentence above, it would become:
Alors, qui me fait une offre pour cet athlète?
So, who’s making me an offer for this athlete?
Note that if another word beginning with a consonant (usually another adjective) is placed between the noun and the special form of the adjective, you don’t need to use the special form anymore. You can see this in the previous example, where you have ce bel athlète instead of cet bel athlète.
As you may have noticed, all of these adjectives belong to a small group of adjectives that go before the noun they modify. You can learn more about adjectives like this in our previous lesson on the subject. Also, remember that this spelling change only occurs with the masculine singular forms of these adjectives. The masculine plural forms (nouveaux, vieux, mous, fous, beaux, ces) don’t change before a noun beginning with a vowel or mute h. According to the rules of liaison, their endings are pronounced to indicate the plural.
Since this spelling change happens with such a small number of adjectives, the best way to learn it is probably just to memorize them. Here’s a little memory aid for you using fragments of all the example sentences in this lesson:
Cet homme a le fol espoir de trouver… (This man has the mad hope of finding…)
...le plus nouvel appartement de Paris. (...the newest apartment in Paris.)
...le plus vieil arbre de Paris. (...the oldest tree in Paris.)
...le plus mol oreiller de Paris. (...the softest pillow in Paris.)
...le plus bel athlète de Paris. (...the handsomest athlete in Paris.)