Why Do Ftrench/Spanish Insert an "E" In Front of Nouns?

In words like “sport” (esporte), or school (“ecole”).
Jst wondering.

Why does English start words with a sibilant so as to have two consonant sounds in a row, instead of a proper syllable with a voiced vowel?

As in instead of “deporte” saying “sport” and instead of “école” saying “school”?

IOW that’s the structure of the phonetics.

The question is legitimate, since the roots from which the words have been taken don’t have the e. “School” (English), “école” (French) and “escuela” (Spanish) all come from Latin schola (in fact, it’s Latinised Greek). Same, for instance, for “studies/études/estudios”, which all come from Latin studia. So here, English is more “correct” than the other languages in the sense that the other languages have introduced a modification to the words that were not present originally.

The reason is, however, indeed phonetics. French and Spanish words are constructed in such a way as to avoid s plus consonant at the beginning of words. It’s just a combination perceived as awkward or hard to pronounce in these languages, so they are avoided.

English has its own peculiarities. Nahuatl, for example, has no problem with beginning words with tl-, where English shies from it. Vietnamese and its allies consider ng- to be a fine initial consonant sound; English only uses it in terminal or rarely in medial position.

Personally, I suspect that the process where sc- and sch- became esc- derives from much the same place as Early Middle English a napron and a norange became respectively an apron and an orange: illa schola (“that school”) became *la escuela * or la école (I believe both are feminine). The vowel migrated to turn the initial silibant into a full syllable.

This is one of the changes from Classical Latin that eventually became the romance languages.

It should be noted that it didn’t really happen in Italian, since school is scuola, student is studente, and Spain is Spagna, as opposed to escuela, estudiante, and España, or école, étudiant, and Espagne.

So, it’s more of a western-side-of-the-empire thing. Anyway, what happened is that the ability to follow a sibilant (like s or z) with a plosive (p, t, or k) or a liquid (l or r) got lost for some reason. That this happened is not really surprising, since the combination is a bit difficult to say. It can be done of course, but if people start getting lazy, this particular laziness tends to be something that will catch on. Note that English doesn’t really go for sr even though it is quite pronounceable. The most common way to get around this is to add a vowel before the s, making it part of the previous syllable.

This is where Spanish more or less stopped, and why today it has words like Eslovaquia. French gets a bit more complicated, since for various reasons, the s’s that occur at the end of syllables slowly went away, too. This is why French has words like bête and hôpital, while Spanish still has hospital and bestia. Espagne is a bit of an exception.

Then, curiously, the French decided that they could in fact say words with s before various consonants. So, there are a number of words of fairly recent origin that don’t have the é thing going on. With école, there is, for example, scolaire, and other words like estudantin, sport, spacieux, and so on.

I will provide cites that explain this in a bit more detail tomorrow if I get a bit of spare time.

From Glanville Price. The French Language: Past and Present. London: Arnold, 1971.

It’s a bit old, but I think it’ll help:

Initial clusters consisting of [s] + [p], [t], or c [k] developed an initial vowel in VL [Vulgar Latin]. This perhaps began as a fleeting ‘on-glide’, […] at which stage it was no more than the allophone of initial /s/ when followed by a consonant. Later it became a fully syllabic vowel, a stage occasionally presented in late Lain spelling (e.g. iscripta for scripta) and clearly reflected in modern Spanish, e.g. escudo < scutum, estado < statum.

[s] + consonant disappeared in OldFr; (but is still to be heard in English words borrowed form French shortly after the Norman conquest). Before disappearing, pre-consonantal [s] probably first became a breathed sound, e.g. [h]; this is indicated by spellings such as tschahtel for chastel in German texts. A similar development may be seen in southern dialects of modern Spanish in which, for example, España ‘Spain’ may be pronounced [ehpaña] or even [epaña].

It’s phonetics as has been said. English has no problem with certain consonsant clusters at the beginning of words that French or Spanish can’t deal with.

But don’t think that English is the leader in that respect. Slavic languages have consonsant clusters that English doesn’t have. There are words in Russian that begin with “kt” or “gd” sounds, and others.

Every language has its own limited set of phonemes and possible combination of phonemes and in most cases such a set for one language does not match the set for a second language.

In this case, as has been stated, French and Spanish do not have the word-initial “s-k” and “s-p” clusters. There is a similar situation in Bengali, which changes “school” to “ishkul,” “start” to “estart,” and “sport” to “esport.”

Note the difficulty that English speakers have in pronouncing the Vietnamese name “Nguyen.” Not only does it have a couple of phonemes that don’t exist in English, it starts with one that appears only medially or word-finally in English.

The French for “sport” is “sport”. As RadicalPi pointed out, there are a whole bunch of words in French beginning with [sp] and other consonant clusters, mostly modern imports. But there are also examples like “splendide”, “station”, “stable”, which have been part of the French language for as long as there has been a French language (or, if they are borrowed from Latin, are very early borrowings indeed).

Note that España does not derive from prefixing an e- to a formerly-initial s- but from the Roman designation of the area as Hispania. Paleo-Romance linguists would have to specify the order here, but in some sequence, the initial aspiration was elided and the i- broadened to an e-. As in many English -ia names, the final sound transformed from /ija/ (ee-yah) to /ja/ (yah) – Georgia and Croatia come to mind as examples. In Spanish orthography, an n followed by a /j/ (consonantal y) sound is represented by an ñ.

And it has nothing to do with nouns; it applies to other parts of speech as well.

One thing to remember is that Latin was originally an invasve language in Spain and France. Romans did not just spread into Western Europe in great numbers and settle in formerly unpopulated areas. There were folks in pre-Christian Spain and France who were speaking what are known as substrate languages. More specifically, the pre-Roman populations of France and Spain were mostly speaking Celtic languages distantly related to Welsh and Gaelic. There were some other linguistic communities as well, such as Basque speakers, who were never fully supplanted.

As Latin-speaking invaders colonized France and Spain, Latin gradually supplanted Celtic. Celtic-speaking communities eventually became Latin-speaking. But the transition was not perfect. The natural speech patterns of the Celtic speakers influenced how they adopted Latin.

Although the etymologically related “spaniel” in French is épagneul.

It’s not two sounds together, though, it’s a single phoneme. It just happens to be represented by two letters in languages other than Spanish, but it’s a single phoneme like the th in “that” is a single phoneme and not “/t/ followed by /h/”.