The French language belongs to the Indo-European language group; more specifically, it is a Romance language, meaning it stemmed from Latin. Of course the spoken French of today did not emerge all at once, but is the result of millennia of being spoken, written and revitalised with new vocabulary and changing grammar.
So what exactly makes French, French?
What Was Spoken in France Before French?
Gaulish: a Celtic language
The earliest language attested in France through written documents is Gaulish. The Gauls were a Celtic people that lived in Western Europe. Archaeologically, they belong to the Celtic La Tène culture.
In 58 BC, Julius Caesar began the Roman invasion of Gaul. In his later memoir, the History of the Gallic Wars, he mentions that there were three Gauls (it’s actually the very first sentence):
- Celtic Gaul (Gallia Celtica) over most of the territory of what is now France, but also including parts of modern Switzerland and Germany
- Belgic Gaul (Gallia Belgica) to the northwest, encompassing Belgium, part of the Netherlands and parts of Germany
- Aquitania: a territory in the southwest of what is now France and speaking an entirely different language, akin to the modern Basque
The Celts did not have their own alphabet; therefore the oldest inscriptions in Old Gaulish, dating to the 3rd century BC, are written with the Greek alphabet or the Lepontic alphabet (a system of writing based on the old Etruscan alphabet and used by Alpine Celts). The language, no doubt, was older. All in all, there are only about 800 inscriptions from which scholars try to reconstruct the language of Asterix.
Archaeological testimonies and a few rare literary mentions suggest it did not go extinct as a spoken language until as late as the 5th century AD.
The Celts have left a relatively minor imprint on the French language, with perhaps 150-180 words (not including their derivatives) surviving in modern French. These include the following words of basic French:
- Le balai, the broom
- Le chemin, the path
- Le chêne, the oak
- Le manteau, the coat
- La ruche, the beehive
- Le tonneau, the barrel
After the Romans conquered the Gauls and made them part of the Roman Empire, the official language became Latin. Spoken throughout the Empire, a vernacular form of Latin (as opposed to the literary form you learn in school) became the founder of all Romance languages, including French, Spanish and Italian and various regional languages spoken in those countries.
Latin remained the official language of diplomacy and government well into the Middle Ages, and remained a scholarly language as late as the 18th century. Many early French philosophers such as Peter Abelard wrote in Latin.
But long before the Latin language started to fade from use, the Roman Empire disintegrated. The Roman Emperor became unable to hold a crumbling empire together, with inner turmoil and the increasing pressure of various Germanic tribes slowly eating away at it.
What Happened to the French Language When the Franks Came?
One such Germanic tribe was the Franks, who occupied most of Gaul and founded the Merovingian dynasty of kings in the 5th century.
The Frankish language
They spoke a Germanic language called Frankish, which also belonged to the linguistic group of the Indo European languages. The oldest inscription in Frankish is from a 5th century sword scabbard from the Dutch town of Bergakker.
It heavily influenced the Vulgar Latin spoken in the Frankish Kingdom (which later, under Charlemagne of the Carolingian dynasty, came to occupy most of Western Europe). In various parts of the Merovingian kingdom, it evolved into Old Dutch and gave the emerging language of Old French as many as a thousand loan words, such as the following French words:
- Blanc, white
- Bleu, blue
- Galoper, to galop
- Gâteau, cake
- Sale, dirty
- Tomber, to fall
The Emergence of Old French
Old French wasn’t born in a week; it was created by a slow, organic process. Trying to discern its origins is made all the more difficult by the fact that most inscriptions of the time are in Latin, the official administrative language.
The oldest written attestation of Old French is the “Oaths of Strasbourg”, a document signed in 842 by two of Charlemagne’s grandsons. The document, in Latin, gives the oaths each of the sons spoke verbatim in the vernacular languages they spoke everyday: in French, or rather, in an early version of Old French (Gallo-Romance) and Old High German.
Its linguistic relationship to the later Old French is evident, even in so small a sample.
The French Languages of the Middle Ages
Under the Capetian kings towards the start of the 10th century, the Romance languages of France were pretty much established. The Langue d’Oc and Langue d’Oïl (based on their word for “yes”) are considered different languages, with another language called Franco-Provençal spoken in the East, about where the Kingdom of Burgundy, seat of the Nibelungen saga, had prospered. Additionally, Breton was spoken in Brittany, Basque (the heir to the pre-Roman Aquitaine language) in a little corner of the south-west. The Burgundian language later evolved into Arpitan, of which there are several dialects in France today.
Real Vikings sack Paris and speak French
For a time during the 10th century, a Scandinavian language called Old Norse was spoken in Normandy, one of the territories ceded to the Viking chief Rollo by Charles III of France. They soon assimilated the Langue d’Oïl, however, and brought it with them when, a century later, they invaded England.
Some Old Norse words (there are less than 50) to make it into modern French vocabulary are:
- Flâner, to wander, dawdle
- Turbot, turbot
- Duvet, duvet
- Guichet, booth or counter
The invasion of French-speaking Normans in 1066 is the reason that the English words for prepared meat are different from those for the living animal (the invaders having little to do with animal husbandry, left to the Saxon peasantry): thus, beef and bœuf have the same root, as do poultry and poulet, veal and veau, mutton and mouton.
Langues d'Oc or Occitan
The Occitan language was spoken in the south of France, in an area extending from the northwest of Spain to northern Italy. It incorporated Monaco and extended to the north up to a little north of Limoges. It was the language of the troubadours and was famous throughout medieval Europe. Eleanor of Aquitaine, mother of Richard the Lionheart, spoke Occitan - as did Dante, who frequently wrote in the language.
The Langue d’Oïl - oïl (weey) later became “oui” - was spoken in northern France, the Low Countries, Luxemburg and southern Belgium. In the Middle Ages, the poets of the language were called trouvères. In the area centred around Paris, the language evolved into modern French. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Hexagon, many of the languages spoken in various regions of France were derived from the Langue d’Oïl - for example, Norman, Picard, Bérichon or the Wallon of Belgium.
French literature is born in this period, with the first French writers penning “romans” - works written in the vernacular, as opposed to Latin - in the 13th century, among them works such as the “Roman de la Rose” and the Prose Lancelot.
Evolution of the French Language
In the centuries following the Middle Ages, the morphology of the French language underwent a series of changes.
The Hundred Years War, or why we don’t speak French in the UK
On the Continent, the Renaissance was plagued by the Hundred Years’ War - not a single war per se but a series of interlocking conflicts opposing England and France that constantly changed the map. At the beginning of the conflict, both of the parties were French-speaking, including Edward III of England.
the defeat at Agincourt in 1415, followed five years lager by the signing of the treaty of Troyes, King Henry V of England was recognised heir to the throne of France.
Ironically, he was the one who established English as the official language in England, ending the reign of Anglo-Norman French.
The spread of Middle French
Though in England the Hundred Year’s War ended up with the demise of French and the rise of the English language, in France it favoured the spread of “françois”, the langue d’oïl spoken by the King of France - and much of the French army. In 1492, Charles VIII issued an edict requiring that all judicial matters be conducted either in Middle French or the “maternal” (local) language rather than Latin.
In this time of confusion, French changed immensely. It lost most of its diphthongs, essentially changing its pronunciation. French spelling also changed to adapt to these changes, including sometimes adding a silent “h” to words starting with a “u” to differentiate them from “v” (both letters being written the same in the script of the time).
French grammar changed as well, losing many of the Latin declinations, and French verb conjugation was simplified as well (yes, you read correctly. It used to be worse.)
With the wars of religion and the conflict between the Catholic monarchy and the Protestant Huguenots settled by Henry IV and the Edict of Nantes in 1598, French became even more prevalent.
In 1539, François I signed the Ordinance of Villet-Cotterêts that made French the official language for all legal documents and royal decrees. He also created the first publishing house dedicated to books not only in Latin, but in the French language as well.
Codifying the French Language: The Time of Enlightenment
Standardising and purifying French…
In 1635, the Cardinal de Richelieu founded the Académie Française, charged with creating a French dictionary and a grammatical guide to French and to “care for” the French language. This included “purifying” French from vulgar expressions, dialects and jargon. Its dictionary was published in 1694, but through its attempts at “purity” it was a poor reflection of conversational French, and fared poorly next to more comprehensive dictionaries such as César-Pierre Richelet’s “Dictionnaire françois contenant les mots et les choses” in 1680 or Antoine Furetière’s “Dictionnaire Universel” in 1690 (not to be confused with the great French encyclopedia edited by noted scholar Denis Diderot).
The Académie’s French grammar took a little longer. It wasn’t published until 1935.
Louis XIV reinforced French against the regional languages. The centralisation of the Sun King’s court at Versailles made French very much the language of the aristocracy, and in diplomatic circles it became proper French etiquette to communicate in French, but in the provinces the local dialects, or “patois”, were still widely used.
… while francophone colonies change it further
Conversely, in the new French colonies of the 17th century, French was the “lingua franca” used by most of the settlers. And in this period when the French monarchy was striving toward linguistic unity, Quebec and the French Antilles were spreading the French language and culture and were taking the first steps toward their own version of the language - the Caribbean island creole languages were already taking form as well.
The second wave of colonisation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the subsequent decolonisation (not all the former colonies became French citizens), has increased the number of French speaking countries to almost 30. In many of them, a local form or creole mixes together French with other language families to create unique and colourful versions of French.
Killing the “patois”
Though the French Revolution killed Louis XVI and brought the Bourbon dynasty, it continued the Sun King’s policy in striving to make French the prevalent language. Beyond the Bastille, through the Reign of Terror, Napoleon’s Empire, a return to the monarchy, the Second Empire and the Third Republic, the local “patois” lost more and more ground in the 19th century.
In 1880, Jules Ferry, Minister of Education, re-vamped the French education system, making primary school in France compulsory, free and non-clerical - that is, free from religion. This further promoted French speaking in favour of the local dialects. Children learned French in school and were encouraged to speak it to their children.
Modern Influences in the French Language
Of course, French has not remained static since the 19th century. French colonial aspirations brought many North African immigrants into France and French soldiers into Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. Even after the Algerian War, many Algerians still live in France and Arabic has influenced French for the second time in its history. It first made its way into French vocabulary through Spanish in the late Renaissance and now mostly flavours French slang with words such as “toubib” (doctor) and “bled” (a small village).
And of course English, which ironically has replaced French as “lingua franca” has survived in “jogging”, “week-end” and “chewing-gum” (not to mention the whole province of Internet abbreviations and expressions), despite renewed attempts to “safeguard the purity” of the French language since the 1990s .
The European Union, though, encourages regional tongues and linguistic diversity, and several patois have experienced a linguistic renaissance.