Wednesday, January 25, 2012

History of the French language - part two

La suite.

A quick recap from my last blog, History of the French language, and on to the rest (la suite). 

France was first inhabited by the Celts, an Indo-European and ethno-linguistically diverse group of tribal societies in the Iron Age and Roman-era Europe who spoke Celtic languages. This Celtic culture had expanded over a large area to the British Isles (Insular Celts), France (Gauls), Central Europe, the Iberian Peninsula, northern Italy and the Balkans. By the first millennium CE, following the Roman invasions and the Great Migrations, the Celtic culture became restricted to Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and to northern France (Brittany).

Expansion of the Celtic culture, BCE.

Roman invaders

Then the Romans invaded, and Vulgar Latin quickly took hold among the urban aristocracy for mercantile, official and educational reasons, but did not prevail in the countryside until some four or five centuries later.

The Franks

The Franks: From the 3rd century on, Western Europe was invaded by Germanic tribes from the north and east, and some of these groups settled in Gaul.  

Scandinavian Vikings

Scandinavian Vikings invaded France from the 9th century on, which threw a few Old Norse words in the mix such as: mouette, crique, hauban and hune.

Arabic scholars

About the same time, many words from the Arabic language came into the mix primarily via Medieval Latin, Italian and Spanish. Words such as: élixir, orange, safran, alcool, bougie, coton, alchimie, hasard, algèbre and algorithme.

An aside: beginning in the 7th century, Arabic became what Greek had been to the Hellenistic world, a common language to the Islamic world. The language created an international network of letters, science, philosophy and medicine. Islamic people practiced religious tolerance, cultural tolerance, excelled in trade and were a curious people who quickly became experts in philosophy, astronomy, geography, mathematics, chemistry and medicine. Hence the words above. (For more, take a look at this series of films: The Byzantine Empire Parts four and five.)

So, where does all this leave us? With a mix of Celtic Gaulish and Vulgar Latin, sprinkled with German, Scandinavian, Old Norse and Arabic.

Old French was the Romance dialect continuum spoken in northern France, modern Belgium and Switzerland from the 9th to the 14th century. Old French is broken down into two principal types: langue d'oïl in the north, and langue d'oc, the Occitan language spoken in Provence. 

Medieval French Scholar

In the third Council of Tours in 813, priests were ordered to preach either Romance or Germanic since the common people could no longer understand formal Latin. 



Old French became a literary language with the chansons de geste which told tales of the paladins of Charlemagne and the heroes of the Crusades. 

And, in 1539, by the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts, King Francis I made French the official language of administration and court proceedings, ousting the Latin that had been used up until then. 

This French is called Middle French (moyen français).

Académie française

In the 17th and 18th centuries, following a period of unification, regulation and purification, the language developed into what we call Classical French. The foundation of the Académie française in 1634 by Cardinal Richelieu created an official body whose goal has been the purification and preservation of the French language.

.A total aside: (The Cardinal is played by Charlton Heston in  a film based upon Alexandre Dumas père's The Three Musketeers, or read a little Alexandre Dumas père or fils.) 

During The Age of Enlightenment, from the 17th to the 19th centuries, French became the lingua franca of educated Europe especially in regards to arts, literature and diplomacy.

Weimar's "Courtyard of the Muses"

An interesting side note: According to historian Eric Hobsbawm, "in 1789, 50% of the French people didn't speak French at all, and only 12 to 13% spoke it 'fairly'" as there were many local dialects or "patois". " the north as in the south of France, almost nobody spoke French."

In the last century, there has been a great influence of English in the French language (Franglais), especially in regards to international business, the sciences and popular culture. 

Recently, there has been pressure from some regions of France for recognition and support for their regional languages (remember all those "patois" dialects above?).

Today, the Académie française continues to preserve the French language.

Whew, that was fun and interesting!!

Groses kisses et see you bientôt.

Love, Charley


  1. Wonderful research. I can only imagine how long it took you to put it all together. Speaking of patois, when I was 18 (decades ago)I spent the summer in Montpellier and encountered an odd country patois with a family I stayed with for a night. It was almost Italian in pronunciation. 'Manger' was pronounced man-j'ai not m'en -j'ai. It took my ear all night to understand them ;)

  2. It must have been so strange to have only 50% of the population speaking the language!

  3. Thanks Patty! Patois are definitely strange sounding to the ear!

    Sara, I know! Strange to imagine that not so long ago so few people spoke French in France!!


  4. Thanks for your good thoughts! And I look forward to catching up with everyone!

    complete french