Friday, January 6, 2012
History of the French language
After much research, and discussion amongst French friends, I have come to the conclusion that France is indeed quite the melting pot! The history of its language is a real mish-mash of invading forces' languages and cultures, which makes for an interesting story.
French is a descendant of the spoken Latin language, Vulgar Latin, of the Roman Empire, as are languages such as Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Romanian, Sardinian and Catalan--all are called "Romance Languages".
The Roman Empire in 60 CE
In the Roman Empire, there were two types of Latin: Classical Latin which was written and spoken by the upper class, and Vulgar Latin which was not written, but only spoken by the lower class.
The invading Roman forces were primarily lower class subjects who spoke Vulgar Latin. As the Romans stuck around for quite a while, their Vulgar Latin gradually blended in with local dialects and languages, creating new languages.
Julius Caesar, Emperor of the Roman Empire, conquered Gaul, now known as present day France, in 50 BCE. The Romans found the people speaking a language known as Gaulish, which is known to be an ancient Celtic language dating to before 500 CE used in the western and central parts of Europe and Asia Minor.
The most famous Gauls are, bien sur, Asterix and Obelix from René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo's comic book tales of the Gauls fighting off the Roman invaders! Excellent reading, wonderful wit and prose (brilliant translation).
While the French language evolved from Vulgar Latin, it was nonetheless influenced by Gaulish, especially in its phonological development. In French, some 200 words of Gaulish origin have been retained, most of which pertain to folk life such as: lande, chêne, alouette, belette, boe, cervoise, mouton, changer and craindre. Other Celtic words were not borrowed directly but brought in through the spoken Vulgar Latin: béton, chainse, glaive, manteau and vassal.
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.
An invading tribe of 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. In the history of the French language, the most important of these groups are the Franks in northern France, the Alemanni in the modern German/French border area, the Burgundians in the Rhône Valley and the Visigoths in the Aquitaine region and Spain. Their language had a profound influence on the Latin spoken in their respective regions, altering both the pronunciation and the syntax.
The name of the language itself, français, comes from Old French franceis/francesc from the Germanic frankisc "french, frankish" from Frank ('freeman'). The Franks referred to their land as Franko(n) which became Francia in Latin in the 3rd century. (Whew, that's a mouthful!)
Sources disagree on how much of the vocabulary of modern French comes from Germanic words, ranging from just 500 words (1%) to 7% of modern vocabulary. (Note: according to the Académie française, only 5% of the French words come from English!)
The Germanic words are words associated with social structure like: baron/baronne, bâtard, féodal, garçon, lige, maçon, maréchal, and marquis. Military terms like: attaquer, bière, flèche, guerre, garder, loge, marcher, rattraper and troupe. Colores such as: blanc/blanche, bleu, blond/blonde, brun, fauve and gris. And Common words such as: abandonner, banquet, bâtir, bois, bonnet, chagrin, choix, chic, cliché, crèche, danser, flan, frapper, galant, gâteau, jardin, joli, laid, masque, massacrer, mauvais, mousse, orgueil, parc, rater, regarder, remarquer, riche/richesse, robe, saisir, salon, savon, soupe, tampon and tomber.
Duchy of Normandy in pink
In 1204 CE, the Duchy of Normandy was integrated into the Kingdom of France, and about 150 words of Scandinavian origin were introduced into the French language, most of them having to do with the sea and seafaring.
(Let us not forget that William the Conquerer came from Normandy, his granddaughter Empress Mathilda, see my blog--there is a lot of history in Normandy, lots of haunted places, check out the "Ghostly Stories" section of my blog for more info.)
Bon, to be continued....
Happy weekend, Happy New Year, and may all your lives be filled with peace, love, fun and happiness in 2012.