French Language History

Figure 1.--

The language of what is now France for much of history was a Celtic language--Gaulish. This changed with the Roman conquest. The Romans conquied the Cauls (1st century AD). The Romans, however horrific, (unlike the Anglo-Saxons in Britain) did not exterminate the Gauls, they Romanized them. And thus the Romanized Gauls with A fairly limited celtic addition were speking a version of the Vulgate by the time of the Germanic invasiobns (5th century AD). The Franks and other Germans added more words, but the structure and most of the language remained the Latin Vulgate. There were various reasons for this. Both the Celts before the Romans and the Franks after them were pre-literate peoples. Thus it was the Latin vulgate that prevailed. Modern French is thus a Romance and not a Germanic language despite the Frankish conuest. The collapse of commece and travel after the Germanic conquest meant that many different dialects were spoken in what is now France. France under Louis XI began to become a centralized nation state. The defeat of the Anglo-Burgandy Allince in the 100 Years War was a major tep in this process. There was at the time no standard French language. French at the time had many regional vatiations such as Breton and Norman hich verged upon different knguages. The modern French language is governed by edicts issued by the "L'Académie française. The 'Académie was instututed by Louis XIII (1636). It promoted the influence of the "Langue d'Oïl" spoken above La Loire. It included much of the dialect spoken around Paris which was the capital of France.


The Celts dominated much of Europe before the rise of Rome and the push west of the Germans. Celtic was as a result for centuries the dominant language spoken north of Greece and the Alps. Celtic was divided into four language groups. One of those groups was Gaulish (closely related to Lepontic, Noric and Galatian). Gaulish and its related languages was spoken in a wide arc from France and Belgium east to Turkey. They are now all extinct languages. Another Celtic language is Brythonic (British or Brittonic). Related langiages are Welsh, Breton, Cornish, Cumbric, Ivernic (hypothetical), and perhaps Pictish. This is the laguage spoke in Britanty. Linguists tend to believe that it is, however, not based on Gaulish, but was based on the language of the Brittons retreating from the Anglo-Saxons invaders (5th-6th century). We are not sure to this time to what extent Celtic has influenced modern French. There was no written Celtic language which has left many voids in our understanding of these intriguing people. The Celts had, however, extensive relations with neighboring people that have left written records such as Greece and Rome. These historical accounts as well as archeological work has helped evidence as well as historical accounts from other cultures has helped to build a basic understanding of the Celtic people. This is one reason that the Celts are often seen as barbarians, because we are often looking at them through Roman and Greek eyes. Celtic continued to be spoken in Britain an Ireland. Surprisingly the language left only a minor impact on Old English and English in general. This appears to reflect the war of extunctin waged by the Anglo-Saxon tribes that invaded Britain after the departure of the Legions (5th and 6th centuries. The Anglo-Saxon conquest largely displaced the Celtic peoples and their language. This did not occur, although the linguistic heritage is limited. Linguistic scholars have identfied several hundred words in modern French that are of Celtic origins. This is a very smallpart of French vocabulary. And more importantly, there do not seem to be any Celtic impact on speech paterns or grammar.

Roman Conquest: Latin

Ceasar's Gaulic conquest is one of the great military campaigns of Gaul. The Gauls fought bravely, but divided into various tribes with cometing loyalties, the Gauls were unable to prevail against Ceasar's relatively smaller legions. Within the Roman Empire, Latin replaced the Celtic Gaulish language. By the 4th century AD, Celtic had virtually disappeared from the Continent. And Latin would be the foundation of the modern French language. Languages with Latin foundations are referred to as Romance languages. Latin was a language in the Italic branch of Indo-European languages. The name is a bit of amisnomer as it has nothing to do with the English word "romance". Rather it is a term evolving from the Latin phrase "romanica loqui", meaning to "to speak in Roman fashion". This is important as it stresses the popular (spoken) origins of the language as oposed to the literary (and more refined) origins. A great deal of Latin classics have survived which provide a clear and detailed view of the Latin spoken and written by the privileged and educated classes. Languages evolve and this is often led by the people, the popular classes. Linguistic historians believe that by the Imperial period that substantial changes in pronunciation and grammar were underway among the popular classes. And as Roman Legions spread the Empire into Iberia, Gaul, and the Balkans, it was this popular Latin that was introduced by legionaires, merchants, and colonists. It was Vulgar Latin, commonly refered to as the Vulgate. Thus it was the Vulgate that served as the foundation of the Romance languages. The other romance languags are Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, and Spanish. In addition to these major languages there are also Latin-based vernaculars that have a varying status in various European countries One of these languages is Rheto-Romance/Rhaetian. It has legal standing in Switzerland as Romansch. A related vernacular language is Ladin or Friulian in norhern Italy. One of the most importantbof these vernacular languages is Provençal or Occitan which is widely spoken in southern France. It was once a unified literary language, but Provençal has since declined to disperate local dialects. The Romans Empire was built over several centuries. Thus the various provinces were Romanized at different times. The Romans conuqered Iberia (about 200 BC), Gaul (about 50 BC) and Dacia (about 100 AD). Thus the Latin introduced into these different areas where Romance language are spoken varied. In addition, the Vulgate was further affected by the language spoken by the conquered people. Thus the Dacians/Romanians, Iberians, and Gauls all pronounced Latin and used speech patterns different than the Romans/Italians and different from each other. In addition, words from the existing languages and local dialects were introduced to varying degrees in the Vulgate. While new words were introduced as well as various speech patterns, the foundation of the language, its basic structure and grammar of each of the Romance languages comes from the Latin Vulgate.

Germanic Conquest: German

With the decline of the Roman power Gaul was a prize fought over by The Romans, Huns, and various Germanic tribes. The battle of Châlons decided the future of Gaul. It is generall considered the last battle of the ancuient world or the first battle of medieval Europe. The Visigoths and Franks were the major Germanic contesting Gaul. Eventually the Franks drove the Visigoths south of the Pyrnanees. The collapse of the Empire had profound consequences on the development of French and the other Romance languages. First education and refined culture colapsed. This meant that literacy declined. And without the classics and gramarians, the influence of classic Latin disappeard. Second, the various provinces of the Empire were cut off from each other. The Germanic tribes not only set up independent kingdoms, but roads were no longer mantained and transportation routes disappeared. Commerce colapsed. Thus the different areas which developed into modern countries were isolated from both Rome and each other. This created the enviroment in which the major modern Romance languages, including French developed. People in these areas modified ad changed the Vulgate in destinct ways and ways that varied with the other formner provinces of the Empire. Third, the Frankish conquest of Gaul introduced a Germanic compoent to modern French. Modern French is Romance language much closer to Latin than German. This is in part due to the fact that the Franks were a relatively small group compared to the Romanized Gauls that they conquered. The lingustic dominance is thus in part due to the weight of numbers. Another factoir is that the Franks were a pre-literate people. Thus for writing and literacy the Franks had to turn to the Romanized Gauls anf here the Church played a major role. There are several hundred words of Germanic origin in modern French, but the the the structure (grammr) of the lanuage and most of the vocabulary comes from the Latin Vulgate.

Medieval Era

Not only were Roman provinces separated from each other by the Germanic invaders, but comerce abd exchange even collapsed within provinces. Roman Gaul was divided onn a north-south axis. The Franks from which the name of France and the French language is derived were particularly dominant in the north. Many linguistic differences developed during the early medieval period. We note in the north and est: Francien, Picard, Norman, Lorrain, and Walloon. Southern French was dominated by or Provençal which was further divided into Languedocien, Auvergnat, and several other dialects. The Franks were centered in northern France and modern Belgium. It was a Frankish war lord, Charles Martel, that defeated the Moors (732). At the time the "langue d'Oc"/Provençal was spoken in much of southern France. The English Plantagenest Kings possessed Norandy and large areas of France. Their power and influence rivaled that of the French monarchy. There were several different language traditions in Fance dring the medieval era. Some of the most important were Rhenan German , Anglo-Normand, Burgundy, and Picard.


Oïl and Oc

What is the difference between Oïl and Oc ? It is a short cut for saying OUI (yes). In the North, they said OUAIL and in the south OC. In Provence, many people still speak OC"provencal" but in a softer , more italian acent than Navarrais or north Spanish.

Modern Occitan as such is much more fragmented than the language once was. Today it seems similar to a kind of koïnè rather than a uniform, standardized language. Modern Lengadocian, Provençau/Prouvençau, Lemosin, Gascon, Aupenc, Auvernhàs/Auvernhat, and Niçard/Niçart/Nissart are all rooted in Occitan. Some observers contend that Occitan sounds rather like a cross between French and Spanish, but others maintain that it is more like an Italianate language. Here there are presumably differences betwen the different branches of Occitan. Adefinitive assessment here would provide some clues as to the evolution of the language.

Of course, Oïl language chaged over time and the accent now is the "Parisian French".

Louis XIII

France under Louis XI began to become a centralized nation state. The defeat of the Anglo-Burgandy Allince in the 100 Years War was a major tep in this process. There was at the time no standard French language. French at the time had many regional vatiations such as Breton and Norman hich verged upon different knguages. The modern French language is governed by edicts issued by the "L'Académie française. The 'Académie was instututed by Louis XIII (1636). It promoted the influence of the "Langue d'Oïl" spoken above La Loire. It included much of the dialect spoken around Paris which was the capital of France. Much the same phenomenon occured in England when the dialect spoken in London became thebasis for modern English.


As a result of the voyages of discovery, France colonized Canada. The French in Québec and New Brunswich Acadia spoke with an accent that is different from the Parisian French in the 17th century. And a very small number of French people emigrated to Canada after it was seized by te British in the French and Indian War (1763). Exchanges were essentially closed between Canada and France. Thus the French spoke in Canada today is strongly influenced by the original settlers and is different than modern French. The Canadians (as French speaking people called themselves at that time) continiued to have a OÏL pronunciation often mixed with English vocabulary. This dialect called "joual" (from the word cheval) and "shiack" in New Brunswick changed to an international French with the advent of television in the 1960. On today, French is the same in France and Québec, but with a different accent. You will laugh, but here people dislike Parisian French which they identify a a sissy language. Something funny. In March, snow begins to be mixed with mud and water with a warmer weather. It makes a compound called "gadoue" or slush . But nobody will use the French term but a typical Quebecer term called "sloche". We have a lot of English terms mixed in our French. And the reverse is true. Here the term for Subway is métro, a French term. Believe it or not. This term is used indifferently by English or French people in Montreal. it is normal. Advertizing is all in French.

The Revolution


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Created: 3:50 AM 3/6/2008
Last updated: 3:50 AM 3/6/2008