The Origins of the French Language

By Guest Post

French, one of the Romance languages, is an official language or has co-official language status in 29 countries across several continents. It’s the 16th most spoken language in the world, with 77.2 million people in 54 countries speaking it as their first language. Worldwide, about 279.8 million are French speakers.

French is spoken in many parts of Europe, North America, Asia and even in several countries in Africa, from Benin to Tunisia.

History of the French language

The location of modern-day France used to be part of a larger region occupied by Gauls, who spoke a type of Celtic language. Other ethnic tribes and linguistic groups also occupied the region. The Gauls were conquered by Rome in 121 BC and the region was eventually annexed to the Roman Empire in 52 BC. Since the Romans spoke Vulgar Latin, they required the Gauls to speak Latin, resulting in a Latin mixed with Celtic words.

In the 3rd century, Western Europe was invaded by various tribes from Germany, with several groups settling in northern France. The Franks imposed the use of their own Frankish language, which made another impact on the already diluted Latin language that was spoken in the region.

The arrival of the Franks had a major influence on the evolution of the French language we know today. While they allowed the use of Latin, they enforced the use of their own patterns of usage and stress patterns on the local language, creating a Romance language that is quite distinct from other Romance languages, such as Spanish and Italian.

Evolution of the Language

The evolution of the French language is considered fast and drastic. In capsule form, here are the stages:

  • 5th-8th centuries.Gallo-Romance, which is a combination of Vulgar Latin and Gaulish
  • 9th-13th centuries. Old French, springing from the Northern Gaul dialects. It became a distinct language with its own grammar. The Strasbourg Oaths were written in Old French (Francien).
  • 14th-15th centuries. This is the period of Middle French, where the changes in grammar and pronunciation occurred. Middle French is based on the French dialect spoken in the Île de France area.
  • 16th century. This is the period of development of Early Modern French, where the users were trying to raise the language to the same level as Latin for literary pursuits. It was decreed that French would be used as the official language of the government.
  • 17th-18th centuries. In this period, called the era of Classical Modern French, the key grammar convention leading to modern French was fixed. It’s the time when French was an international language due to the country’s expansion of its colonies.
  • From the 19th century. It’s the period of Contemporary Modern French where the pronunciation was fixed. The language is now the standard and French was declared as the official language of the regions in Africa that were colonized by Belgium and France.

Francien Dialect

The dominance of the Francien (Old French) dialect over Picard and Norman in the 12th to 13th centuries caused it to become the literary language, particularly since it was spoken in the central region of Île-de-France, where Paris is situated. The region was highly influential because it was the literary and political center during those times.

The 1539 Edict of Villers-Cotterêts, which was a legal reform, firmly grounded Francien as the sole official language, as its written form became very popular. As the standard, Francien replaced the other dialects, the use of which was discouraged officially. However, the widespread use of the language was slow to take hold and was only used in all the regions of France by the 19th century. By that time, its vocabulary and grammar have been polished and standardized.

Early Documents in French

According to historical records, the first document written in the language was called the Strasbourg Oaths. Created around 842, the document was the sworn oaths of two grandsons of Charlemagne.

A few more documents written in Old French showed the language with features from other dialects, such as the document regarding St. Eulalia’s life by Prudentius, Vie de St. Léger and the Passion du Christ from the 10th century. Considered a gem of the 12th century were the epic poems called ”La Chanson de Roland.” While the poems were beautiful, the origin of the dialect used by the author was difficult to identify.

Modern French

Modern day French came from a mixture of Celtic, Latin and Germanic roots. Each language made several contributions to the French vocabulary. Several other languages contributed to the enrichment of the French lexicon.

In 1634, Cardinal Richelieu founded the Académiefrançaise with the aim to preserve the French language. French was a language of diplomacy from the 17th century up to the middle of the 20th century, but it lost out to English, particularly after the end of WWII, which made the United States a superpower. The French Academy is still existent and helps in policing the French language, approving the adaptation of foreign expressions and loan words.

The French language had its heyday from the 17th to the 19th centuries. It was the main language of the educated elites in Europe, especially those engaged in diplomacy, literature and the arts. Even the courts of Scandinavia, Germany, and Russia use French, disregarding their native languages.

Although French lost its status as the language of diplomacy, it remains a major language. It is the working language of the United Nations. In the European Union’s Court of Justice, French is the only language used in deliberations. Likewise, the EU uses French as a procedural language. And while there are still several French dialects and variations, Parisian French remains the model of the language, since Paris, like in medieval times, remains the political and literary center of France. Thus, it is essential to request the specific dialect or variation of the language when you require French translation.