The History Of The French Language: From The Roman Empire Until Today

Where does French come from and how long has this Romance language been around for? We investigate.
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The History Of The French Language: From The Roman Empire Until Today

Illustration by Vivien Mildenberger.

Wondering how the French language came to be? From its humble origins to its official recognition in 1539, there are several major milestones in the evolution of this Romance language. Here are some of the most notable milestones in the history of the French language:

Roman Gaul

To understand how French came to be, we have to go back two millennia to the age of the Roman Empire. When the Gallic War ended (between 58 BCE and 51 BCE), territories located south of the Rhine became Roman provinces. This change led to the emergence of population centers and increased trade, which improved communication between the Gauls and the Romans. For five centuries, oral Latin, also called Vulgar (from vulgus, meaning “the people”), coexisted with Gaulish, a language of Celtic origin.

However, as Gaulish was not predominantly used for writing, its survival was threatened in the more Romanized areas in the south. Eventually, Vulgar supplanted Gaulish as the primary language of the region. Currently, of the 100,000 entries in the Le Grand Robert French dictionary, about 100 words are of Gaulish origin. Most of them refer to land-related objects and animals, for example: char (cart), bruyère (heather), chêne (oak), if (yew), chemin (path), caillou (stone), ruche (hive), mouton (lamb) and tonneau (barrel).

The Ancestor Of The Franks

By the 4th century, several Franks (tribes of Germanic origin) had already settled in the northeast of Gaul and were integrated into the Roman army. Even after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Franks remained in what is now modern-day France. People of this proto-French culture were first unified by King Clovis via military victories and the support of the great Gallo-Roman families. This political support was largely attained by adopting their language, Gallo-Roman, as well as their religion, Catholicism.

Due to the Germanic origin of the Franks, the pronunciation and musicality of the language were modified. New sounds, like the [œ] in fleur (flower) and [ø] in nœuds (knot), and new words were also introduced. However, the Franks’ most important contribution was providing the name of what was one day to become France.

Political Birth

At the end of the 8th century, the Dark Ages spurred an educational decline for the majority of the population — meaning that most people could no longer understand the Latin that clerics spoke. After the Council of Tours in 813, King Charlemagne required that priests give sermons either in the “Roman rustic language” or Theotiscam (a Germanic language) so the common people could understand. This decision marked the first recognition of French (or what would become French) as an oral language. The true birth of the French language, however, took place three decades later. 

Charlemagne’s empire was divided after his death and tensions rose between his grandchildren Lothair I, Charles the Bald, and Louis the German, which ultimately culminated in war. In 842, Charles and Louis took an oath to support one another against Lothair, and they each adopted a language understood by their brother’s troops: Charles spoke in Old High German and Louis in Gallo-Roman (proto-French). The Oaths of Strasbourg, transcribed into both of these languages and into Latin, arguably marked the birth of both German and French. While this version of Proto-French was still quite similar to Vulgar Latin, this marks the first point where it had an acknowledged written form.

The Frankish Inheritance

In the 10th century, the Gallo-Romance language took on hundreds of forms and dialects. Under the influence of the Franks, a group of languages emerged in the North: the so-called languages of Oïl, while in the more Romanized South, there was the birth of the languages of Oc (Oïl and Oc both mean oui). The languages of Oïl include the Picard, Walloon, Burgundy and Frankish dialects, among others. The Oc languages, on the other hand, include the Limousin, Auvergne, Provencal, and Languedocian dialects. This fragmentation meant that the people started speaking many different variations, which became very important later.

Old French (10th–13th Centuries)

Latin continued to be the prevailing language in religion, education and law, but little by little the vernacular language also started being used for written communication. At the end of the 11th century, the troubadours started chanting their poems in the various dialects of the country. In fact, the Song of Roland, written in the Oïl language, is one of the most emblematic examples of literature of this time.

It probably goes without saying that this Old French, like other vernaculars of its day, had a lack of clear rules and therefore had considerable variety in writing and speech. Because of this, some individuals advocated the “re-Latinization” of the lexicon. In the 12th century, French was still divided between Oïl and Oc, but eventually, the royal power from the Île-de-France region spread the Oïl variant across France. Oïl became an instrument of power and a symbol of unification.

Middle French (14th-17th Centuries)

In the 14th and 15th centuries, France witnessed its darkest years: The Black Plague and the Hundred Years’ War devastated the population. The texts of François Villon, written in Middle French, reflect this turbulent period perfectly. For the modern reader, the terminology he employed is somewhat understandable to those who speak Standard French. This is thanks to the loss of both declensions, changing of word order, and other foundational changes to the language. Nowadays, some of his spellings can seem funny (e.g. doncques, pluye and oyseaulx), but they were very fashionable at the time. The letter Y was in vogue, while K and W — then considered “not Latin enough” — were eliminated.

The history of the French language took another turn in the 15th century with the start of the Renaissance, as well as the invention of the printing press. In order to disseminate a large number of written works, it was necessary to create rules and structures for the language. It was in this context that the vernacular language finally achieved recognition: the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts in 1539 established the primacy of French for written laws.

Re-Latinization 

In order to render legitimacy and distinction to the French language, it was “re-Latinized” during the Enlightenment — although sometimes this was done in the wrong way. The word doit became doigt (finger) from the Latin digitus, while pie became pied (foot) from the Latin pedis. Meanwhile, words that were considered “barbaric” — that is, not of Latin origin — were systematically taken out. 

As A Lingua Franca 

It may come as a shock to Francophiles and students of history that, at the time of the French Revolution, less than half of France’s population could speak French, and only a fraction of those speakers could do it conversationally. That said, French was an extremely popular language with the elite and higher classes, as it was adopted by nearly all European courts and it even reached the other side of the Atlantic. Powered by the influence it had in the political and literary spheres, French became the world’s lingua franca (until English eventually supplanted it). Even today, French is still one of the most spoken languages in the world and continues to enjoy considerable appeal. 

Ultimately, the history of French is full of paradoxes: It has had a near-constant struggle to eliminate its own “barbarism,” even if that’s something which is inevitably part of its identity. The study of the language reveals a larger history of France, torn between its ambition to unify and the reality of its diversity.

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