The History and Origins
of the French Language
The history of the development of the French language is one of invasions, wars, and the integration of peoples of other cultures. The Celts, Romans, Franks, and Vikings all contributed to the evolution of French, shaping a language that now has international reach.
French is now spoken not only in its mother country, but also in Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Quebec, and in large parts of Africa and Southeast Asia. The story of how it came to be such a significant language is a rich and fascinating tale.
As a Romance language, France shares a common ancestor with Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, and Spanish. Latin, the language of the Roman Empire, is the mutual origin of this linguistic family, and the prehistory of French begins with the colonization of Gaul by the Romans in the first century BC. The Romans brought Latin with them, and it became a fundamental building block of French, rapidly becoming the language of politics, administration, and education.
During the course of the next five centuries the native Gaulish was gradually replaced by Latin. However, this was not a one-way relationship, and the syntax, morphology, and sounds of Latin were influenced by Gaulish; the language of the invaders started to diverge profoundly from the way it was spoken in Rome. Gaulish was not entirely eradicated, however, and traces of the Celtic language still survive in French, especially in words related to rural activities and features of the landscape.
The Germanic hordes who invaded Gaul from the third century onwards also had a great impact on the evolution of the French language. A variety of Germanic tribal peoples made incursions into France at this time, including the Visigoths in the south west, the Burgundians in the Rhône Valley, and the Franks in the north and north east of the country. These groups brought many Germanic words to France, adding a second major linguistic building block to that of Latin, and Frankish in particular did much to shape the language. In the ninth century France was again invaded, this time by Viking raiders. Settling in present-day Normandy, they did not leave a lasting mark on the language, although they did influence many of the place names that exist to this day.
Further Evolution of the French Language
By the mid-ninth century the language spoken in France had diverged considerably from spoken Latin and had developed into a form latterly referred to as Old French. The Serments de Strasbourg (The Oaths of Strasbourg – several treaties between rulers Louis the German and Charles the Bald), written around 842, are usually seen as the starting point of the French language – it is the oldest document written in Old French and, indeed, in any Romance language.
However, the diversity of the French language was assured by the lack of political unification of the country, and a variety of dialects were spoken across France. With the Germanic influence very strong in the north of France, a linguistic frontier was created between north and south. The langue d'oc was the language group of the south of France and northern Spain, and included Gascon, Provençal and Catalan. These languages had very few Frankish influences, while the langue d'oïl of the north, which included the Picard and Francien dialects, were heavily informed by the Germanic tongue of the old Frankish invaders.
As a growing sense of nationhood emerged, the French language became more homogeneous. The way the language was spoken in Ile-de-France, the cultural and political center of the country, came to dominate and became 'standard' French. François I played an important role in this process when he signed the Ordonnance de Villers-Cotterêts in 1539 – a piece of legislation establishing Parisian French as the language of law and administration, and prohibiting the use of Latin in these contexts. With the Renaissance and the advent of printing, regional dialects and the traces of the languages of the old invaders were increasingly replaced by standardized French, although at the same time many Latin and Greek words were borrowed in order to keep up with scientific and technical advances. In 1635 the process of standardization of the language was reinforced by the founding of the Académie française, which aimed to both purify and preserve the French language. The Académie published its first dictionary in 1694, setting a new standard for French.
All these efforts succeeded in making Parisian French the standard language of the country, but it did not mean the complete disappearance of French dialects. To this day Alsatian, Basque, Breton, and Catalan, among many others, are still spoken in France. Moreover, through extensive French colonial expansion from the seventeenth century onwards, the standard language was exported to America, Africa, and Asia, becoming a global language that was subject to the influence of local tongues. Today French is still far from being a wholly homogeneous language, and its history is still being written by the people who speak it.