The French language is a Romance language, meaning it stems from Latin and is part of the Indo-European language group.  The modern French of today is the result of a millennia of evolution with changes in grammar,  both written and spoken, and revitalised with new vocabulary. That's why millions of students learn French around the world.

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What was the Language in France Before French?

Gaulish: a Celtic language

In France the earliest language found through written documents is Gaulish. The Gauls belonged to the Celtic La Tène culture, a Celtic people living in Western Europe.

The infamous Julius Caesar began the Roman invasion of Gaul in 58 BC. In The History of the Gallic Wars; Julius Caesar's later memoir, he mentions that there were three Gauls:

  • Belgic Gaul (Gallia Belgica) from northwest Europe, includes all of Belgium, part of the Netherlands and parts of Germany
  • Celtic Gaul (Gallia Celtica) the territory of what is now France, and includes parts of modern Switzerland and Germany
  • Aquitania: the territory southwest of France, that had spoken an entirely different language closer to the modern Basque

The Celts did not have their own alphabet so the oldest inscriptions in Old Gaulish, dating back to 3rd century BC, is written in the Greek or the Lepontic alphabet (the older Etruscan  alphabet used by Alpine Celts).  To reconstruct the language of Asterix, Scholars used only about 800 inscriptions that were available.

Asterix spoke the Gaulish language.
If Asterix were real, he would have spoken Gaulish not French. Photo credit: Gianfranco Goria on Visual hunt

Latin

The Gauls were conquered by the Romans and  they became part of the Roman Empire.  The official language became Latin and  spoken throughout the Empire, The vernacular form of Latin (as opposed to the literary form learned in school) became the founder of all Romance languages, which includes French, Italian and Spanish, and  all the various regional languages of those countries.

The official language of diplomacy and government remained Latin well into the Middle Ages, and considered the scholarly language as late as the 18th century. Many early  French philosophers  wrote in Latin, such as Peter Abelard.

The Latin language started to fade from use long before the Roman Empire disintegrated. The Roman Emperor was unable to hold together the crumbling empire with it's  inner turmoils and pressure from the various Germanic tribes.

Check out our tips on great learning resources for French and our guide to acing your French exams.

The French Language After the Franks

One of these Germanic tribe was the Franks, who occupied most of Gaul in the 5th century  and founded the Merovingian dynasty of kings.

They spoke a Germanic language called Frankish, belonging to the linguistic group of the Indo European languages. The oldest inscription of Frankish was found on a 5th century sword scabbard in the Dutch town of Bergakker.

Frankish heavily influenced the Vulgar Latin spoken in the Frankish Kingdom ( that later occupied most of Western Europe, under Charlemagne of the Carolingian dynasty).

  • Gâteau, cake
  • Sale, dirty
  • Tomber, to fall

Old French and It's Emergence

Old French was created by a slow, organic process. Since the official administrative language was Latin at  the time, its difficult trying to discern its origins from these latin inscriptions.

The “Oaths of Strasbourg”is the oldest written attestation in Old French, signed in 842 by two of Charlemagne’s grandsons.  The document is written in Latin, but gives the oaths that each of the sons spoke verbatim, so in the vernacular languages they spoke everyday: Old French, or an early version of Old French (Gallo-Romance) and Old High German.

 French Languages of the Middle Ages

Towards the start of the 10th century under the Capetian Kings,  the Romance languages of France were already established. The Langue d’Oc and Langue d’Oïl, were considered different languages, with Franco-Provençal yet another language spoken in the East (the Kingdom of Burgundy, seat of the Nibelungen saga, that prospered) .  Breton was spoken in Brittany,  and Basque (the heir to the pre-Roman Aquitaine language) spoken in the tiny corner of the south-west. Several of the  dialects in France today stemmed from the Burgundian language that later evolved into Arpitan.

 

Langue d'Oil dialects in France.
The dialects that Spread belonging to the Langues d'Oil By Fobos92 - Own work, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29263284.
Basile
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The Evolution of the French Language

A morphology of the French language underwent a series of changes, in the centuries following the Middle Ages.

The Hundred Years War - The End of French Language in the UK

During the Renaissance, the Continent was plagued by the Hundred Years’ War - a series of interlocking conflicts between England and France that changed the map constantly. Both parties were French-speaking, at the beginning of the conflict, including Edward III of England.  It was Edward III who established English as the official language of England, thereby marking the end of Anglo-Norman French.

The spread of Middle French in France

In England the Hundred Year’s War ended with the demise of French and the rise of the English language. However in France,  the language “françois” spread  and the "langue d’oïl " became the spoken language of the King of France and the French army. In 1492, Charles VIII issued an edict requiring that either Middle French or the maternal local language be used in all judicial matters rather than Latin.

French grammar changed with the loss of many Latin declinations and the French verb conjugation simplified.

French became even more prevalent because of the conflict between the Catholic monarchy and the Protestant Huguenots, the wars of religion finally settled in 1598 by King Henry IV with the Edict of Nantes.

Francis the 1st encouraged the use of French in official documents.
In France, King Francis I (François 1er)  helped established French as the main language of the Kingdom.  By Unknown - wartburg.edu, Public Domain

François I signed the Ordinance of Villet-Cotterêts in 1539, making French the official language for all legal documents and royal decrees. He created the first publishing house dedicated to books not only in Latin but in the French language.

The Time of Enlightenment and Codification of the French Language

Standardising and purifying French

The Académie Française was founded by Cardinal de Richelieu in 1635. The Académie was responsible for creating a French dictionary and also a grammatical guide to French.  It was also charged with the “care for” the French language that included “purifying” French from vulgar expressions, dialects and jargon.

Dictionaries helped codify the French language.
This 1898 edition of the Larousse continued to be popular as with all French dictionaries. Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images on VisualHunt.com

The Académie Française French grammar tool was not published until 1935.

French was reinforced by Louis XIV against the regional languages throughout France.  With the court centralised in  Versailles, the Sun King  made French the language of the aristocracy, and the diplomatic language according to  French etiquette was to communicate in French.  In the provinces though “patois” or the local dialects, were still widely used.

 The Francophone colonies change French further

In the 17th century, most settlers of the new French colonies, the “lingua franca”   used most was French.   The French monarchy was striving toward linguistic unity during this period.   The French Antilles and Quebec were spreading the French language and culture but also starting to form their own versions of the language - along with the Caribbean island creole languages.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the second wave of colonisation and then decolonisation (not all the former colonies became French citizens), increased the number of French speaking countries to almost 30.  Many of these French colonies acquired a local form or creole mixes so together French with other local language families,  created colourful and unique versions of the French language.

 The French Language - The Modern Influences

French has not remained static since the 19th century. With French colonisation, many North African immigrants came to live in France, and French soldiers into Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.  Many Algerians still live in France even after the Algerian War and Arabic influenced French for the second time in its history. The first time Arabic made its way into French vocabulary was through Spanish in the late Renaissance period,  with the French slang words such as “toubib” (doctor) and “bled” (a small village) it's influences have endured.

English, ironically has replaced French as the “lingua franca”  with words such as “jogging”,week-end” and “chewing-gum” (including most of the Internet abbreviations and expressions), despite renewed attempts to “safeguard the purity” of the French language since the 1990s .

Several patois have experienced a linguistic renaissance with the encouragement of The European Union to preserve the regional and linguistic diversity of Europe.

Now you know the history of this romantic language spoken by so many famous French people . Now you too can also learn French in its most modern form with a Superprof tutor? Find a french course in Toronto here.

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Yvette

Yvette is a freelance Canadian writer living in Paris. She spends her time between Toronto and Paris and likes to travel and learn. She's the proud mom of two strong minded women and enjoys her free time giving back to her communities.