History of the French Language

Earliest Origins

Archeological remains confirm that human beings were present in what is now France over one million years ago. But history as we know it began with the Celts, warrior tribes that invaded Western Europe between the fifth century B.C. and the beginning of the Roman conquests.

Gaulish Ancestors

Starting in the fifth century B.C., populations of Celts who had probably come from the Danube region settled as far as Spain and Northern Italy (capture of Rome in 387) in Western Europe, which included what is now France or what the Romans called Gallia (Gaul). The Greeks referred to the Gauls as Gallos (Γάλλος) and Galatès (Γαλάτης), which became Galate in French.

From the third century B.C. on, the Celts settled throughout Gaul and easily imposed their authority on the indigenous populations, who seemed less highly developed. Like the Romans, historians used the term "Gauls" to refer to these new populations who settled between the Rhine and the Atlantic Ocean during this period.

Grouped into fortified villages, these farmer-soldiers lived in tribes organized into a society divided into several classes. The Gauls came into contact with the Mediterranean world when the Greeks began exploring the western Mediterranean in the seventh century B.C., establishing a colony in Marseilles (600 B.C.) and trading domestically via the Rhone Valley. The Gauls were 10 million strong. Here is an incomplete list of their tribes with their Latin names:

Abrincatui, Aduatuci, Alingavia, Alauduni, Albici, Albigenses, Alesaciones, Allobroges, Ambarri Ambiani, Ambibari, Ambiliati, Ambivareti, Andecamulenses, Andi, Aquitani, Arecomici, Armoricae, Arverni, Atrebates, Aulerci, Auscii, Bellicensis, Bellovaci, Bigeri (or Bigerriones), Bituriges, Bledontici, Brannovices, Brigani, Britons (Bretons), Burgundii, Cadurci, Caerosi, Caletes, Carnutes, Cassiterides, Catalauni, Catti, Caturiges, Cavari, Cenomani, Centrones, Ceutrones, Chalbici, Cocosates, Commones, Condrusi, Consoranni, Convenae, Coriosolites, Diablintes, Eburonii, Eburovices, Elusates, Elyseens, Epomandui, Esuvii (or Esubii), Franci, Gabali, Galates, Garocelli, Garites, Garumni, Geidumni, Geloni, Gentiles, Graioceli, Helveti, Helvii, Heleuterii, Isarci, Lactorates, Lemovices, Letes, Leuci, Lexovii, Lingons, Mandubii, Marcomanni, Mediomatrici, Medulii, Meldi, Meminii, Menapii, Morinii, Nervii, Nitiobriges (or Nitiobroges), Osismii, Parisii (Parisis or Paris), Petrocorii, Pictones (or Pictavi), Preciani, Remi (Reims), Ruteni, Sagii, Salyens, Santones, Sarmates, Segni, Segusiavi, Segusiani, Senones, Sentri, Sequani, Setuci, Setucii, Sibusates, Suessiones, Suevi, Tarbelli (Tarbelles), Tarusates, Treveri, Triboci, Tricasi, Tricastins, Turones, Ucenni, Unelli, Usipi, Vasates, Vascones, Vedianti, Veliocassi, Vellauni, Vellavi, Venasques, Veneti, Vergunes, Veromandui, Veroduni, Vertacomicori, Viducassi, Vocates, Voconti, Volcae, Voseguns.

The Gauls spoke a wide variety of Celtic languages (Indo-European family) that have all disappeared. It should be kept in mind that Gaulish was not a uniform language; it varied somewhat, depending on where it was spoken. For Gaulish to have been uniform, the Gauls would have had to be politically unified, which was hardly the case. Northern Gauls—such as the Morini, Atrebates, Ambiani, and Nervii—understood each other from village to village. The same was true for the Vasates, Satiates, Tarbelles, and Ausci in the south, but an Ambiani from the north could not communicate with a Tarbelle from the south. What's more, none of today's Celtic languages (Breton, Welsh, Irish, Scots, etc.) originate from those spoken by the Gauls. We know that spoken Breton was introduced into France in the fifth century A.D. by a group of Celts who fled Great Britain for the continent, more specifically to Armorica, called "Britain" to differentiate it from "Great Britain." To conclude our discussion on the language of the Gauls and Celts in general, let us quote Julius Caesar in The War of the Gauls (Book I):

Gaul is a whole divided into three parts: one is inhabited by the Belgae, another by the Aquitani, and a third by a people called in their own tongue Celtae, in Latin Galli. All these peoples have different languages, customs, and laws. The Gauls are separated from the Aquitani by the river Garonne and from the Belgae by the Marne and the Seine. Of all these peoples, the Belgae are the most courageous because they are the most removed from the culture and civilization of the Roman province and least often visited by merchants introducing commodities that make for effeminacy. They are also nearest to the Germans dwelling beyond the Rhine, with whom they are continually at war. For the same reason, the Helveti also surpass the other Gauls in value; they fight the Germans almost daily, either pushing them back from their own territory or invading the land of their enemies. The country inhabited by what we call the Gauls begins at the Rhone and is bordered by the Garonne, the ocean, and the borders of the Belgae territory. On the Sequani and Helveti side, it goes up to the Rhine and lies in the north. The Belgae territory starts from the edge of the Gallic territory and is bordered by the lower part of the Rhine, bearing towards the north and east. Aquitaine extends from the Garonne to the Pyrenees and the part of the ocean that washes the coast of Spain. It lies between the west and the north.

The Gaulish language—whose oral tradition the druids preferred—was rarely written down. When the Gauls adopted writing, they used the Greek alphabet, which was known from the seventh century B.C. on through the influence of the city of Marseilles ( Massalia in Greek, Massilia in Latin). The druids themselves used Greek for secular writing because they were otherwise not allowed to transcribe sacred texts.

The Romans differentiated between Transalpine (or Ulterior) Gaul—located beyond the Alps—and Cisalpine Gaul (Northern Italy). On the eve of the Roman conquest, there was no clear difference between the "Gaulish world" and the "Germanic world," apart from language and culture.

The Roman Occupation

Between 58 and 50 B.C., Julius Caesar conquered all of Gaul, which covered modern France, Switzerland, Belgium, and Western Germany. Though the Roman conquest was completed quickly militarily (despite the revolt under Vercingetorix), it was much slower in terms of civilization. The Romans implemented their administrative system everywhere they went and profoundly changed the conquered peoples. They didn't exactly impose Latin on them—they simply ignored the "barbaric" languages and made it so that Latin became essential.

Latin as the Language of Social Promotion

Individuals who sought the full rights of Roman citizenship had to adopt the habits, lifestyle, religion, and language of Rome. Such were the conditions of enjoying all the advantages of Roman citizenship, which was vital to those who wanted to climb the social ladder. Roman currency was used throughout the Empire and Roman finances were administered in Latin only. Because an incredible number of lower-ranking collectors and employees was required, "indigenous" Gauls who wanted these positions learned Latin. The army was another powerful means of spreading Latin. The vanquished had to pay a heavy tribute to the Romans in military troops, who were commanded in Latin.

The advent of Latin schools gave a boost to the Roman alphabet and writing and had quite an adverse effect on the Gaulish oral tradition, which was unable to resist the powerful Latin language. The vehicular language of the Gaulish nobility could only be Latin or Greek. Greek civilization had shone in the Mediterranean for centuries, while Roman civilization was already making its presence felt after over just a century. Roman religion became the official religion and, starting from the first century A.D., druids no longer had a place in Gallo-Roman society. Toward the late fifth century, the Christianization of Gaul would be complete.

As payment for services rendered, numerous Romans received free land. These Roman settlements played an important role in spreading Latin to the countryside. The Romans also built a vast network of paved roads, which provided quick access to the Empire's most remote regions. These roads were used to transport military troops, goods, and the imperial post, but were also an effective way to spread Latin.

The whole of Gaul underwent a long period of Latin-Celtic bilingualism, which began in the towns and gradually spread to the countryside. Latin unilingualism was achieved in the fifth century, and the Gaulish languages all disappeared. Only the vassal ethnic groups associated with defending the Empire were able to preserve their languages—the Gauls in Great Britain, the Basques in Spain, the Berbers in Africa, the Armenians, the Albanians, and the Jews in the East. Before becoming extinct, Gaulish passed on some 150 words to Latin (which were then passed on to French). They included terms designating plants (flora), animals (fauna), and objects relating to agriculture and daily life. For example, alouette ( < alauda), bouleau ( < betulus), cervoise ( < cervesia), druide ( < druida), lieue ( < leuga), arpent ( < arepennis), char ( < carru), barde ( < bard), chêne ( < cassanus), mouton ( < multo), sapin ( < sappus), valet ( < vasso), etc.

The Emergence of Vulgar Latin

The Latin spoken and spread in the fifth century was not that of Caesar and Cicero, but rather the Latin of public servants, soldiers, Roman settlers, and assimilated indigenous populations. This form of Latin gradually became distinct from the classical language of the first century. While the classical version was reserved for the aristocracy and schools, a popular form of Latin with major regional variations developed as a result of contact between the conquerors and the conquered.

Over time, this very different form of Latin drawn from daily life was even used by clerks and scribes to write official documents and a host of religious and civil documents. In fact, after the collapse of the enormous imperial structure, vulgar Latin would go on to permanently triumph over classical Latin.

Inevitably, however, the vulgar Latin spoken in Rome's various provinces began to splinter into regional variants reflecting local social, political, and geographic conditions. In regions very distant from Rome—such as northern Gaul—and those where there was contact with Germanic peoples, another, even more different form of Latin developed.

The Beginning of the Great Germanic Invasions

In 375, the Huns devastated the Germanic Ostrogoths, who lived north of the Black Sea between the Danube River and the Dniepr River in Ukraine. The year 375 is considered the beginning of the great invasions and the fall of the Roman Empire. What the Romans called "barbaric invasions" were known among the Germanic peoples as Völkerwanderungen, or "migrations of peoples."

From a linguistic point of view, these invasions can be described as phenomena of linguistic expansion, where languages of variable stamina confronted each other. Goths, Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, Franks, Saxons, Burgundians, Alemani, and others fought one another from one end of Europe to the other and swept into the Western Roman Empire. By the late fifth century, the Western Roman Empire had disappeared, making room for the foundation of a number of Germanic empires.

The Franks took northern Gaul and Germany, while the Visigoths occupied Spain and southern Gaul. The Angles and Saxons crossed over into Great Britain after driving out the Celts in Amorica (now Brittany). The Burgundians invaded central-western Gaul (now Burgundy, Savoy, and French Switzerland). The Alemani were pushed back into Switzerland and the Suevi into Galicia (Spain), while the Vandals conquered the northern coast of Africa and became masters of the sea by occupying the Balearic Islands, Corsica, and Sardinia.

By the end of the fifth century, the Western Roman Empire found itself divided into a dozen Germanic kingdoms. But most of these kingdoms did not become long-lasting states, with the exception of those of the Franks and the Anglo-Saxons. Nevertheless, these Germanic invasions helped build modern Europe, notably through certain Frankish kings such as Clovis, who founded the Frankish Kingdom and imposed Catholicism, and Charles I of the Carolingians, better known as Charlemagne.

From a linguistic point of view, the collapse of the Western Roman Empire accelerated the fragmentation of vulgar Latin that had begun in the second century. By the seventh century, the linguistic situation had become extremely complex in the former Roman Empire. The Germanic languages were essential to those who wanted to hold political office because all the kings spoke one or another of these languages, and only that language. Latin was used only in writing. The people had replaced former vulgar Latin with a new language—Romanic, whose various forms would later become French, Provençal, Catalan, etc.

In the particular case of Gaul, the languages descended from Latin underwent greater change than elsewhere (Italy and Spain) due to frequent contact with Germanic languages, notably Frankish, which became the vehicular language of the Frankish aristocracy.

The Romanic Period

Given that contact between the regions and the various Visigoth, Ostrogoth, Burgundian, Alemani, Vandal, and other kingdoms had become very rare, linguistic divergences gradually increased and led to the creation of distinct Romanic idioms. The lingua romana rustica or "local common language" spoken in northern Gaul (the Frankish kingdom) differed from the language spoken in the south (the Visigoth kingdom), Italy (the Ostrogoth kingdom), and Dacia (the Gepides kingdom, now Romania), etc. The whole system of spoken vulgar Latin changed as it evolved into Romanic (derived from the word Roman), which broke off into different regional variants.

While written Latin remained intact, the spoken languages that would become French, Italian, Spanish, Catalan, etc. developed slowly. This is what is meant by Romance languages: derived from Latin, they gradually diverged from one another and became distinct while preserving numerous common elements. But some 400 to 500 years would separate the vulgar Latin of the fourth century and the first French text (11th century).

Frankish Supremacy and Dialectal Fragmentation

During the sixth and seventh centuries, the Germanic kingdoms weakened. The Ostrogoths were conquered by the Eastern Romans, then the Lombards. The Visigoths wiped out the Suevi before themselves being wiped out by the Franks in the north and the Arabs in Spain. The Vandals suffered the same fate in northern Africa, with the survivors converting to Islam. The Franks emerged the great winners of these confrontations by subjugating almost all of Romanized Europe to the authority of a few Germanic monarchs.

Clovis, the king of the Franks (or rex francorum), defeated the last Roman representative in Soisson in 486. He extended his lands from the Loire to the Rhine, then converted to Catholicism and thus received the support of his Gallo-Roman subjects. He was the first king to speak Frankish, which remained the language of subsequent kings until the accession of Hugues Capet in 987. With Clovis began the Merovingian dynasty (< from Merovech, the third Frankish king, who conquered Attila in 451). Among the languages spoken in France (Visigothic, Burgundian, Alemanic, and Frankish), Frankish would leave the greatest traces in French, providing it with over 500 words. However, the insignificant number of Franks (about 5%) versus the Gallo-Roman population prevented the conquerors from imposing Frankish throughout the country.

The Gallo-Roman population spoke what was known then as local common Romanic, which varied in form from region to region. A multitude of regional languages developed throughout Gaul that were subdivided into dialects, all derived from Latin (except for Breton, Alsatian, Flemish, Frankish, and Basque). But the Franks introduced the Romanic dialects to new linguistic trends such as their Nordic accent and phonetic system, which led to a much sharper pronunciation of Romanic vowels than traditionally.

The Germanization of Romanic Dialects

The Germanic languages influenced the Romanic languages, but weren't able to assimilate them. During the time of Charlemagne, the Frankish aristocracy engaged in Frankish-Romanic bilingualism for several centuries before adopting the language of the conquered. A few isolated groups located near the linguistic border of Romanic and Germanic languages preserved their Frankish tongue, but most Franks ended up being assimilated. Romanic languages were spoken exclusively in two-thirds of what is now France, except for the northeast (Flemish, Frankish, and Alsatian), Brittany in the northwest, and the Basque Country in the south. While the Frankish aristocracy spoke Frankish, it also profoundly Germanized Gallo-Romanic dialects, including what would later become French. Language historians contend that French owes only a few hundred words to Frankish—exactly 544 according to linguist Henriette Walter, or 13% of all foreign words introduced into French—notably in vocabulary relating to war, ornamentation, food, agriculture, etc., as well as colour adjectives ( bleu, gris, brun, blanc, blond, fauve, etc.) and quantities ( guère, trop, etc.). In reality this is a lot, given the small lexical mass at the time.

But that's not all! The linguistic cohabitation of Frankish and common Romanic resulted in profound changes in phonetics, morphology, and syntax. In terms of phonetics, for example, the Germanic [w] was treated like the Latin [v] and became a guttural, as in the word guerre (< Frankish werra), while vastare changed to wastare and then gâter, and vespa to wespa and then guêpe. Latin words like huit (< octo), huis (< ostium, from huissier), hermine (< arminia), and huître (< ostrea), etc., owed their initial [h] to an old Germanic pronunciation used in words like hache, hotte, huche, haillons, hangar, héron, hareng, etc. Some new diphthongizations are also due to Germanic influence. In terms of morphology, the endings -and, -ard, -aud, -ais, -er and -ier are of Frankish origin, as well as quite a number of -ir verbs, such as choisir, jaillir, blanchir, etc. Of particular note is the considerable influence Germanic had on names of places (Criquebeuf, Elbeuf, Caudebec, Honfleur, Trouville, etc.) and people. The effects of Germanic syntax were also felt, such as the placing of the subject after the verb when an object or adverb preceded it. For example, the word order in the sentence l'endemain manda le duc son conseil is of Germanic influence. Modern French would express it as Le duc appela le lendemain son conseil.

All these facts illustrate that the Germanization of "local common Romanic" was considerable to the point that the langue d'oïl family took on features quite different from other languages derived from Latin, notably in the south where Occitan languages (as well as Italian, Catalan, Spanish, Portuguese, etc.) remained closer to Latin than French. In fact, French would become the most Germanized of all the Romance languages (while English would be the most Romanized of the Germanic languages). All told, some 400,000 residents in northwestern France still speak a Frankish language. For example, Lorraine Frankish remains a linguistic vestige of the Franks who founded France.

In the written language, Latin continued to dominate and remained very much alive. Not only did clerks and scholars massively copy Latin classics, they literally plundered them. That is why hundreds of Latin words were borrowed by the Gallo-Romans, who spoke local common Romanic but only wrote in Church Latin. It is similar to scientists nowadays who speak their mother tongue (French, German, Chinese, Hindi, etc.) but write in English.

The "King's Language"

In such conditions, the variations that already existed between local dialects grew more pronounced. All villages and cities developed their own dialects; Romanic evolved freely everywhere with no constraints. What we call Old French corresponds to a certain number of essentially oral linguistic varieties that were geographically heterogeneous but not standardized or codified, as was the case for English.


Map reproduced with the kind authorization of Mr. Mikael Parkvall
of Institutionen för lingvistik, Stockholm University

French dialects multiplied and divided into three major, quite distinct groups that still exist today (see dialect map of France above): the langue d'oïl group in the north, the langue d'oc group in the south, and Provençal in Franche-Comté, Savoy, Val-d'Aoste (Italy) and what is now French Switzerland.

In the 10th century, French, which is often associated with Francien, still occupied no more than a narrow territorial base among the langues d'oïl (see the word Francien on the map). It was only spoken by the upper echelons of society in the areas of Paris and Orléans. The kings of France still spoke Frankish (a Germanic language). The langues d'oc of the south corresponded to the most Romanized part of Gaul, which had not been part of the Frankish kingdom but was for a time under Visigoth domination, though this did not leave any direct traces in French. The Provençal languages corresponded more or less to the former possessions of the Burgundians, then the Germanic Holy Roman Emperor. At the time, all common folk were unilingual, speaking one of the 600 or 700 languages used in France. Only scholars wrote and communicated with one another in Church Latin.

In 987, Hugues Capet was elected and crowned King of France. He was the first sovereign to speak only a vernacular Romanic language or "French." The Capetian dynasty succeeded in reinforcing royal authority and undertook the task of extending its realm. But it was not until 1119 that Louis VI (r. 1108 to 1137) proclaimed in a letter to Pope Calistuss II that he was the "King of France"—no longer the "King of the Franks"—and "the faithful son of the Roman Church." It was the first text in which reference was made to France, from which the word français is derived.

Actually, the word at the time was françois, pronounced [franswè], francien having been coined in 1889 by philologist Gaston Paris to refer to the French of Île-de-France in the 13th century as opposed to Picard, Norman, Burgundian, Poitevin, etc. What is called francien, français or françois—the language of Île-de-France—was not yet very widespread and was spoken only in this small region (see map above). It was a common form of Old French that was distinct from the Latin that clerks used and the dialects of French speakers at that time.

The aristocracy, clerks, jurists, and the middle class began to use this form of French. When Louis IX (now called Saint Louis) ascended the throne (1226–1270), linguistic unification was in part achieved and the dominance of French was assured. After numerous royal military victories, French gradually replaced the other langues d'oïl dialects (Orléanais, Champenois, Angevin, Bourbonnais, Gallo, Picard, etc.) and infiltrated the main cities in the south. By the end of his reign, Louis IX had won a true measure of prestige for his language, which would henceforth be called French.

The Status of Old French

In terms of phonetics, 13th century French was extremely complex, especially its vowels. They numbered 33 in all, including 9 oral, 5 nasal, 11 oral diphthongs, 5 nasal diphthongs, and 3 triphthongs. Consonants included three affricates: [ts] as in cent, pronounced tsent; [dz] as in jambe, pronounced dzjambë ; and [tch] as in cheval, pronounced tcheval. It is difficult to imagine the complex pronunciation of Old French in the 13th century. As an example, here is a verse from the Song of Roland:

Old French
(prononciation)
des  peaux    de chievres   blanches
[dés péawss de tchièvress blan-ntchess]
Modern French
(prononciation)
des peaux de chèvres blanches
[dé   po      t'chèvr'       blanch]

At that time, writing was essentially phonetic: all letters were pronounced, including today's silent e and the -s in plurals. Unlike today's pronunciation [dé po t'chèvr' blanch], all letters were pronounced: [dés péawss de tchièvress blan-ntchess]. These five words contained 26 articulations while they now have only 13 because, among other things, the –s in plurals is no longer pronounced and triphthongs are no longer used (e.g., peaux). It is therefore a language that would sound a bit "rough" to the modern ear, not to mention verbally colourful.

In terms of grammar (morphosyntax), Old French still preserved its two-case declension and word order was free in sentences, which were generally short and simple. However, the language continued to remain quite close to its Latin roots. Orthography had not yet been permanently established, but remained very close to Latin.

Old French vocabulary contained a large store of common Romanic words, a few hundred Occitan words, some one thousand Germanic words, and a few dozen words of Arabic origin. Much of the vocabulary was still drawn from Latin, with phonetic adaptations.

Although French was still not an official language, it was used as a vehicular language by the upper echelons of society and the royal army, which carried it to Italy, Spain, Cyprus, Syria, and Jerusalem during the crusades. Written French began to be used in the 12th century, particularly in the royal administration, which used it simultaneously with Latin. As royal authority gradually strengthened and power became centralized, the language of the French king gained ground, particularly relative to others in the langues d'oïl family. But Latin would keep the upper hand in writing and in schools for still some centuries to come.

Languages Spoken in France

At the time, people in France spoke many languages. They generally were unfamiliar with Church Latin unless they were educated, which was rare. Nor did they speak French, except in the Île-de-France region. Here is a quick summary of what French people spoke in the various regions during the Middle Ages:

  • Diverse variants of langues d'oïl : Picard, Gallo, Poitevin, Saintongeais, Norman, Morvandiau, Champenois, etc.
  • Diverse variants of langues d'oc (Gascon, Languedocian, Provençal, Auvergnat-Limousin, Alpin-Dauphinois, etc.) as well as Catalan
  • Diverse variants of Franco-Provençal
  • Germanic languages : Frankish, Flemish, Alsatian, etc.
  • Breton and Basque

In short, French was no more than a minority language spoken mainly in the Île-de-France region (as a mother tongue) and in the provinces by a large percentage of the aristocracy (as a second language). In addition, French was not yet a language of culture and could rival neither Latin nor even Arabic, whose civilization was much more advanced than that of the West. It's easy to understand why Church Latin kept its standing—it had no rival! And the Renaissance was still a long way off, the French Revolution even further!

During the feudal period, the prestige of the Catholic Church remained great throughout Europe. Not only was Latin the language of worship and therefore used by all clergy at every abbey, it was also the only language used in education, justice, and royal chanceries (except in France and England, where French was used for communication between the two kingdoms). It was also the language of science and philosophy. Educated people had to resort to Latin as a second language: it was the international vehicular language of the Catholic world. Outside of Europe, Turkish, Arabic, Chinese, and Mongolian played a similar role.

Middle French (14th and 15th Centuries) and the Renaissance (16th Century)

The 14th and 15th centuries were a sombre period for France, which sank into anarchy and misery. It was one of the most turbulent eras of its history, with the 100 Years' War with England, civil wars, plagues, famines, and other disasters. For the French language, which was undergoing major changes, this was a period of transition between Old French and Modern French. Middle French went on to assert itself during the Renaissance.

The Setbacks of the 100 Years' War

From the time of Philippe le Bel (1268–1314), French started being used for official documents, in regional parliaments, and in the royal chancery. From 1300 on, it was a written administrative and legal language that was already competing with Latin. Roman jurists and Greek philosophers were henceforth translated into French, while a literature emerged that was more suitable for a less educated public. Academics, clerks, and other scholars continued to Latinize their French without Frenchifying their Latin.

In 1328, the last of the Capetians (Charles IV) died without an heir. The King of England asserted his right to the throne, but the French princes preferred Philippe VI of Valois (1337). So it was that two French-speaking kings struggled for control of the kingdom of France until 1453—the period known as the 100 Years' War. This lengthy conflict weakened the French monarchy, which lost a number of provinces to England until the intervention of Constable Du Guesclin (1320–1380) under Charles V and later Joan of Arc (1412–1431) under Charles VII finally swung the advantage back to the King of France, who gradually retook Paris (1436), Normandy (1450), Guienne (1453), and other regions.

However, France paid dearly for its victory over the English. Not only did the fighting lay waste to the entire countryside, destroying agriculture and wiping out one-third of the population, the 100 Years' War kindled strong nationalist sentiment in England.

In reaction against France, English replaced French at the Parliament of London in 1363. After the defeat of Agincourt (1415), the Treaty of Troyes (1420) recognized Henry V of England as the heir to the kingdom of France. He was the first king of England to use English in official documents, and he drew up his will in English. However, French continued to be the spoken language of the English court since most of England's monarchs came from France. Henry V married Catherine de Valois, the daughter of Charles VI, the King of France. The French, if educated, no longer wrote in dialectal French (in the langues d'oïl), but rather in French or Latin. Paradoxically, it was during the 100 Years' War that the English chose for the Order of the Garter (officially called The Most Noble Order of the Garter) a motto that was in French only: "Honi soit qui mal y pense" (with a single n), which means "Shame on him who thinks this evil."

French linguist Henriette Walter contends in her book Honni soit qui mal y pense that had it not been for the intervention of Joan of Arc, the English, who were in part French-speaking, would have adopted French and later conveyed this language to the future United States and elsewhere. Though only a hypothesis, the chances of French becoming established in England would have been very great at the time. Whether it had been the Duke of Burgundy or the King of England who occupied the throne of France instead of Valois, both contenders spoke French. Having kept half their lands in France, the English kings whose mother tongue was French, would not have consequently developed the anti-French sentiments they did once they had been "driven out of France" by Joan of Arc. In other words, the conquest of France by the English would have assured the longevity of French in England thanks to the merging of the two kingdoms. Joan of Arc probably did France a great service by chasing the English from the continent, but she also did a disservice to the French language. But you can't rewrite history!

The Status of Middle French

This politically, socially, and economically unstable period fostered a loosening of linguistic structures. The entire system of Old French was simplified. The numerous diphthongs and triphthongs disappeared, turning into simple vowels in the spoken language. In reaction, scholars sought to preserve the written language, which no longer matched pronunciation. This has left traces of previous pronunciation in words like oiseau (now pronounced wazo, but with all the letters written as previously), as well as peau, fou, fleur, coeur, and saoul. Double consonants that had disappeared from Old French also tended to be put back (e.g., belle instead of bele, like Latin bella; flamme instead of flame, like flamma; etc.).

Declensions derived from Latin and reduced to two cases in Old French also disappeared, which tended to stabilize sentence word order (subject + verb + object). Prepositions and conjunctions developed greatly, which made sentences more complex. Verb conjugations became more stable and simple. In comparison with Old French, many words disappeared, notably regional terms.

Although spoken French was left to itself, the same could not be said for the written language. French orthography remained very close to Latin, even though French had linguistically moved quite apart from it. It was a Frenchified Latin in a way. The most striking features of Middle French involved vocabulary and orthography. French spread increasingly throughout France and took over in many areas from Latin, but the latter took its revenge by flooding the victorious language with massive borrowings.

The Invasion of Scholarly Latin

Scholarly Latin began appearing in French vocabulary in the 13th century, but the next century saw a veritable onslaught of Latinisms. By the end of the 14th century, Latin borrowings had become so numerous that French terms appeared trapped under the mass of Latinisms. Admittedly, a great number of these words enjoyed only a brief existence (intellectif, médicinable, suppécliter, etc.), but most succeeded in remaining permanently (déduction, altercation, incarcération, prémisse, etc.). In England, Latinisms that entered English were called inkhorn terms or hard words.

It was during this time that doublets appeared in French, which were two words of the same etymological source, where one had undergone normal phonetic evolution (vulgar Latin) while the other had been borrowed directly from classical Latin (and sometimes Greek) after several centuries. The words hôtel and hôpital are doublets. They both come from the same Latin word hospitalis, but the phonetic evolution resulted in hôtel (a short form) in French, while the borrowing produced hospital, then hôpital (a long form) several centuries later. The original vulgar Latin word is always the furthest in form from the classical Latin word. There are likely a few hundred doublets that formed over time. We've included just a few here. Doublets always have different, at times radically dissimilar meanings.

Latin Word > Common French / Scholarly French

  • rigidus > raide/rigide
  • parabola > parole/parabole
  • fragilis > frêle/fragile
  • pendere > peser/penser
  • integer > entier/intègre
  • legalis > loyal/légal
  • liberare > livrer/libérer
  • fabrica > forge/fabrique
  • auscultare > écouter/ausculter
  • absolutum > absous/absolu
  • capitalem > cheptel/capitale
  • captivum > chétif/captif
  • claviculum > cheville/clavicule
  • advocatum > avoué/avocat
  • singularis > sanglier/singulier
  • acer > aigre/âcre
  • masticare > mâcher/mastiquer
  • senior > sieur/seigneur
  • capsa > châsse/caisse
  • ministerium > métier/ministère
  • scala > échelle/escale
  • causa > chose/cause
  • porticus > porche/portique
  • simulare > sembler/simuler
  • operare > oeuvrer/opérer
  • strictum > étroit/strict
  • potionem > poison/potion
  • frictionem > frisson/friction
  • tractatum > traité/tract
  • pedestrem > piètre, pitre/ pédestre

The influence of the educated and powerful state scribes and clerks in this period of the French language and the economic life of the nation must be examined. These individuals, who were immersed in Latin and enthralled with the masterpieces of Antiquity, were dismissive of the resources that French put at their disposal and sought instead to bring the spoken language (of the "ignorant") into closer alignment with the vast cultural heritage of the past (Latin). No doubt had these Latinizers been more versed in Romanic philology, they would sought to dress up words of Romanic or vulgar (from Latin vulgus, meaning "people") origin, but this was not the case. These so-called "Latin pilferers" won friends in high places, who lavished them with encouragement.

The actions of the Latinizers distanced French from the language of the people. This was the beginning of the separation of the written and spoken language. French lost its prerogative to develop freely, becoming the domain of scholars, poets, and grammarians. If the French king had 15 million subjects, it can be supposed that some 40,000 knew how to write and that one-third of this small number (almost all clerks) found the occasion to read the texts we now have in hand. It is estimated that no more than 2% of the population could write this type of French. The people spoke patois, a term that appeared in the Middle Ages to indicate "an incomprehensible language," "the language of animals," or "coarse" behaviour, without referring to any particular regional dialect.

The Influence of Italian during the Renaissance

It should be kept in mind that during the Renaissance, most French people—about 99%—did not speak French, but rather their regional dialect (derived from Romanic), called a patois. It was in these languages that priests addressed their flocks. When children went to village schools, they learned the rules of their religion and sometimes certain writing basics in these languages. French was spoken only in Paris by the aristocrats of northern France.

The 16th century was marked by Italy's dominance in almost all areas on account of its economic wealth, military power, technological and scientific advances, and cultural supremacy. So it comes as little surprise that the French were fascinated with this country and in the thralls of Italomania, which today's language still reflects.

After the Italian wars, which stretched from 1494 to 1559, the French and Italians developed close and peaceful ties. Many Italians pursued careers in the court of the French king, and diplomatic marriages (such as that of Catherine de' Medici to Henry II) brought thousands of Italian intellectuals, artists, and scientists to the court. As the Queen Regent of France for close to 20 years, Catherine de' Medici ruled with an iron fist and supported the development of the arts—Italian arts. But this Italianization would bring refinement to the French court.

Inevitably, this cultural influence was reflected in the French language. Thousands of Italian words entered French, notably terms relating to war (canon, alarme, escalade, cartouche, etc.), finance (banqueroute, crédit, trafic, etc.), morals ( courtisan, disgrâce, caresse, escapade, etc.), painting (coloris, profil, miniature, etc.), and architecture (belvédère, appartement, balcon, chapiteau, etc.), as well as clothing, food, horseback riding, music, etc. In all, some 8,000 words invaded the language, about 10% of which are still used today. Many writers rose up in vain against this intrusion into French and the mania of Italianizing at all costs.

Linguistic Interventionism

With 15 million inhabitants, France remained the most populous country in Europe and made the French king richer than his rivals, which helped cement his authority and promote his language. There was also another reason why French spread: state interventionism in the language. In 1510, a decree by Louis XII "on the reformation of justice" specified that certain judicial proceedings—civil inquiries and procedures—be conducted in the "common language of the country," and no longer in Latin:

We order [...] that all criminal trials and said inquiries be conducted in the common language of the country from now on, in whatever manner, [...] or they will otherwise have no effect or value.

At the time, French—rather than Latin—was beginning to be perceived as a means of uniting the courts while bringing them closer to the people. But the most important event was the famous royal decree made by François I in 1539: the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts. In his château in Villers-Cotterêts, François I signed the edict that made French the language of administration instead of Latin. The same edict required every parish priest in the kingdom to keep a birth register; this was the beginning of the keeping of vital statistics. Here are the sections regarding the French language:

Section 50

Burials for individuals with assets shall be entered into a registry as proof for chapters, colleges, monasteries, and parish priests and shall serve as authoritative proof of the time of death. Express mention of said registries shall be made in trials where time of death must be proven in cases of recreance. [Literally: Burials must be recorded by priests, who must mention the date of death.]

Section 51

Also as a form of proof, a registry of baptisms shall be kept, which will contain the date and time of birth, and excerpts from which shall prove majority or minority and serve as full, authoritative proof thereof.

Section 110

To prevent any cause for doubt in the understanding of our sovereign courts' decisions, we wish and command that they be made and written so clearly that there neither be nor be any possibility of there being any ambiguity or uncertainty, nor cause to ask interpretation thereof.

Section 111

We desire that all decisions and other procedures in our sovereign or lesser or lower courts, including registries, inquiries, contracts, wills, and any other legal acts or writs or appurtenances, be henceforth conducted, recorded, and delivered to the parties in no other language than mother tongue French.

This royal act made French the state language, but was directed only against Church Latin, not local dialects. From 1450 to 1550, however, Occitan languages (Auvergnat, Limousin, Gascon, Languedocian, Provençal) disappeared from administrative and judicial archives in southern France. Obviously, the Church stubbornly resisted this "reform" that relegated Latin to second place after French. It even cracked down by fire and sword on movements that promoted the "translation" of holy books into the "common language." However, around 1520, the Bible and Gospel were translated into French, and all Calvinists in France and Switzerland did their best to spread them in this form, to the great displeasure of the Catholic hierarchy. Whether they liked it or not, "religious" controversies all ended up being written about in both French and Latin.

Printers also contributed to the spread of French—it was more profitable to publish in French than Latin because more people read French. It is to this period that today's French owes its excessively complicated spelling. Many writers, scholars, and leading minds were unsure of the many rules and complications of the language, and so left things up to the typographers, who were paid based on word length! The typographers strove to make things more learned and complex, and were responsible for many cumbersome and at times ridiculous traditions. These trendsetters sought to express the originality of French, introducing among other things the cedilla, the apostrophe, and accents. It was henceforth recognized that the French writing system was so bizarre that distinguished people could ignore it without embarrassment, but finicky specialists (typographers, printers, scholars, etc.) were required to observe it.

Modern French: 1600 to Today

Modern French was born in the era of the Grand Siècle (1594–1715), a long period of social stability and economic prosperity that boosted France to a never-before-attained level of prestige in politics, literature, and the arts. Modern French is divided into three periods: the French of the Grand Siècle, the French of the French Revolution, and Contemporary French.

The French of the Grand Siècle and the Enlightenment

In the 17th century, France was the greatest demographic and military power in Europe, and was governed with authority by strong figures: Henry IV, Cardinal Richelieu, then Cardinal de Mazrin and Louis XIV, the latter marking the life of the country for over 50 years (1638–1715), the longest reign in France's history. Royal absolutism in France began with Henry IV (1553–1610). Imposed by the sovereigns of France, French was equal in standing to the three "languages of God": Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.

Under the reign of Louis XIII (1610–1643), the powerful Cardinal Richelieu endeavoured to restore royal authority through heightened centralization, reorganization of the army and navy, and the creation of a pervasive police presence. Richelieu also created the Académie française in 1635 with the mission of preparing a dictionary, grammar, rhetoric, and poetics and keeping watch over the French language. Louis XIV became the ruler of France in 1661. All power was concentrated in the hands of the Sun King, who was persuaded that absolute power was legitimate, and that he represented God in France. His thirst for power pushed Louis XIV into seeking and partially obtaining hegemony in Europe, which turned his long reign (1661–1715) into an uninterrupted series of wars.

French and the Grammarians

At the time, French, although an official language, was still little used, even in France. It was the language of the court, the aristocracy and middle class, literature, and academia, but was spoken by fewer than one million out of the 20 million inhabitants of France, or 5% of the population. Given that nobles numbered only about 4,000 at the court, it was the middle class and merchants who, in absolute numbers, spoke French the most.

During this authoritative and centralized century, the grammarians shaped the language to their liking. The reign of Louis XIV produced over one hundred of these professional censors, most of whom were disciples of Claude Fabre de Vaugelas (1585–1659), the best-known grammarian of his time. In 1647, he published Remarques sur la langue française, a treatise on the "proper use" of French that made him famous:

Bad usage takes root among the multitude, which in almost all cases is not for the best. Proper usage, on the other hand, arises not from a plurality of voices, but from that of the elite, and is truly the one called the master language. Here is how proper usage is defined: it is the way the best members of the Court speak.

Like the king, the language enjoyed a period of "distinction" and consolidation. For grammarians, French had reached the "peak of perfection." The use of a select and elegant vocabulary was to be desired. Grammarians remained very preoccupied with purifying the language out of fear of future corruption, and banned Italianisms, archaisms, provincialisms, technical and learned terms—all the words considered "low." The Académie française continued to monitor the "purity" of the language and published the first edition of its dictionary in 1694. Like the subjects of Louis XIV, words were grouped into classes. Vocabulary included only words permitted to an "honest man" and was based on Vaugelas' "proper usage."

Placed in the hands of those who frequented salons and the court of Louis XIV, the literary language was used by elegant and cultivated people, or 1% of the population. Its vocabulary, depleted through excessive purism (undue concern for the purity of the language), did not grow richer, apart from a certain number of borrowings from Italian (188 words), Spanish (103 words), Dutch (52 words), and German (27 words). Sentences became shorter and simpler; long, pompous constructions were abandoned. Grammar did not undergo any remarkable changes, apart from the disappearance of the –s in the pronunciation of plurals, which has remained a purely orthographic symbol ever since.

A Vehicular Language

The French spoken by the elite was ever so slow to filter down to the people, who knew nothing of the rules of order, purity, elegance, and harmony. At the time, illiteracy was around 99% in France, as it was in the rest of Europe. The people were kept in total ignorance. Education remained rooted in religion, which was generally conducted in the local "patois" and sometimes even Latin. During his travels, Louis XIV was harangued in Picard, Flemish, Alsatian, Breton, Occitan, and other languages. Despite the desires of Colbert (his minister), no language policy was initiated. The new provinces annexed to the kingdom were even exempted from the 1539 Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts. Paradoxically, French was spoken more in New France (especially in Canada and Acadia, less so in Louisiana), England, the Netherlands, and Moscow than France itself.

Meanwhile, at the signing of the Treaty of Rastadt in 1714, "official" French was used for the first time in the draft of an international legal document, and would remain the language of diplomacy until World War I (1914–1918). This aristocratic language was spoken in almost all the chanceries of Europe and was the language of diplomatic intercourse. It had dethroned Latin, even though Latin remained in common use. Historians say that German writers were incensed that some of their compatriots reserved French for "conversation" and spoke German "only to their horses," which recalls the words of Emperor Charles Quint (1500–1556): "I speak English to merchants, Italian to women, French to men, Spanish to God, and German to my horse." This may be a joke, but it speaks volumes about the linguistic ideology of the times.

The Age of Enlightenment (1715–1789)

Another transition period began upon the death of Louis XIV in 1715 and ended with the onset of the French Revolution in 1789. It was characterized on the one hand by a strong movement of questioning and a greater spirit of tolerance, and on the other hand by the weakening of the monarchy, and it ended with the loss of French supremacy in Europe and the beginning of English dominance elsewhere in the world. French society opened itself to foreign influences, especially from England, which had become the world superpower after the conquest of Canada in 1760 and the Treaty of Paris in 1763. English parliamentarism and liberalism attracted note as did the American War of Independence (1775–1782), perceived as France's revenge (after losing Canada) against Great Britain. French was in Europe what English is today throughout the world: the language of communication between peoples. The educated classes of Great Britain, for example, were generally bilingual (as were all the first governors of British North America in Canada), and many were among the leaders of the American Revolution (e.g., Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Governor Morris, James Monroe, and Robert R. Livingston, the most influential American ministers).

The French state was not yet concerned with making the kingdom French. The newly acquired provinces and overseas colonies (Canada, Louisiana, West Indies, etc.) required no special linguistic policy. Leaders were more concerned with religious unity and the absence of conflict; there was no actual need for the people to speak French.

It is estimated that fewer than 3 million people could speak and understand French at the time out of a total population of 25 million, or 12%. The people did not speak the "King's language," but rather a popular, non-standard form of French peppered with provincialisms and slang. Only the provinces of Île-de-France, Champagne, Beauce, Maine, Anjou, Touraine, and Berry were relatively French-speaking.

Most of the people who lived in Normandy, Lorraine, Poitou, and Burgundy, on the other hand, spoke half-patois. They practised a form of bilingualism, speaking "patois" (derived from Latin, like French) among themselves, but being able to understand French.

In southern France, the "patois" were the only languages used in the countryside throughout the 18th century. Even the aristocracy and middle classes, who had been introduced to French the previous century, continued to use their local "patois" in daily life. For them, French was the "Sunday language"—the language used at important religious or civil ceremonies. The only people who yet spoke French at the time were those who had power, i.e., the king and his court, jurists, armed forces officers, and those who could write and, because of the fact, lived in Paris. But the people in the Paris region still spoke the languages of Brie, Beauce, or Perche or a non-standard French very different from that of the court. And here's a curious fact: the language used in New France was Parisian French!

French did, however, make progress during the 18th century—notably in the langue d'oïl region—due, among other things, to the outstanding quality of France's road network at the time. The language benefited from this accessibility—factories attracted thousands of workers from the countryside to the cities, where they learned French; merchants and traders travelled easily from city to city, which brought their local dialects into closer alignment with French; and a peddler system developed that resulted in French books and newspapers periodically making their way to the furthest reaches of the countryside.

Paradoxically, schools remained the major obstacle to spreading French. The state and Church contended that educating the people was not only pointless, but also dangerous. Here's what a Provençal intendant had to say in 1782—a very revealing portrait of the general attitude toward schools:

Not only do the lower classes have no need of it, but I have always found that there is no point in the villages. A peasant who knows how to read and write will abandon agriculture without learning a trade, or to become a physician, which is a very big concern!

In the spirit of the times, it was deemed more practical to teach peasants how to get a greater yield from the land or handle a plow and file than to send them to school. For the Church, the desire to win souls to God created no need for French either. On the contrary, French was considered a barrier to spreading the faith—it was better to stick to the dialects people could understand. Sermons, instruction, confessions, exercises of all types, catechisms, and prayers had to be conducted or learned in patois. In colleges and universities, the Church stubbornly clung to Latin as the language of instruction, which was still the language that opened career doors in the 18th century. As such, it is little surprise that schools were the main reason people remained ignorant of French.

From the point of view of vocabulary, there was a veritable explosion of new words—notably learned, technical terms taken freely from Greek and Latin. There was also a surge of foreign influences in France. The language added Italian, Spanish, and German words, but nothing compared to the craze for all things English. Politics, institutions, fashion, cooking, business, and sport provided the largest contingent of anglicisms. Curiously, purists of the day only challenged provincialisms and vernacular words that entered French. They believed that language become tainted when it came into contact with the masses.

The French Revolution (1789–1870)

The period 1789–1870 was one of restlessness and regime change, but also marked a transition to contemporary French. It also marked the triumph of the middle classes, which now wielded power. Following the dictatorship of Napoleon, monarchical rule was restored, but on a constitutional basis. Then came the Second Republic, followed by another dictatorship headed by Napoleon III. The proclamation of the Third Republic in 1870 finally stabilized France.

During this period, Great Britain reigned supreme, not only in Europe, but also Asia, the Middle East, and North America. Elsewhere, the world saw the expansion of Russia; the independence of Belgium, Greece (from the Turks), Bulgaria, and Serbia; and the unification of both Italy and Germany. While North America was gaining its independence, Europe's great powers took possession of Africa.

The War on Dialects

On the eve of the Revolution, France was still the most populous country in Europe (26 million inhabitants) and one of the richest. But revolt was brewing. Peasants made up 80% of the population and paid the lion's share of royal taxes—plus tithes to the Church and seigniorial dues—while earning the lowest income. The middle class held almost all economic power, but was excluded from political power. Meanwhile, the nobility lived in idleness, and the Church owned 10% of the most profitable lands in the country.

It is hardly surprising then that popular revolts erupted, particularly seeing how long the middle classes had been preparing them. The people were the ones who seized the Bastille on July 14, 1789, executed Louis XVI, and for all intents and purposes made the Revolution, but it was the middle classes who seized power and imposed their form of language.

The revolutionary period stirred national sentiment, including with regard to language. For the first time, language was associated with nation. Language was a matter of state, for the state had to equip the "united and indivisible Republic" with a national language and raise the people up through education and knowledge of French. The very idea of a "united and indivisible Republic" whose motto was "Fraternité, Liberté, Egalité" (Fraternity, Freedom, Equality) was irreconcilable with linguistic fragmentation and differences between the former provinces of the monarchy. The revolutionary middle classes saw such fragmentation as an obstacle to the spread of their ideas, and declared war on the dialects. Bertrand Barère (1755–1841), a member of the Committee of Public Safety, led the fight for a national language. In a report "on the idioms" (regional dialects) he presented before the Convention on January 27, 1794, Barère stated his position thus:

The monarchy had reasons for clinging to the Tower of Babel. In a democracy, keeping citizens ignorant of the national language, unable to control power, is a betrayal of the motherland… In a free country, the language must be the same for one and all. […] What money we spent translating the laws of the first two national assemblies into France's various idioms! As though it were up to us to maintain these barbaric dialects and coarse idioms, which now serve only fanatics and counter-revolutionaries!

He was by no means alone in his thinking. One of the most famous members of the ruling class—Abbot Henri-Baptiste Grégoire (1750–1831)—published his famous Rapport sur la nécessité et les moyens d'anéantir les patois et d'universaliser l'usage de la langue française in 1794. He denounced the linguistic situation in the French republic, which, "with thirty different dialects," was still "a Tower of Babel" whereas "for liberty" it was "a leader among nations." At the Convention, he stated, "We no longer have provinces but rather thirty dialects that remind us of their names." With a certain dread, Abbot Grégoire revealed in his report that French was spoken "exclusively" in "about 15 departments" (out of 83). It seemed a paradox to him—and intolerable, to say the least—that fewer than 3 million out of 25 million French people spoke the national language, while this language was used and unified "even in Canada and along the Mississippi." On September 20, 1793, Abbot Grégoire stated the following to the Public Education Committee:

The local dialects, the patois of six million French people who do not speak the national language, will gradually disappear, because—and I can't say it often enough—it is more important politically to eradicate this diversity of coarse idioms, which prolong the infancy of reason and the age of prejudice.

The term language began to be used exclusively in reference to French, "our language." Everything that was not French was called a patois or feudal idiom, which for Grégoire was Breton, Norman, Picard, Provençal, Gascon, Basque, etc. He even spoke of "Corsican Italian" (Corsican) and German of the Upper and Lower Rhine (Alsatian), which he qualified as "much degenerated idioms." He further stated that "the Negroes in our colonies" spoke "a poor type of idiom" akin to "the Frankish tongue." No modern linguist could get away with statements like that today!

Linguistic Terror

Consequently, a need was felt to impose French via stringent decrees throughout France, something the English language never experienced. Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand (1754–1838), one of the great French politicians of the time, proposed that there be an elementary school for teaching French in each municipality:

The language of the Constitution and laws will be taught to everyone, and this host of tainted dialects—the last remains of the feudality—will be forced to disappear. Circumstances dictate it.

Then, the decree of 2 Thermidor (July 20, 1794) sanctioned linguistic terror. From this point on, local dialects were literally hunted down. This linguistic law, though it was repealed almost immediately because of Robespierre's execution (July 28, 1794), gives us a good idea of the revolutionary leaders' intentions:

Section 1

From the day this law is published, no public document may be written in any language other than French in any part of the Republic.

Section 2

One month following the publication of this law, no document may be registered if it is not written in French, even under private signet.

Section 3

Any civil servant, public official, or government agent who, following the publication of this law, records, writes, or draws up minutes, judgments, contracts, or any other documents in idioms or languages other than French shall be brought before the correctional police court in his place of residence, condemned to six months of imprisonment, and dismissed.

Section 4

The same sentence shall be imposed on all registration fee collectors who, from the month after publication of this law, register documents in idioms and languages other than French, even under private signet.

But "linguistic terror" did not succeed in destroying the "dialectal Tower of Babel." Not only did the population resist, but the secularization of ecclesiastical institutions led to the disappearance of most schools, which the state did not have the means to replace. Small village schools found it impossible to teach French given the lack of funds and teachers.

Even in Paris, public schools were not up to the task, or scarcely so, given the lack of teachers (on account of low salaries, appalling recruitment practices, lack of training, etc.). In schools that did manage to operate, local officials preferred translating French into patois or dialects. A sense of realism and a desire for efficiency led to the continuation of this system of translation throughout the Revolution, even under the Terror. In short, contrary to most perceptions, the language policy of the Revolution was neither consistent nor uniform, and was not always repressive of regional languages.

Academic Conservatism under Napoleon (1799–1815)

Through his coup d'état of 18 Brumaire in the year VIII (November 9, 1799), Napoleon Bonaparte sought to put an end to anarchy and economic chaos. His first concern was restoring order and authority. He succeeded in creating a dictatorship while rectifying the financial situation, stimulating industry, and improving communications. But the French emperor's march toward Europe domination kept the country in a state of permanent war until his defeat at Waterloo (1815).

Napoleon was a Corsican of the lower nobility and took a conservative approach to language. A native speaker of Corsican (an Italian language), he put an end to all efforts aimed at promoting French. For the sake of economy, he left schools to the Church, which re-established its anachronistic Latin. Several initiatives were taken to promote the teaching of French, but the overall picture remained grim. There still weren't enough schools, and the lack of qualified teachers hindered the teaching of French. Overall, the use of French in schools actually declined. In southern France, for example, there were more teachers of Latin than French!

As during the Grand Siècle, the state created a number of conservative-minded organizations to keep watch over the language. This signalled a return to Louis XIV classicism. French had to be cast permanently in stone. Simplicity and distinction were once more the order of the day. The language of science was held in suspicion and incurred the wrath of purists, while technical vocabulary was deemed common. Suspended for a time on account of the Revolution, the Académie française was re-established and Napoleon had academicians dress in flamboyant garb like that of his generals.

Such conditions obviously prevented the language from evolving quickly. Apart from vocabulary, not many linguistic changes occurred during this time. The Napoleonic wars increased contact with foreign armies, which led to a certain number of English borrowings. Outside France, Napoleon's imperial conquests succeeded in discrediting French in all the courts of Europe, and foreign nations everywhere asserted their nationalism. It could even be said that the Napoleonic wars promoted the expansion of English because they gave rise to anti-French nationalism. However, French did continue to be used in the court of the Russian czar, all peace treaties, and the realm of science. France lost two important possessions in North America: Santo Domingo (Haiti) and, more significantly, Louisiana, a vast territory covering present-day Arkansas, Dakota, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, and Oklahoma that Napoleon sold to the United States for $15 million in 1803. France itself also shrank with the loss of Wallonia, Lorraine, and Alsace.

In language, the state's actions reflected the contradictory forces at work at the time. The creation of a national elementary education system (non-mandatory) in 1830 was a liberal idea, because it applied to everyone and called for the use of manuals in French (and no longer in Latin). In contrast, the curriculum remained essentially conservative, because all teaching of French was based on the orthography of the Académie française and the grammar codified by François Noël (General Inspector of the University) and Jean-Pierre Chapsal (professor of general grammar), or the famous Grammaire française [French Grammar]published in 1823 and adopted by the Royal Council of Public Education. The full title of the work was revealing: Nouvelle Grammaire française sur un plan très méthodique, avec de nombreux exercices d'orthographe, de syntaxe et de ponctuation, tirés de nos meilleurs auteurs, et distribués dans l'ordre des règles [A Structured French Grammar, with numerous writing, syntax, and punctuation exercises taken from our best authors and presented in the order of the rules]. Eighty editions of this grammar came out in France up to 1889, as well as several editions and reprints in Montreal (éditions J. B. Rolland) and an American translation in Philadelphia in 1878. All French-speaking children throughout the world learned a host of capricious usages entrenched in rules that did not take into account possible fluctuations in the everyday language and whose many overnice exceptions formed the basis of grammar teaching. "Proper orthography" became a mark of class or social distinction. Naturally, middle class children did better than working class children, who were less willing to base pronunciations on spellings.

The numerous reforms aimed at simplifying spelling failed one after the other. Standard modern French gradually became established around 1850. The pronunciation of the Parisian middle class spread throughout France with the help of centralization and the development of communications (railroad, newspapers).

Vocabulary Enrichment

This unsettled period divided between conservatism and liberalism continued even after the revolution of 1848 and proclamation of the Second Republic, which was notable for the ascendancy of the most conservative elements of the middle class. Given the government's inability to maintain social peace, the president of the Republic—Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon's nephew—planned and pulled off a coup d'état in 1851 and was appointed French emperor the same year under the name Napoleon III. This marked the beginning of the Second Empire. Presenting himself as the champion of universal suffrage and the protector of the working class and religion, Napoleon III quickly turned into a veritable dictator. He suppressed freedom of the press, banned political opponents, and engaged in an aggressive foreign policy, provoking revolt everywhere. Drawn into a war with Prussia, he was taken prisoner in Sedan in 1870 and was forced to abdicate as enemy forces marched on Paris, which capitulated in 1871. This was the end of the Second Empire and the beginning of the Third Republic, which finally stabilized France.

From a linguistic point of view, the last decades in particular helped enrich French vocabulary. The intellectual oppression of the Second Empire stirred the ideological fires of the opposition movements. Liberal, socialist, communist and even anarchical vocabulary spread among the working class. Practical applications of discoveries in natural sciences, physics, chemistry, and medicine introduced many new words needed by all. New sciences appeared, along with their vocabularies: archeology, paleontology, ethnography, zoology, linguistics, etc. Popular literature, newspapers, magazines, and advertising—a new invention—spread neologisms everywhere. Maximilien-Paul-émile Littré (1801–1881) and Pierre Larousse (1817–1875) each recorded these new words in their dictionary. At the end of the Second Empire, French was everywhere in France. Although linguistic unity had not yet been fully achieved (except in Canada), it was irreversible and imminent. Significantly, speakers of patois saw their local dialects invaded by modern French words.

Contemporary French

By the late 19th century, French was approximately as we know it today. Vocabulary continued to grow with the parliamentarism of the Third Republic (1870–1940) and the creation of political parties, unions, big business and finance, the renaissance of sports, and improvements in the means of transportation (the invention of the airplane, automobile, bus, and electric streetcar). Masses of English words from across the Channel entered French. But the linguistic unity preached during the French Revolution was still far from a reality, at least in France. It would take several decades of efforts in schools to make the "idioms" spoken by the French disappear. Then World War I threw men together from all over France and the colonies. Never before had populations mixed to such an extent, which did much to foster linguistic uniformity.

The Role of Public Education

In 1863, there were still 7.5 million people in France, or almost 20% of the total population of 38 million, who did not speak the "national language." According to historical accounts, children in provincial villages retained hardly any French learned in school, which "made as big an impression as Latin did on most college graduates." Students went back to speaking the "home dialect." A letter written by prefects in Côtes-du-Nord and Finistère in 1831 to public education minister M. de Montalivet contains an unequivocal passage whose views might seem rather radical today:

All means possible must be used to weaken and debase Breton to the point that it is no longer understood from one community to the next […], which will thus require peasants to learn French out of a necessity to communicate. The Breton language must absolutely be destroyed.

France began what is now called its "cultural genocide" in all regions, especially in Brittany. With the adoption of the Ferry Law (1881), which made school mandatory and free, French was finally imposed throughout the country. The dialects had a hard time withstanding the repression, guilt, denunciation, and espionage that would brand generations of children.

At the turn of the century, with French not progressing as quickly as the French ministry of national education would have liked, the authorities strongly suggested hiring teachers who did not speak the local dialects. To get and hold public jobs, everyone complied. "Proper orthography" became a mark of class or social distinction. Obviously, middle class children were more successful than working class children, who were less willing to base pronunciations on spellings. Throughout the 20th century and up to the 1960s, French governments adopted no fewer than 40 laws on education, the press, administration, and spelling. This policy was applied in all French-speaking Africa. Obviously, all other French-speaking countries had to follow suit, notably with regard to spelling!

In France, anti-dialect views still ran deep among political leaders. In 1972, for example, then French president Georges Pompidou declared, "There is no place for regional languages and culture in a France that must leave its mark on Europe." The situation has not changed much since; during the debates on the Treaty of Maastricht, Robert Pandraud (a deputy and former minister) declared on May 13, 1992,

I pay tribute to the Republic's secular schools, which have often imposed French with considerable authority—something that was necessary—in the face of all the forces of social and even religious obscurantism that existed at the time. I am equally delighted that television has been a unifying force for language. It is time for us to become French through our language. If we need to teach our children another language, let us not waste their time with dialects they will only ever speak in their village. Let us teach them an international language as early on as possible.

But this was no longer the 1950s—it was the 1990s! An examination of language legislation in France shows that the country adopted an impressive number of laws on regional cultures and languages, territorial communities, and the French language. There are at least a dozen laws, some 20 decrees, over 40 orders (including some 20 on terminology), and as many memorandums. Most of these legal texts—including the law of August 4, 1994, regarding the use of the French language, also known as the Toubon law—deal mainly with the language of instruction and French terminology. This means that French legislation deals less with linguistic rights than the promotion of the official French language, perpetuating an old tradition of paying no heed to regional languages. Down through the years, Canada has clearly had to fall in line with French linguistic policy. With no regional dialects to contend with, the French Canadian elite condemned varieties too removed from the French of France, notably joual.

The Coexistence of Usages

Nevertheless a new trend has emerged, that of tolerating the coexistence of French standards and usages. Although the number of French speakers and countries interested in French has never been greater, no one appears to wield any kind of traditional authority over the language anymore. The Académie française has lost much of its credibility and seems like a throwback to another era. One need only think of its aborted spelling reform and its controversial position on the feminization of titles. Today, the new "masters" of the language are more the media and advertisers, whose influence is much greater than that of academicians and terminologists. Standards now change as trends come and go.

In each region of the world where French is spoken, awareness of the language as an instrument of national identity has also grown. The Walloons, French-speaking Swiss, French-speaking Canadians, Maghrebians, Senegalese, Ivorians, West Indians, and others do not want to speak exactly as the French in France do. Each country tends to cultivate its own local standard, that is to say a variety of French that preserves a certain number of original features. While contemporary French speakers are more concerned than they have ever been about their shared linguistic heritage, they are no longer haunted by questions of "purity," "distinction," and "quality." Spontaneity and functionality matter more, and do not put communication in danger.

The Influence of English in Science

Up until the 20th century, French had never borrowed English words in massive doses—on the contrary. The influx of English words is a recent phenomenon in the history of French. It could even be said that English had an insignificant influence up to the 17th century: 8 words in the 12th century, 2 in the 13th century, 11 in the 14th century, 6 in the 15th century, 14 in the 16th century, then 67 in the 17th century, 135 in the 18th century, 377 in the 19th century, and 2,150 in the 20th century. All borrowings prior to the 18th century were integrated into French such that they are no longer perceived as English words: est (< east), nord (< north), ouest (< west), sud (< south), paletot (< paltock), rade (< road), contredanse (< country dance), pingouin (< penguin), paquebot (< packet boat), comité (< committee), boulingrin (< bowling green), interlope (< interloper), rosbif (< roast beef), etc. Beginning in the mid-20th century, the United States took over from Great Britain and inundated French with words from the movies, industry, business, sports, the oil industry, computer science, and pretty much every field of science and American technology. However, modern history can attest to the fact that these English borrowings have now become part of the language.

In 1965, French linguist Pierre Guiraud counted 700 English words that had entered French since the end of World War I. Besides the fact that his count was certainly lower than the actual total, the number of English words borrowed since that time has multiplied—to at least 2,500. However, unlike with Italian, this Anglo-American influx is still too recent for us to be able to predict what will remain in fifty or a hundred years. As we know, most borrowings from any given period disappear in the decades following their adoption. In any event, it is certain that English will have quite an influence on the history of French—as French did on English—and that of many other languages.

Canadian French

What is known as Canadian French is a French that strays somewhat from standard French because of its archaistic phonetics and unique lexical contribution (Canadianisms and anglicisms). The French spoken in Canada is marked by its origins. It is the language of 18th century northern France, still relatively archaistic phonetically speaking and slightly different in vocabulary with its great number of words of regional (Normandy, Saintonge, Poitou, etc.), Canadian, British, and Anglo-American origin. But it can no longer be said—as French travellers reported in the 19th century—that it is the language spoken by the "contemporaries of the Marquis de Montcalm" and that, in the words of Lord Durham, French-speaking Canadians have remained "an old and backward society in a new and progressive world." Generally speaking, Canadian French is still a "regional variant of French," like the language of the Walloons in Belgium and the French-speaking Swiss. Not only does this regionalized Canadian French feature common and popular words, anglicisms, and criticized usages, but also its own standard called standard Canadian French or sometimes standard Quebec French, which French-speaking Canadians in other provinces often use as a model for their oral and written language. Although French-speaking Canadians have stopped thinking of their French as "unintelligible jargon," it is still stigmatized by many of them. Nevertheless, the French spoken in Canada—notably in Quebec—has become considerably closer to so-called international French despite the path it has taken. The time has passed when, as French linguist Antoine Meillet wrote in 1918, French-speaking Canadians "do not contribute to French culture because they have cut themselves off from it."

However, Canadian French features a special variety used in the Maritimes—Acadian French—much like Canadian English has Newfoundland English. While many of the French who immigrated to the St. Lawrence River Valley in Canada in the 18th century came from northern France (Normandy, Perche, Île-de-France, Brittany, Champagne, Picardy, Anjou, Maine, Touraine, etc.), most who settled in Acadia came from western France (Poitou, Aunis, and Saintonge). But the linguistic variants noted in Acadia are not provincially uniform. In reality, there is no single variety of Acadian in the Maritimes, but rather several. For example, the Acadian of southeastern New Brunswick seems more typical than the language spoken in the northwest and northeast. More than anywhere else in Acadia, switching to and borrowing from English are more frequent in Acadian communities in southeastern New Brunswick. Generally speaking, Franco-Quebec linguistic influences have begun to affect the vitality of Acadianisms in certain regions. This phenomenon can also be observed in Canadian English, which is increasingly aligning itself with the English spoken in Ontario.

Much is said about anglicisms used in Canadian French, notably in New Brunswick and Ontario, where French is in daily contact with English. After the British Conquest of 1763, it could be said that a gap—and even a gulf—developed between the French of Lower Canada (Quebec) and the French of France. This gap grew in the century following the Conquest to the point where anglicisms created a veritable gulf between two varieties of French. However, this trend now seems halted for good and the two varieties are once again gaining in similarity. While considered "charming" with its "delightful accent," "Canadian" French is often perceived by the French as a little "exotic," but not bad. Francophone Canadians often view it as ranging from "proper" to "bad," but it is a language with which they no doubt identify. Increased education is surely one of the major reasons French has standardized in Canada, but not the only one. The development of the electronic media and international communications has also helped shrink the gap between the French of Canada and France. State control—especially in Quebec and federal Canada, but also New Brunswick and Ontario—must also be taken into account in the development of the collective identity and economic progress of French speakers in industry and business.

French and English: "Old Travelling Companions"

As French lexicologist Henriette Walter said, English is French's "old travelling companion." In fact, relations between English and French have been "intimate" for nine centuries; exchanges between the two languages, which first favoured French, now favour English. Between the 11th and 18th centuries, English borrowed thousands of words from French to that point that 50% to 60% of English vocabulary is of French and Latin origin. However, the process started reversing itself in the mid-18th century, and English words became fodder for French. Since the mid-20th century, the trend has accelerated, with the United States being the source this time. In other words, French and English have always been "mutual traders."

In current French dictionaries, over 2,500 words are identified as English borrowings. This number could be considerably greater in specialized lexicons. The development of technology and the domination of American English in science and technology today are signs that English has gained global supremacy and become the lingua franca of the modern world, or the vehicular language of international communication in business, culture, science, technology, and diplomacy (politics).

A number of reasons can explain this massive influx of English terms into French, which is more than just a fad like Italian in the 16th century. There is, of course, American culture, which holds considerable appeal for French speakers and brings with it the words that convey that culture. However, certain linguistic causes cannot be ignored.

We know that English is a Germanic language (like German and Dutch), while French is a Romance language (like Spanish and Italian). We also know that English became highly Romanized in its vocabulary due to the influence of French, and that French was relatively Germanized by Frankish during the Romanic period, which explains in part certain surprising resemblances between English and French. Like French, English has also always drawn extensively from Latin and Greek for words it has needed. Today, it is evident that a very large percentage of English scientific and technical vocabulary is of Greek/Latin origin, which facilitates borrowings into French, given its natural affinities with Greek and Latin.

French lexicologists Henriette Walter and Gérard Walter have produced a detailed analysis of 70,000 words taken from the dictionaries Le Petit Larousse and Le Petit Robert. From this number, they noted 8,088 borrowings from foreign languages, or 11% of the corpus. In all, over 120 languages have contributed to French, but not all equally. The number of words borrowed from English (2,527) and Italian (1,077) bears no comparison to the number borrowed from Swahili (2), Korean (2), and Iranian (1). This is because borrowings reflect the amount of contact people have had with one another throughout history. With regard to French, the facts show that there has been more contact with English, Italian, Old Germanic (or Frankish), Arabian, German, and Spanish. All the peoples who spoke these languages were immediate neighbours—and often adversaries—of the French. Geographic proximity and military conflicts have therefore played a decisive role.

Contemporary French is the result of a divergent evolution. On the one hand, the orthography, basic syntax, and morphology have hardly changed in two centuries, probably because users have felt no need to make changes. On the other hand, phonetics and vocabulary have undergone profound change. While phonological differences have tended to become smaller since the beginning of the century, vocabulary has become increasingly complex.

Unlike in past centuries, French is no longer the exclusive domain of the upper classes in countries where French is a mother tongue (France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Canada). All levels of society now express themselves in the same language and with the required degree of fluency. This phenomenon may become more acute even as certain varieties of French continue on and develop. When linguistic unity is attained, uniformity no longer requires painstaking attention. However, now that French is more vibrant than ever as a mother tongue, it must meet the challenge of raising its status as a second language on a global scale and cope with foreign competition, mainly from English, its "old travelling companion." In conclusion, we can assert that Canada's two official languages have similarities inherited from the shared history of France and Great Britain.