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The Roots of the French Language

By Maria, published on 23/10/2019 Blog > Languages > French > The History of the French Language

Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.

Before diving into the French language you might be interested to know a little bit about the language spoken by over 275 million people around the globe.

The French language is part of the Romance branch of languages. Italian, Romanian, Spanish, and Portuguese are the other languages that make up the romance languages. This branch originates from Latin.

Early homo sapiens developed the mother language and as the homo sapiens moved across continents, the languages of their decedents began to diverge. These diversions eventually became the thousands of language forms we hear spoken today.

Linguistics organize all languages by grouping them depending on what they originated from. If you trace back Latin, it is actually part of the Indo European languages that also include Anatolian, Celtic, Romance, Germanic, Slavonic, Iranian, Indic, and Greek languages.

These are the languages we know to be most common in European, American and West Asian countries.

Other languages form part of Sino-Tibetan, Niger-Congo, and Austronesian languages, among other language families.

In order to truly understand a foreign language it is important to see how that language evolved, it might even give you insight on why the language is structured a certain way or why it may have similar words to your native language.

As you get into high school level French courses, you will see how similar English and French can be.

Boost your language skills by looking at the past!

Evolution of the French Language

The first evidence of French, as a distinguishable language, came from the Oaths of Strasbourg. It is said that this was the first document to use the Latin dialect that would eventually become known as French.

From then on, spoken French evolved and moved through different periods, where parts of history molded the language to become what it is today.

roman empire The basis of the French language can be dated back to the Roman Empire. (Photo by Sarah Shaffer on Unsplash)

The evolution of the French language can be divided into six main stages:

  1. Gallo Romance – Between the 5th and 8th centuries, the Vulgar Latin spoken by the common folk in the ancient region of Gaul became more and more distinctive. The native language of the people of Gaul would eventually be differentiated from the Latin spoken in the other parts of the Roman Empire and become the basis for the French language.
  2. Old FrenchLangue d’orc and langue d’oil originated from the Southern and Northern regions of France began to take more form as distinctive dialects. The dialects developed grammatical differences as well as different words and phrases.
  3. Middle French – In the 14th-15th centuries writers began to spread the dialect of Île de France. This dialect was widely promoted by French literature. On its road to becoming the standard, the public administration began to use French more consistently through official documents and government papers.
  4. Early Modern French – In 1539, the French King at the time, François I declared by a royal decree that French was to be the official language of the land. Since this declaration, the government has always had a role in the standardization of the language. With the help of the decree and the standardization of French, the dialect of the Île de France would become the most widely spoken version of French.
  5. Classical Modern French – During the 17th-18th centuries, the French language became more conventional as the grammar was fixed and institutionalized. During this age of exploration and colonization of the Americas, French was dispersed to Canada, Louisiana, and the Caribbean.  The French-speaking world grew as French colonies where established.
  6. Contemporary Modern French – this era began in the 19th century and continues till today.  Due to French colonialism, the number of French speakers around the world grew exponentially. Through its expansionism, French was established as an official language in most French and Belgian colonies in Africa helping it become an international language.

As you can see it was time, decrees, and colonization that have made “old French” became current French!

Learning the basics of the history of the French language and culture is an essential part of the early French classes you might take.

Dialects of the French Language

Like most languages, French also has multiple dialects. A dialect  is a “form of a language that is specific to a particular region or group.” The standard for the French language comes from the dialect go the Île de France, the region that includes the French capital.

This became the standard in 1539 where this dialect was declared the official language of the French country and government.

paris The French dialect of the Île de France, which includes Paris, became the correct form of French because it was seen as a dialect of the elite. (Photo by Rodrigo Kugnharski on Unsplash)

The dialects of the French language can be broken down into five main groups, usually based on regions. Some of these different forms of French have been able to survive through mostly rural speech, while others are the official dialects of whole countries. For example, Walloon French is spoken in Belgium.

These are the 5 French dialects and which regions and cities they belong to:

  • Central: Francien, Orléanais, Bourbonnais, Champenois
  • Northern:  Picard, Northern Norman, Walloon
  • Eastern: Lorrain, Bourguignon (Burgundian), Franc-Comtois
  • Western: Norman, Gallo, Angel, Maine
  • Southwestern: Poitevin, Saintongeais, Angoumois

The above dialects are specific to different regions of France and Belgium but in the Americas, there are also several dialects of French spoken outside of the European region. The French language in Canada, know as Québécois, is a dialect originating from the northwestern region of France.

Canadian French, due to its closeness to Anglophones, and isolation from France, has developed multiple individual features. Apart from France, these other French-speaking countries tend to have high levels of bilingualism in their populations.

The French language spoken in the Caribbean is more of a creole language than a dialect, but it is still highlighting influenced by its French origins. A creole language is a stable natural language developed from a mixture of different languages. Haitian creole is one of the most distinctive of the mixtures, as it mixes English and French with traditional African languages.

The vast reach of French languages is one of the reasons a lot of people decide to take up French language courses.

Standardization of the French Language

What we know now as standard French grew out of the French spoken in the northern regions of France. This region included the Île de France and within it Paris.

With the help of the king and his court, this northern dialect became increasingly distinguishable from the other Latin languages and associated with the high class of France. As the crown’s power extended over the French kingdom in the 13th century, so did the royal language.

the french king promoted French Promoted by the king, French became the official language of France in 1539. (Photo by Pro Church Media on Unsplash)

The dialect of the north or the langue d’oil became further identified with the French national identity due to the centralized nature of French society. This made the Parisian dialect to be sought out as the “correct” French. The prestige of the Paris region was due to its success in the economic, political, and social fields.

The Parisian dialect began to displace Latin in government, then education, and eventually in literature.

As the dialect became more popular and even more associated with the prestige of the high class, the imitation of the dialect began to grow in other regions of France.

Through this imitation also came to the codification of the language, it was important that the “correct usage” of the terms was spoken by the elite. By the 16th century, scholars and the royal came together to create formal codification of the language.

The standardization of the French language became even more centralized by the creation of the Académie Française. The Académie is the “is the pre-eminent French council for matters pertaining to the French language.”

The standardization of the French language also makes it an easy language to learn because it has distinctive grammar rules and phonology.

If this has interested you to learn French then make sure to check out French revision guides and tips on learning to speak French like true francophone.

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