A brief history of the French language

A language can evolve over the course of history to the point that one is no longer able to understand the first written traces of it. – Ferdinand Brunot, historian.

French, like all of the world’s languages, has undergone dramatic changes over time: from the Middle Ages to the advent of printing, through the Renaissance and the French Revolution, French’s linguistic heritage has constantly evolved, adapted and borrowed. 

For those beginning their French learning journey today, the language is a distant cousin of what it once was. So where does the French language as we know it today really come from?

Let’s look at the heritage of the French language through the lens of Jean Pruvost’s book, L’histoire de la langue française (The history of the French language), published in 2020.

From Indo-European to Arabic influences: plenty has been borrowed along the way

French is primarily a mixture of three languages: Celtic (spoken notably by the Gauls), Latin (spoken by the Romans) and Germanic languages. Surprisingly, French also claims some Asian ancestry. Moving at times both east and west, the Indo-European world shifted, creating languages (Celtic, Germanic, Romance, etc.) which have differentiated themselves over the centuries. By studying these languages, linguists have been able to identify similarities between French and certain Indo-European languages, such as Russian and Persian. It was not until the 17th century that it became clear that French and most European languages can be traced back to Sanskrit, an ancient language originating in India.

Here is a brief presentation of the French language’s influences, including some of the terms it has lent and borrowed.

Gaulish

Let’s start with France’s famous ancestors, the Gauls. The French language still contains more than a hundred Gallic words, such as cailloux, galets, dune, tonneau, and chemin. Due to the lack of written records by its 15 million speakers at the time, Gaulish was weakened by the arrival of more literate colonizers, i.e. the Romans. With Latin dominating administrative and commercial matters, Gaulish eventually faded.

Latin and Greek

In the second century B.C.E., Rome was seeking cultural unity within its empire. Classical Latin was passed on to each region’s ruling classes, who gradually moved away from the local language, creating a gap between populations.

“A language cannot be prevented from evolving, sometimes quite rapidly when those who speak it the most do not write it: the language then becomes mobile and diverse, sometimes creative, sometimes esoteric, or even hermetic, hence the desire for standardization on the part of those responsible for taking charge of a community.”

The French language was therefore strongly influenced by Latin, to the detriment of Gaulish. From the verb orare, we still use the terms orateur, oratoire, oraison; the verb manducare was later used to create manger; from hospitalem came hôtel. The Latin roots of French are innumerable and particularly recognizable when looking at its linguistic cousins such as Italian, Portuguese and Spanish.

We should also recognize the major influence of Greek on the language’s evolution – as a matter of fact, about 10% of French words used today are of Greek origin. In computer science, botany, philosophy and medicine, the use of Greek roots is omnipresent; many French words have a Greek prefix or suffix (-age, phobie, pole, etc.). Moreover, Greek roots have been the source of numerous neologisms (téléphone, glyphosate, gyropode, etc.).

Germanic languages and the Vikings

In the 5th century, the arrival of the Franks and the appearance of Germanic languages introduced nearly a thousand new words into French, often terms related to the description of warlike exploits such as galoperépier and hache (gallop, to spy, axe). The vocabulary for food and celebrations was also enriched with, loge, salle, gâteau, flan and of course, gaufre (waffle).

The conquests of the Normans in France also enriched the lexicon, bringing with them vaguecrique and hune (wave, creek, topmast).

The global influence of the French language, thanks to French words incorporated in English, owes a great deal to the Vikings.

Luc de Williencourt, former First Counselor of France in Denmark.

Hebrew and Arabic

The French language has also been enriched with about a hundred words borrowed from various versions of the Bible, such as brouhahaamen and émissaire

After English and Italian, French has borrowed the most from Arabic, a language semantically related to Hebrew. Among about 500 Arabic words, we find scholarly words (alchimie, algèbre, zénith) and terms relating to flora and fauna (gazelle, girafe, albatros). Even today, spoken French still displays a fondness for words of Arabic origin, such as bled, méchouitoubib and kiffer (village, spit-roasted sheep, doctor, to get a kick out of something).

From the Renaissance to the Revolution, two centuries of profound change

“In the 16th century, word order (subject, verb, complement) became decisive: declensions thus gradually became unnecessary. Academic subjects were still taught in Latin, but writers wanted French to take on the dimensions of a great literary language.”

On 10 August 1539, Francis I signed an ordinance at Villers-Cotterêts which was to apply to the entire kingdom; it required, among other things, that all documents be drawn up in French. This movement was led by a group of French Renaissance poets (known as La Pléiade), such as Ronsard and Du Bellay, who took up the “defense of the French language” and in turn invented a series of words to enrich it.

From the 17th century onwards, French became standardized. In literary salons, authors known as Les Précieuses tried to escape what they perceived as the coarse language of the times, by advocating “preciousness” (extreme refinement in the arts and language). This involved avoiding common, “working-class words”, and trade terms, thereby creating a distinction between common and noble words, which the French language suffered from until the 19th century. A plethora of new words and neologisms evolved, as did a more roundabout way of speaking, including metaphors. This “preciousness” contributed to the birth of literary style, strongly criticized by Molière in his play Les Précieuses Ridicules.

It was precisely during this period that Italian came to the fore: in the eyes of the French poets, Italian was “fascinating”: speaking Italian was desirable, being inspired by its words, even better. In total, more than two thousand words were borrowed from the language of Dante, particularly those related to the vocabulary of the sea, fashion and music (concert, veste, opéra, etc.).

One of the most significant events in the history of the French language, the creation of the Académie Française in 1635, transformed the language into a veritable affair of state. From this creation emerged the Dictionnaire de l’Academie, whose aim was to stabilize the meaning of words, and the Grammaire Générale et Raisonné, a work in which grammar is presented as a product of human reasoning, and therefore universal. With a recognized language community, the need to apply rules to words became more important than ever.

After a period of profound reforms during the French Revolution, intellectuals realized that only a quarter of the population spoke “official” French, and that patois and dialects were the norm outside big cities. The National Convention (the French political regime from 1792 to 1795) launched a rigorous offensive to promote the existence of a national language, and as a result, the use of patois became increasingly rare.

The Romantic movement: French for the people

The 19th century brought scientific discoveries and industrial revolutions. A new lexicon was born, particularly in the fields of transport (tramway, wagon, tunnel, rail) and medicine (homéopathie, analgésique, etc.).

The Romantic period brought hostility towards the constraints of classical language. Alongside Victor Hugo, writers in this literary movement defended the right to individualism, allowing the language to be partially liberated, as was the case in Notre Dame de Paris. The roman (novel) contrasted with classical literary style, adopting colorful language with a rich vocabulary, with no distinction between common and noble terms. It attempted to free the language from the rigid framework imposed by classicism. “Je mis un bonnet rouge au vieux dictionnaire.”” said Victor Hugo (“I put a red cap on the old dictionary” – the red cap symbolizing the French Revolution, and the breaking down of social distinctions).

It was also at this time that education developed, favoring the dissemination of the French language, particularly from 1882 onwards, when school became free and compulsory for 6 to 13-year-old children.

French in the 20th and 21st centuries

Two world wars, the meteoric rise of new technologies, internationalization: the last two centuries have seen tremendous political, economic, societal and linguistic change.

The development of the media, especially radio and cinema, and more particularly radio and television advertising, created the conditions for a more spontaneous, less compartmentalized French to become widespread. The press along with figures in the literary world such as Queneau and Valéry favored lexical creativity and, more broadly, the liberation of the written form.

In the mid-20th century, the French language was subjected to strong Anglo-American influences; the technological advances of the electronic age gave rise to a new lexicon to designate products that came from the United States. Numerous words were absorbed from the automotive world (tanker, jeep, scooter), to the world of entertainment and information (hit-parade, star, show, live), more recently new technologies (smartphone, playlist) and the corporate world (business, brainstorming, manager, scalable). Traditionalist defenders of the French language have been outraged by this “invasion” of foreign words.

The Haut Comité pour la défense et l’expansion de la langue française (High Committee for the Defense and Expansion of the French Language) (1966), the Bas-Lauriol Law (1975) and the Toubon Law (1994) are among the multitude of structures that have been created to protect the French language, by imposing the use of French in daily life in an attempt to stem the spread of Anglicisms.

Linguistically speaking, major influences in the new millennium have been the rap world (including the birth of verlan, in which words and syllables are inverted), and a desire to simplify language (for example, the recent spelling reform) and to make the language less gendered (with feminine versions of job titles, and more recently the debate on inclusive writing).

“A word can seem ugly to us because we are not used to hearing it. As soon as it reaches a certain frequency of use, we totally forget what seemed to shock us when we first heard it.”

The French are keenly attuned to the history of their language. Far from being impoverished, it has been stimulated and enriched by the influence of foreign words and concepts and is more widely shared in a French-speaking world because of it. One can argue that the French language has never been in better shape, and its horizons are unlimited.



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2 thoughts on “A brief history of the French language

  1. Elizabeth Devlin Couvert

    A great overview of the evolution of the French language! There is a small correction to be made at the end of the section “The Romantic movement: French for the people” …when school became free and compulsory from the age of SIX YEARS UP TO THIRTEEN YEARS OLD.
    Keep up the excellent work Gymglish!

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