The area that constitutes France today was originally occupied by a group of Celtic people called the Gauls. A few words in Modern French have a Gaulish origin, among which chêne (oak tree), boue (mud) or ruche (hive), as well as many names of towns and places. Also, if you have ever wondered why “eighty” in French is said quatre-vingt (literally “four-times-twenty”), well, that is because of the Gaulish language! Indeed, the Gauls (and the Celts in general) used to use 20 as a basis in their numerical system, which is why that number was as important for them as “hundred” and “thousand” are for us today.

Around 50 BCE, Gaul was invaded by the Roman armies under the commandment of Julius Caesar – a period of French history that you certainly know if you followed the adventures of Asterix, the famous comic by Gosciny and Sempé. Under the Roman occupation, the Latin language started to develop in Gaul.

Photo opposite: Vercingetorix Memorial in Alesia - Vercingetorix was a Gaulish chief that united the Gauls in a revolt against Roman forces during the last phase of Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars. At the Battle of Alesia, the Romans besieged and defeated his forces and captured him. He was held prisoner for five years and killed by strangulation on Caesar's orders. (source: Wikipedia)

Photo below: Detail of a map of the Roman Empire in the 2nd Century CE (source: Wikipedia)

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When the Romans conquered the Gaul, they naturally imported their language and alphabet. The Gauls, especially the most educated ones, progressively learnt, used and replaced the Gaulish language with Latin, and after several hundred years the Gaulish language eventually disappeared during the 3rd century CE.

At the beginning of the 4th century, when Emperor Constantine declared Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire (in the year 312), Latin, which was the language of the Church, definitely supplanted Gaulish at all levels of the Gaulish society. However, the Latin language used by people for everyday life was quite different from the very formal Latin used by the Church - a difference that actually increased over time. Indeed, spoken “vulgar latin” became more and more different from the written “classical latin” still found in literary, scientific, religious, philosophical and administrative texts. Eventually, that difference was amplified when spoken Latin in Gaul received the influence of German languages, due to the Germanic invasion of Gaul during the 5th century by the Germanic people called the Franks.

Photo opposite: Mosaic of Emperor Constantine at Hagia Sophia (source: Wikipedia)

Photo below: Detail of a Bible in Latin (source: Wikipedia)

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The progressive collapse of the Roman Empire led to many invasions and movements of population in Europe. It is in that context that the Frankish invaded the north of the Roman Gaul, except Britany, and that Clovis, king of the Frankish, founded the Merovingian dynasty and converted to Christianity. Frankish is a German language ; it remained the language used by the elite until the 10th century - people were actually often bilingual. Frankish progressively disappeared as vulgar Latin continued to develop, but the former influenced the latter.

In modern French, about 400 words still exist that have a Frankish origin, especially in the lexis of nobility with words such as baron and marquis, daily life with words such as crapaud (toad) and jardin (garden), and colours with words such as blanc (white), bleu (blue) and gris (grey). Frankish also influenced the pronunciation of the time. For instance, have you ever wondered why the liaison in French is sometimes possible with words starting with H and sometimes not? All the words starting with H with which the liaison is not possible are actually words that have a Germanic origin (and often close to the English, such as hâte [haste]), whereas the others usually have a Latin origin.

From the 8th century, the name Francia (Kingdom of the Frankish) started replacing the name Gallia (Gaul).

Photo opposite: Saint Remy and Clovis I (source: Wikipedia)

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The origin of the French language


Languages were not born overnight but they evolved over time. The French language is the result of the evolution of vulgar Latin, influenced by both Celtic and Germanic languages, via Gaulish and Frankish. It is hard to determine the exact date when French became a language on its own, separated from Latin. However, two dates are important that are considered as the date of the birth of the French language. The first date is 813, during the Council of Tours (organised by Charlemagne), when bishops agreed that classical Latin had become completely unintelligible to the people and recommended that “the local language” should be used – by so doing, they acknowledged the existence of a separate language which would become French. The second date is 842, when the Oaths of Strasbourg were written in that very language, acknowledging officially the existence of the “local language” in a written document. The Oaths of Strasbourg consisted in a peace treaty signed by Louis the German and Charles the Bold against their brother Lothaire. It is important to note that before 842, written official documents were only written either in Greek or Latin – the only prestigious languages of the time.

From a linguistic point of view, France got divided between the north, mostly influenced by Germanic languages, and the south, mostly influenced by Latin languages. As a consequence, two main groups of dialects evolved, that were called the languages of Oc and the languages of Oil (“oc” and “oil” meaning “yes” in the north and the south, respectively). But it is on the basis of the northern dialects of the languages of Oc that the French language developped. This is mainly due to the great development of Paris, a town that quickly became the capital of the kingdom and whose prestige was getting greater all over Europe.

Photo opposite: Crowning of Charlemagne (source: Wikipedia)

Photo below: Detail of the manuscript of the Oaths of Strasbourg (source: Wikipedia)

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The first literary work written in Old French is said to be the Song of Roland in the 11th century, which contributed to the development of a French literature directly written in French – even though Latin remained the language of sciences and theology.

"The Song of Roland ("La Chanson de Roland", in French) is an epic poem based on the Battle of Roncevaux in 778, during the reign of Charlemagne. It is the oldest surviving major work of French literature and exists in various manuscript versions, which testify to its enormous and enduring popularity from the 12th to 14th centuries. The date of composition is placed in the period between 1040 and 1115: an early version beginning around 1040 with additions and alterations made up until about 1115. The final text has about 4,000 lines of poetry. The epic poem is the first and with The Poem of the Cid one of the most outstanding examples of the "chanson de geste", a literary form that flourished between the 11th and 15th centuries and celebrated legendary deeds." (Wikipidia)

Photo opposite: The Song of Roland - Detail of the Oxford's manuscript (source: Wikipedia)

Photo below: Detail of the painting Eight stages of The Song of Roland in one picture (source: Wikipedia)

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More and more official documents were however composed in French, until 1539, which is the most important date symbolising the recognition of the French language. Indeed, in August 1539 was decreed by King Francois I of France, in the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterets, that French would officially replace Latin in all official written documents. Here is the most famous part of the Ordinance:

"We wish and order that [judicial acts] be drawn up and written so clearly that there be neither ambiguity nor uncertainty nor the possibility of ambiguity or uncertainty, nor grounds for asking for interpretation thereof.

And because so many things often happen due to [poor] understanding of Latin words used in decrees, we intend that henceforth all decrees and other proceedings, whether of our sovereign courts or others, subordinate and inferior, or whether in records, surveys, contracts, commissions, awards, wills, and all other acts and deeds of justice or of law, that all such acts are spoken, written, and given to the parties [concerned] in the French mother tongue, and not otherwise." (Wikipedia)

Photo opposite: Portrait of Francois I of France (source: Wikipedia)

Photo below: Detail of the Ordonnance de Villers-Cotterets (source: Wikipedia)

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An increasing interest for the French language led people to fix the language with the first grammar books, and in 1635, Richelieu founded the Académie Francaise (French Academy), whose objective was and remains today to preserve the French language and supervise its development. The reputation of the French language developed to the point that French became the language of the aristocraty in all Europe, a reputation that was strenghtened by the achievements in France in different fields such as literature, philosophy, arts and sciences. In 1637, French philosopher René Descartes even wrote his Discourse on the Method directly in French. In the 6th chapter of his book, he gives the following justification:

"And if I write in French, which is the language of my country, in preference to Latin, which is that of my preceptors, it is because I expect that those who make use of their unprejudiced natural reason will be better judges of my opinions than those who give heed to the writings of the ancients only; and as for those who unite good sense with habits of study, whom alone I desire for judges, they will not, I feel assured, be so partial to Latin as to refuse to listen to my reasonings merely because I expound them in the vulgar tongue." (René Descartes, Discourse, VI)

In the 18th century, French language (set on the dialect of Paris) was only used by about 10% of the population, as most people used to speak a regional dialect. In the 19th century, with the development of transport, the press and education, and as primary schools became free and compulsory all over the country, French became the sole language of the Nation. At the beginning of the 20th century, French was spoken by 80% to 90% of the population.

Photo opposite: Portrait of cardinal Richelieu (source: Wikipedia)

Photo below: The Académie Francaise (source: Wikipedia)

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French is also spoken in many neighbouring countries such as Belgium, Luxemburg and Switzerland, and is or was spoken on many other continents due to French colonisation between the 15th and the 19th centuries - e.g. in America (Quebec, Louisiana, Guyana), Africa (Senegal, Mali, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco etc.), Oceania and Asia (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia).

Today, there are approximately 200 million French speakers in the world, and the International Organization of la Francophonie (OIF) brings together 56 countries (the OIF is an international organization representing countries and regions where French is the first and/or customary language, and/or where a significant proportion of the population are French speakers, and/or where there is a notable affiliation with French culture [Wikipedia]).

Photo opposite: Logo of the International Organisation of La Francophonie - OIF (source: Wikipedia)

Photo below: Members of the OIF and their status (source: Wikipedia)

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