Sep 02, 2021

A History of French: From Rome to Paris

As one of the most common languages spoken worldwide, the French language has a rich and long history in Europe. It is considered a Romance language. However, this is not because it is one of the most romantic languages there is, or because many people today woo their lovers with the power of this beautiful language! Romance languages actually originate from Roman times. French was born out of Vulgar Latin, which would arise between the third and the eighth centuries. Romance languages have long been some of the most influential and popular languages around the world! Languages like Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian also are a part of this unique category of linguistics.

The Arrival of the Gauls in 300 B.C.

The start of the French language dates back to the Gauls, who would migrate to central Europe. As many people know, Julius Caesar would be the leader of Rome when they would take Gaul in 57 B.C., introducing Latin to their people. After this, Latin would be spoken for some time, but the rural populations would continue to talk in Gaulish, one of the earliest traces of the French language. Over time, the invasion of the Germanic Franks would also influence the Gauls, changing their musicality and the way they pronounced their words.

The Influence of the Franks

These would be the first instances people could hear words like fleur for flower and noeuds for a knot. They were actually new words that were introduced at the time! Believe it or not, the Franks are to thank for the very name of the new country: France. Despite the steady steps towards formality, there was still no formal structure or format for their language. This meant that people would make their own changes and create their own dialects, which would have to be rectified within the Dark Ages. 

The Decline of Latin in the Dark Ages

It wouldn't be until the Dark Ages when Latin would die out, and the need for more languages would arise. People would find that they could not learn Latin, which would create a divide between the clerics and the poor. King Charlemagne would be the first individual to clarify that French was to be used by the priests. This would be the earliest instance of a language similar to French, but it wouldn't be until thirty years after this moment in 813 that a formalized language would be introduced.

The Birth of French As a Language

Charlemagne would die in 842, leaving a challenging period in which his grandchildren would decide the future of their lands. His grandchildren, Lothair, Charles, and Louis, fought wars amongst themselves. Yet, Charles and Louis would outsmart their brother and adopt a new language, which many know today as French. This would be the first time French would be written down and the first instance of people recognizing this language as its own! By the 10th century, there were so many variations in the language. At this time, dialects began to form depending on their region. Some of these same dialects exist today, and even more, they have developed around the world.

Old French: the 10th to 13th Centuries

Latin was still the most popular language, but French would become the written form of communication during this time. People would begin to use this language to chant, and they would also start to write songs in French. The old dialects of French had few rules, and there were still plenty of challenges with keeping their language uniform. This would bring about the introduction to Latinization for the French. At the time, two dialects--Oïl and Oc--were popularized throughout all of France. Still, Oïl would become the most common and used throughout the royal family to unify their people.

Middle French: Until the 17th century

Just as France was beginning to develop their language formally, the darkest ages were upon them. They experienced the Black Plague, the Hundred Years’ War, and several other tragedies. During this time, writers like Fraçois Villon wrote in Middle French about the events of this time. As the Renaissance arrived, people knew that there needed to be more uniform rules and structures. As a result, the language would undergo changes until it was formally recognized as a vernacular language in 1539 to write its laws in the common tongue.

The Move to Legitimize French as a Vernacular

Surprisingly enough, some changes had to be made to make French a recognized and helpful language. Before 1539, scholars worked on linguistics and changed some of the words. For instance, doit was changed to doigt, which means "finger." This was derived from the Latin word digitus. Additionally, pie changed to pied to mean “foot” from the Latin word, pedis. Unfortunately, some of the phrases from Middle French were too crude. Scholars removed them before formalizing their language in 1539.

French Today

The French that you know and are learning today are nearly the same as that of the 1500s! Even though their lifestyle and culture changed significantly over the years, the French are still very proud of their language. They have always been proud of how they developed as a nation and the challenges that they endured. Many scholars argue that removing the brutal nature of the language might have removed some of the French culture and their lifestyle. After all, they came from people who were notable warriors and some of the most vital individuals. They are the same individuals who overthrew their government and fought for their own independence!

More on French Lifestyle, Culture, and Language

What else do you want to learn about? What intrigues you the most about the French language? What should we discuss in the next article? Let us know in the comments, and we would be happy to cover your topic in our next article. We're always looking for fun and exciting topics that our language learners want to learn more about! Until then, take care, happy learning, and bon chance!

Marie Soukup

Written by: Marie Soukup

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