French History: Language

Since being in France, Molly and I have each been reading books by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow, a husband and wife author team from Canada and the United States who spent many years living in France. Molly has been reading their Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong, explaining French culture, customs and history and I have been reading their Story of French about the development, spread and preservation of the French language. Both books appear to have had quite an effect on us as every morning over coffee and backgammon we tend to talk over each other with interesting tidbits consumed the day before in our prospective books. It was quite useful having Molly’s mom, Barbara, to visit last month as we finally had fresh ears to impress with our newly acquired French facts.

With Barb gone and Molly tired of my rants on French language purism, I thought I’d share with you a brief history of the French language and some of what we’ve learned from The Story of French. 

First, a few facts the state of the French language:

  • With 175 million speakers, French is the 9th most spoken language in the world.
  • The number of French speakers has tripled since World War II.
  • French is the official language of thirty-three countries making it second, after English. (Only French, Spanish, English and Arabic are spoken in more than twenty countries.)
  • French is the number two choice for second language learners across the globe. (English is first.)
  • French is taught in every country in the world.

English has quickly become the dominate language of diplomacy, commerce and travel, yet the French language has grown and prospered, with almost two-thirds of French speakers today, living outside of France.

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Countries with significant French speaking populations

Historically, people seem to choose French, even when it’s not most convenient. France colonized present-day Canada in 1603, building the city of Montreal and establishing a fur trading industry. There were 55,000 French speakers left in Canada when the French turned it over to the British in 1763. In the 250 years since living under English speaking rule, the French speaking population has grown to 6 million people. Despite several governments installing policies to prevent the spread of French in Canada, it is a thriving Francophone culture and the language itself has forged a regional identity that has almost yielded an independent nation. 

When the French lost the Seven Years War and turned Canada over to Great Britain, they did so in exchange for being able to keep Haiti, a slave colony that yielded millions of dollars through its sugar trade. Haiti was a volatile place with the slave population making up 90% of the islands inhabitants and the slaves soon revolted under the leadership of General Toussaint L’Ouverture. The Haitian’s succeeded but were forced to pay war reparations to the French for years to come. And yet, from the very beginning, the formerly enslaved Haitians chose French as their national language. Even as Haitian creole grew and developed it wasn’t until twenty years ago that Haiti recognized it as an official language.

Former French colonies such as Senegal, Lebanon and Algeria have also contributed to the growing number of French speakers internationally despite extremely violent efforts to detach themselves from France. When Belgium was formed following the Napoleonic Wars, the French language dominated the Dutch and through their aggressive colonization efforts in Central Africa, French spread even further – where it’s still widely spoken today. Because French was for so long the dominate international language these former colonies benefited from keeping and even expanding the language of their colonizers. The Story of French emphasizes, however, that even in their former colonies the ability to speak French still carries an elite status with it and the language has continued to spread even though in many ways English may be more financially valuable.

Even Peter the Great of Russia chose French. After touring Europe as a young man, Czar Peter insisted on a French style court where the aristocrats dressed in the French style, held salons after the French courtly style and even encouraged his court to speak French. This led a century-long era in Russia where French was the dominate language of the upper class. In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the French aristocracy and generals even speak French as they are preparing to go to war against Napoleon.

This French salon can certainly be attributed to the spread of the language. In many senses, French was just “cool” and to know French was to have status. But a more important aspect of the spread of French is in the concept of language purity. In 17th and 18th century Europe, French was by far the most standardized of languages. A wave of “French Purism” had influenced the country for several centuries and led to many attempts (through the academies and the state itself) to standardize and purify the language. Children were taught strict grammar and pronunciation as early as the 18th century and the French government even went so far as to change the language and style of their classics (Moliere, Racine, Rabelais) to reflect what they saw as proper French. This standardization allowed for people to easily learn French as a second language. Even though many of Europe’s languages were in place by the 18th century, regional vernaculars still dominated daily speech. This was no different in France. However, the French government was implementing standardized language forms to combat its regional dialects, allowing French to be easily learned as a second language and in turn utilized for international trade and commerce. As dialects across Europe remained in place and as the growth of Protestantism diminished the importance of Latin (the language of Catholicism), French became the new standardized language of the world.

The ideal of French purism, however, was more about destroying languages than spreading French. The history of France leading up to French language dominance is a history of many tribes, many regions and hundreds of languages. While French is, at its core, a Romance language, derived from Latin (like Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian) many of its roots date back to migrations of Germanic tribes across Northern France between 400 and 800 AD. These tribes intermixed with local inhabitants which forged new dialects. One of these Germanic tribes, the Franks, settled around Paris and consolidated power, creating a regional dialect called Francoys, the basis of modern French.

As these dialects were forming across Northern France, the dialects of Southern France came to resemble each other in forms more closely tied to Latin and medieval Spanish. By the 13th century, the languages of France can mostly be divided between the languages d’oil in the North and the languages d’oc in the south. Fun fact: at this time people named languages by what their word for “yes” was, so current English would have been called the language of yes. The language of the south came to also be called Occitan and it is still alive today and its speakers argue it is the sixth living romance language. In Toulouse the street signs have both the French and Occitan spellings. Separate still today from both Occitan and French are Breton, the language of Brittany which is of Celtic origin and the Basque language which is one of the world’s few language isolates, having no traceable origin.

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The Occitan language thrived for several centuries and outside of France it was actually more widely known for time period, mostly due to the influence of the troubadours. The troubadours originated in Southern France and traveled throughout Europe signing their songs and folktales. It’s one of the few times in history that language has spread without war or the conquering of nations. But ultimately Philip-Augustus of Paris attacked Toulouse and eliminated the troubadours (not a very cheerful fellow I assume) setting the stage for Occitan to forever be a minor language.

One major theme that arises during the formation of modern French is the relationship between the French and English languages and how French came to create English. Before 1066, English – a Germanic language – would be unrecognizable to the modern speaker, but William the Conqueror from the Normandy region of France (the Normans were actually previously Germans who came to France in the 8th century) decided to attack England and take it as his own, forever linking France and England. English rulers for hundreds of years spoke the language d’oil rather than the local vernacular but slowly the two started to blend together forming Middle English, the language of Chaucer. The mixture of French and Germanic words in English is quite interesting. One way to identify the divide between influences is to look at several synonyms and decide which word seems “fancier” and more often than not, that’s the French word. For example, start would be Germanic while commence or inaugurate would be French. End would be Germanic while cease or arrest would be French. English became more isolated after the Hundred Years War with France and continued to develop into what it is today, with many of it’s French influence still in tact.

Even with the relegation of Occitan to a minor language, for a few more centuries France struggled with its extremely diverse language population. Many travelers couldn’t even communicate outside of their region. But in the 16th century this would all start to change with two very significant events. First, Emperor Francois I signed the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterets establishing the French dialect spoken in Paris to be the language of all of France. This is a very shrewd move on the part of Francois I. First, he localized the languages of the powerful dukes and barons spread out across the country by forcing them to work and communicate in the language of Paris. Second, he used the language of Paris to advance the power of the state above both the Catholic church and the Protestants who were in violent opposition of each other. The protestants were appeased because any form of French was better than Latin, the language of Catholicism and the Catholics were also satisfied because they foresaw the end of the local vernaculars that preached Protestantism.

Perhaps more important however, was the advent of the printing press around 1450. Suddenly, government documents, books and communications could be rapidly replicated and distributed across the country. Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press may have been German but his printing press was perfected in modern-day France and it had an immediate impact on France as a whole. The concept of language purism developed to both advance the power of the state over local regions and to allow for standardized printing practices – something that would take another 200 years for the English to do.

Montaigne, the inventor of the essay in the 16th century, provides a unique example of the languages in France during that time period. He was born to a Gascon mother in southern France speaking a dialect resembling the language d’oc. He was trained in a Catholic school and learned Latin by the age of six. When he became Mayor of Bordeaux he communicated mostly in standardized Occitan of the region. Then, when he set out to write and publish, he chose French, arguably his fourth language, because it was the standard language of the greater part of France and, most importantly, of the local printing press.

As French continued to spread in colonies and across Europe in the centuries to come, French purism grew, creating dictionaries and standardized educational systems to assist in the spread of a ‘pure’ French. In fact, the instigators of the French revolution were so sheltered by the language of Paris, when they discovered that most people across France were still speaking local dialects they implemented further rules on speaking French. Napoleon and the successive regimes continued to increase access to public education with the sole intent on standardizing the language of France. The spread of the ‘pure’ French language is intrinsically linked with the consolidation of modern France into a unified nation.

This is not the end of the story of French, however. The push for purism and rigidity in the language form would later be combated by Victor Hugo who incorporated a great deal of regional and lower class idioms into his novels The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables. Baudelaire would write poetry challenging the standard French style and form and ignite a century of French poetry that challenged the purist mentality.

And the purism fight still rages on with the French Academy in Paris and a network of language schools across the globe using similar materials and methods to teach children and adults alike the ‘pure’ French language. The French Academy even debates the term ‘bacon.’ Originally a French word, bacon made it’s way into the English language in 12th century and then disappeared from the French language soon after. With the spread of American products across the globe, bacon has come back into the French language, but the French purists are still arguing whether or not it’s an appropriate French word, whether there’s a more suitable, more French word that should be used.

These debates can be overheard in cafes. It’s often mentioned in the Story of French how in France it’s common for French speakers to correct other speakers on their pronunciation. They even found the usage of the French language to be a common discussion among French people in offices, at parties and between friends. This sense of language purism is still very strong in the French psyche, with a belief that there is a pure French that exists and that it’s the goal of French speakers to try and achieve language perfection. The French language institutes, as well as the demand for language purity by it’s people, keep the language very closely linked to its mother country, ensuring that the French language, no matter how far it spreads, will always remain French.

One thought on “French History: Language

  1. Dear Adam. Re: “French History: Language—Hurrah! I’ve lately been reading around in the field of French culture & history (right now it’s Janet Flanner’s essays on Paris for the New Yorker, 1925-1936)
    & your synopsis of French language supplies a critical link. C’est formidable! Later today I’ll have time
    to read it fully. Until then, merci beaucoup . . . plus love & hugs a toi et ma chere Molly. xoxoxo Annie


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