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Where Did French Come From

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You can hear French spoken in the cafés of Montréal, the markets of Morocco, the beaches of Tahiti, and even the foothills of the Italian Alps. With almost 275 million speakers in 2014, according to the Organization of La Francophonie, French is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, making it a popular language for people to learn. But where did it come from? French developed as a dialect from Latin over the past 2000 years, and in this article we’re going to look at how and why Latin evolved into French as we know it. There are many languages in Europe which are actually descendants from Latin. Well known languages like Portuguese, Spanish, Galician, Catalan, Occitan, Italian, Romansh, and Romanian all descended from Latin.

Several brother and sister languages exist which are closely related to these languages as well. But what do we really know about their origins? To understand where French came from we need to travel back in time. It’s around 100 BCE in Northern Europe, in regions now found in modern day Germany and France. This part of the world during this time is ruled primarily by groups of tribes which collectively are known as the Gauls. The Gauls speak a language closely related to the modern-day Scottish and Irish Gaelic and had been living in the area for at least 400 years.

At the decline of their rule, Julius Caesar, from the flourishing Roman Republic led the Roman army into the territory of the Gauls a few decades after 100BCE. Towards 50 BCE, Julius Caesar wins his campaign and annexes Gaul as a province of the Roman Republic. Over the decades, Latin-speaking civilians and officials from the Roman Empire begin to settle in the newly annexed province of Gaul. Since Latin was the official language of government, the Gaul natives who belonged to the elite parts of society started to learn to speak Latin. Latin also became across Europe a lingua franca, or a language to facilitate trade between speakers of two different languages.

Over time, more and more people began to speak Latin to such an extent that the Gaulish language was eventually not spoken, ultimately dying out in the 6th century. Since Latin and Gaulish existed side by side for a few centuries, they began to influence each other. When the Roman Empire fell, it fragmented the Latin language across the empire; and even eliminated it in some regions. Some of the German tribes, primarily the Franks and the Alemanni, invaded Gaul at the fall of the Roman Empire; but they did not force the inhabitants to speak their language. Instead, the Franks and the Alemanni eventually began to learn to speak this Gaulish-Latin.

The combination of the language of the Germanic tribes and the Gaulish language with Latin eventually led to the emergence of new dialects of Latin, collectively known as Gallo-Romance. Did you know that in some parts of the world, it is common for one language to be spoken in one domain of social life and another language is spoken in another domain of social life? For example, in many parts of Jamaica, people will switch between speaking Standard English and Jamaican patois, which is a creole of English a few centuries old. English is spoken with government interactions or in the media, while patois is spoken in more familiar situations like with friends or family. This switching between two or more different languages is an example of diglossia, where two dialects or languages are used within a single language community. A similar situation eventually developed in Gaul, where Latin was used for high functions in society, like writing, religion, and education; while the Gallo-Romance dialects were used for low functions in society like family, agriculture, and everyday life.

It was around this time, in the 7th century, the former region of Gaul began to be known as the region of the Franks, hence the origin of the name France, despite the fact that the majority of people living in this new Francia were actually descendants from the Gauls and the Romans. As time went on, the difference between Latin and the Gallo-Romance dialects became so different, especially in the North, that in the 8th century it was getting harder for people to understand Latin without specifically learning to speak it. Gallo-Romance had become so different from Latin that the Catholic priests, who historically had been preaching only in Latin, began to preach in Gallo-Romance in many parts of Northern France so that more people could understand them. In 842 CE, the Strasbourg Oaths, which were a pledge of allegiance between the ruler of East Francia and West Francia, were written in Latin, German, and Gallo-Romance. This document is the first written proof that we have of a language distinct from Latin.

In Southern France, by the 11th century, Gallo-Romance speakers were still able to understand Latin fairly well, as they were grammatically pretty similar. Nonetheless, they were still regarded as two separate languages. During this time period, the southern dialects began to collectively be referred to as les langues d'oc or the OC languages, OC being the word for YES in these dialects; while the northern dialects were collectively referred to as les langues d'oïl or the OÏL languages, Across all of Europe, this time period brought about lots of societal change, brought about by a number of reasons, such as the fact that external threats of invasion by vikings or other groups were no longer present, technological innovations like watermills increasing agricultural production, along with demographic changes and economic prosperity. This societal change led to an increase in literacy and the usage of writing systems specific to the different gallo-romance dialects. This time period also gave rise to a new class of people, the bourgeoisie.

The bourgeoisie contributed greatly to the literature and art of the courts of the aristocracy. New literature, particularly in Southern France, began to appear in the langues d'oc dialects instead of in Latin. By the end of the 13th century, documents written in les langues d'oc and les langues d'oïl far outnumbered the documents written in Latin. Now that we've established how Latin sprouted off into different languages; let's take a look at how the Parisian dialect of Gallo-Romance was selected as the national standard of French. In the 14th century, the economy in many of the Northern towns began to worsen, except for Paris, which was the largest city at the time.

Because of this, the Parisian dialect, eventually known as French or françois, at the time, gained high prestige. Normally, when a dialect or linguistic variety is considered to be prestigious by a group of speakers, that variety sets the norms and the standards of the language. Look at British English, for example. For a long time, Britain set the norms of English spelling and grammar, up until recently. Because of the high prestige of the Parisian dialect of French at the time, it was regarded as the best language in which to write different forms of literature.

As a result, the Parisian pronunciation and spelling became the majority language of the langue d'oïl region in Northern France around the 14th and 15th centuries. The success of the French language in literature overshadowed the early success of the literature produced in the langues d'oc dialects of the South of France. Towards the 15th century, French earned more prestige across Europe, as it became considered to be a language of learning; after Latin, of course. In 1539, François I, the King of France released the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts which outlined in order that there may be no cause for doubt over the meaning of the said decrees. We will and order that they be composed and written so clearly that there be not nor can be any ambiguity or uncertainty, nor grounds for requiring interpretation thereof.

And because so many things often hinge on the meaning of Latin words contained in the said documents. We will that from henceforth all decrees together with all other proceedings, whether of our royal courts or other subordinate or inferior, whether records, surveys, contracts, commissions, awards, wills, and all other acts and deeds of justice or dependent thereon be spoken, written and given to the parties in the French mother tongue and not otherwise. This decree essentially intended to eliminate Latin and centralize French as the main language of the kingdom. Unintentionally, this decree pushed the French language on those who spoke Occitan or other langues d'oc varieties..

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