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KNOWLEDGE 24 MAY, 2015

The Untold Story of the French Language

French is the most studied language in the world in schools and academies, after English. Not only is it spoken in 5 continents, it is also the official language, alongside English, in organizations such as the UN, FAO, WTO, NATO, the European Union, the European UNESCO and the Red Cross. The economic importance of this language is shown, for example, in trade relations between Canada and the United States. In Europe, France is a founding member of the EU and a leader of its integration process.

French is the common language that unites many African countries, too. The concept of “Francophonie” or being a French-speaker also gave birth to a kind of “French Commonwealth Games” (Jeux de la Francophonie) every four years, the last one taking place in Nice in 2013, coinciding with the Machine Translation Summit.

The Jeux de la Francophonie took place in Nice in 2013
The Jeux de la Francophonie took place in Nice in 2013

The French language is thus one of the world’s most important languages, perhaps not in terms of number of speakers but still as a language of diplomacy and a language that unites peoples and countries from the Americas to Europe, Africa and Asia-Oceania. More than 220 million people declare French to be their mother tongue according to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but many more use it daily, particularly in Africa, where is the second or common language of more than 300 million people. Medical French translation services and French for NGO’s have become increasingly important for African countries, with high quality French translations and French medical translations being undertaken by organizations such as The Rossetta Foundation or Translators Without Borders. French is the official language of Canada and spoken in Québec by 95% of the population, with New Brunswick and Manitoba being bilingual provinces.

A little known fact is that France is the European Union country where more languages are spoken: not only French but Breton, Occitan throughout the central and southern part (about 2 million speakers and 10 who understand it), Corsican, Alsatian, Catalan and Basque and small Flemish-speaking minorities. The World Factbook points to the rapidly declining status of these regional languages – although at the time of the French Revolution only about 50% of the country spoke French (Langue d’Oïl), mostly in the North of France and present-day Wallonia (Belgium).    Occitan dialects

Short history of the French language

Cathédrale Notre-Dame
Cathédrale Notre-Dame

Modern French is part of the family of languages we know as “Romance” (including Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian and Catalan, for example). Romance Languages originate from the several local dialects of Latin that had spread through most of Western Europe as a result of widespread settlements of the conquering Roman legions, settlers from other parts of the Roman Empire and a general process of Romanization of local populations. These local varieties and accents received later influences from Germanic tribes (the Franks in the case of France).

In a way, it could be said that Romance Languages are in many ways descendants of Empire reflecting divergent histories, lands and provinces which in time became countries and states but that initially shared a common culture under the Roman Government. Latin was popular as it had been adopted, learnt and was spoken by local elites. Gradually, it was also used by the common people during the process of Romanization . In the particular case what later would become France, the Gaul of the Alps, Romanization took place after Julius Caesar war of conquest some decades before the birth of Christ. Parts of Spain had already been Romanized 200 years before the birth of Christ.

Gauls had raided Rome early in its history. This danger was present in Roman history and mentality when Julius Caesar began his campaign. Centuries later, the invasion of the Roman province of Gaul in year 400 AD several Germanic tribes (which included the “Franks”) and who were seeking cover from the attacks of nomads from Central Asia resulted in the loss of military control by Rome of several of its provinces. It led to the establishment of a new ruling class of Franks whose mother tongue was of course not Latin. The popular Latin speech, much prestigious and culturally superior, was adopted by the newcomers, whose pronunciation retained some very distinctive Germanic traits and accent, specially the sounds of the vowels which can be identified even in modern French language (the “u” and “eu” in modern French still remain very close to the sounds “ü” and “ö” in German. These sounds are unkown in any other modern Romance languages.

The grammar of spoken popular Latin as an ancestor of the French language was much easier than the Latin we find in classical literature. As it happened with Spanish, further simplification help the language distance itself from Latin over time, becoming the “French” language. Much of what Latin communicated by declension (endings carrying meaning) and changing the pronunciation of the words was now communicated by auxiliary words, prepositions, or separate phrases, and especially by a new word order. Whilst Latin could rely on declensions to convey meaning in a free word order because the logical relationship between declensions made it clear what words were together, the gradual loss of declensions (sometimes as a result of the new accent) made it necessary to use more or less a fixed type of word order to expect a subject, a verb and objects one after the other.

The French language as such began to be formed in the 6th century with the invasion of Charlemagne on Frank and Gallic territory. His territories also included present-day Germany, the Low Countries, Switzerland and Catalonia. The modern history of the French language in France herself begins in the North of the country, as the Central and Southern regions spoke several variants of Occitan (“Langue d’Oc”, Provençal being one of its dialects). Occitan was another of the descendants of Latin. However, the so-called “French” (or “Langue d’Oïl”) began to win more prestige and status as a result of its association with the incipient form of State, based in the feudal military power of the Court of Charlemagne and his successors. Increasing changes in grammar made it gradually more difficult for speakers of the language to understand the old Latin still used in Christian religious services, for example and in legal documents. The first documents written in a language clearly recognizable as “French” (“Francien,” of “Frankish”) were the “Oaths of Strasbourg,” uttered by two grandsons of Charlemagne in 842 AD.

The return of the French court to Paris after its change to Aachen (Aix la Chapelle) under Charlemagneand the successes of his armies against the also invading Anglo-Norman armies of the main areas of the North and South-West of France, led to a territorial consolidation that guaranteed the position in the future of Frankish “French” as the official language of a centralized monarchy. Thus, French was established as the State language by the edict of Villers-Cotterêts in 1539.

The grammar of the French language spoken and written today remains essentially unchanged from the end of the 17th century, when the efforts of officials to standardize, stabilize and clarify the use of French grammar became institutionalized in the French Academy. The purpose of this uniformity was political, i.e. to facilitate the scope of influence of the Court and to smooth the process of law, administration and commerce over and even beyond the territory of France, as colonial companies opened new imperial growth scenarios as far as India and Louisiana.

The economic, cultural and political weight and importance of France led the French language to replace Latin and partly Spanish as the language of diplomacy, commerce and international relations in the 17th century. It still retained this role until approximately the middle of the 20th century, when it was replaced by English as the United States became the dominant global power in those three spheres after the Second World War.

Assimilation of Occitan (Langue d’Oc)

Bilingual Street Name in Nice
Bilingual Street Name in Nice

Many linguists and almost all Occitan writers agree when it comes to the unity of Occitan as a single language divided into several families of dialects: Limosin, Auvergnat, Gascon, Languedocien, Provençal, and Alpine Provençal. Despite the differences between these languages or dialects, the majority of speakers of one can understand the use of the others. Catalan was also considered part of the Occitan language (also known as Provençal or Limousin) until the end of the 19th century. Although there are differences between Catalan and other Occitan varieties (there are also differences between the varieties of Occitan north of the Pyrenees), the main reason for their segregation responds to socio-political reasons. At the beginning of the 20th century, Catalan and Occitan take noticeably divergent paths, with Catalan establishing its own writing system to reflect its own pronunciation and features and creating a new, rich literature. However, Occitan linguistics have followed closely the Catalan process of standardization, which has become powerful, more standardized and politically self-conscious. Catalan is in fact the most widely used and prestigious of all Occitan languages. The differences between modern Catalan and Occitan are small, taking into account the context of the Romance languages. For this reason, there are minority currents between Occitan and Catalan linguistics that still consider the two languages as one.

Occitan was the vehicle of the first vernacular poetry of medieval Europe, that of the troubadours. It was also the language of administration, an alternative to Latin in the Middle Ages. As French Royal power became established in the Center and South of France, Occitan lost prestige from the 14th century onwards. The Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts, signed by King Francis I of France in 1539, established the supremacy of the French language by imposing its use in administrative and legal acts, to the detriment of Latin and any other languages. The great fall of Occitan occurred during the French Revolution, that imposed the French as the only national language, which provided national unity and a sense of citizenship.

Although it remained the everyday language of most rural people of Southern France until the middle of the 20th century, Occitan lost currency in most formal settings to French. There are still several million native speakers of Occitan. Ethnic activism, particularly the institutes of preschool education in Occitan, “calandretas”, have reintroduced the language to young people following the Catalan example. There have been demonstration in favor of a wider use of the Occitan language in administration and education.

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