The French language throughout history: what you were never taught

We all speak French: you, your cousin, your sister-in-law, your neighbors and your colleagues, and that seems normal to you. But it is not. It took long centuries to transform what was initially one evolution of Latin among others, practiced in a tiny territory around Paris, into a language understood throughout France.

But, by the way, where does French come from? It is in particular to this question that a work published by the Bescherelle editions, written by excellent academics, answers with seriousness and pedagogy. We discover a multitude of often surprising information. Here are some examples.

58 before Jesus Christ. With the Roman conquest, it was not the language of Cicero that the Gauls gradually adopted, but a popular Latin, that of soldiers, civil servants and merchants.

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486. The arrival of the Franks was followed by a vogue of Germanic pronouns (in any case north of the Loire), from Alain to Roland via Arnaud, Bernard, Richard, Robert or Roger.

813. The Council of Tours invites priests to use the “rustic Roman language” (that of the illiterate). This proves that Latin is no longer understood by the people. And that another language is now spoken north of the Loire. Called “novel”, it is the ancestor of French.

1066. After the conquest of England, William Duke of Normandy imposes on the court of London Norman, a langue d’oïl close to French. Hence the considerable number of English terms resembling ours, such as table, army or beef.

Sixteenth century. Under the Renaissance, French changed status. It conquers the main fields of expression such as religion, law, medicine. He also began to be exported far from his territory of origin, and in particular to Canada, with Jacques Cartier.

1539. François Ier signs the ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts, according to which the acts of justice must henceforth be written in “French mother tongue and not otherwise”. This text is often presented as the imposition of French as the official language of the State. Wrongly. In fact, at the time, the overwhelming majority of the population did not have French as their “mother tongue”, but Breton, Provençal or Lorraine.

1635. The French Academy is created. However, she did not publish the first edition of her dictionary until 1694, several years after those of Richelet (1680) and Furetière (1690).

1763. France loses its North American possessions. With major consequences on the respective influences of our national language and English.

1830. With the conquest of Algeria opens the second colonial expansion of France, mainly in Africa and Asia. A policy that will impose the French in new territories, not by the schooling of the local populations (which will remain marginal), but by the obligatory military service and the action of the missionaries, who diffuse the catechism there.

1833. The first law on free primary education does not date from the Third Republic, but from the July Monarchy, with the Guizot law. From 1840, 34,000 of the 38,000 municipalities in the country had a school. Already, French is chosen to the detriment of regional languages.

1835. In the new edition of its dictionary, the French Academy imposes the passage from -oi to -ai in the imperfect. From now on, we no longer write “they knew”, but “they knew”.

1994. The Toubon law, mocked by the press, but supported by nine out of ten French people, establishes a right to French for consumers, employees and users of public services. The ace ! the Constitutional Council, chaired by Robert Badinter, will considerably reduce its scope in the name of “freedom of expression”.

Conclusion ? Although it remains dominated by English, French is today practiced on five continents and has never had so many speakers. Better still: their number, estimated at 300 million, should double again in the coming decades, particularly in Africa. Which also means that France has become a minority in the Francophonie.

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Chronology. The history of the French languageby Frédéric Duval, Jacques Dürrenmatt, Jean Pruvost, Gilles Siouffi, Agnès Steuckardt, Bescherelle, 322 p., € 19.90.


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