The Mystifying Popularity of the French Language Revealed

Book Cover, Story of French
Book cover

Today, France lands at number 22 in the list of countries when ranked by population size. Yet, French is the 5th most spoken language in the world, behind English, Mandarin, Hindi, and Spanish. It’s an impressive status for a relatively small country—49th in the world in terms of geographic area. As an avid francophile, I have various personal reasons for learning and continually striving to improve my French, but there are numerous factors, spanning hundreds of years that help explain French’s popularity. I recently read The Story of French, by Jean-Benoît-Nadeau and Julie Barlow. The authors are husband and wife. He is French and she is Canadian who, while born in an English-speaking province, speaks French fluently.

It turns out, you can’t truly understand the history of French, without knowing a bit about the history of France. The Story of French is as much a summary of France’s history as it is a look into the evolution of its popular native tongue. The authors did a nice job of coalescing scads of information and creating an easy-to-read narrative that unveils the mystery behind French’s success. Along the way, the authors challenge several common misconceptions about French and sprinkle the text with enjoyable examples of language adaptation and evolution. What follows is the first of my two-part synopsis of their well-researched and engaging work.

How French Began

It’s hard to know how the French language came about and when. The Gauls who lived in what is now France spoke Gaulish which had completely disappeared by the end of the 9th century. Yet, according to French linguist, Henriette Walter, only seventy or so words in modern French are of Gaulish origin. Once Rome invaded and occupied the region, people started learning Latin and a new dialect, Gallo-Roman, sprang up.

As human migrations continued across Europe, several different tribes of people settled in parts of France. Each had varying levels of influence on the languages people were speaking. Two of the most important tribes were the Vikings who spoke Norman and the Franks who spoke a western Germanic language. You can still visit areas in and around France where people speak languages that are close to these ancient ones. One example is the isle of Jersey where the spoken word closely resembles ancient Norman. A French speaker can almost understand what they are saying and vice versa.

A Scholarly King

François Ier
François I

François I, crowned in 1515, was the first king to attach a language to the state and he chose French. The French King wanted to reduce the power of the Catholic Church and transfer it into his own hands. The church ran the courts and laws of the land. Their clerks used Latin which few common people understood. François I changed all legal documents into French. Other languages were no longer accepted. A prodigious patron of the arts, François I hoped to reinforce the emerging French renaissance. He brought many of the world’s greatest artists and or their works to France. A notable example is Leonardo da Vinci who brought with him the Mona Lisa. By the end of his reign, François I had succeeded in creating a France that other European nations wished to emulate.

While French was now the official language of the land, there still were little or no rules regulating its form or usage. It continued to evolve rapidly, borrowing 2000 words from Italian and other sources. People that “spoke French” spoke a hodgepodge of tongues of which there were countless variations.

Early French Literature

François Rabelais
François Rabelais

Rabelais was one of the first authors to write in French. A former monk, he wrote satires that subtly mocked the church and university that exclusively used Latin. He wanted his stories to be accessible to average people. The Protestant religions also preferred native languages to Latin. So, sometime in the 1500s, the bible appeared in French.

Montaigne was one of the next major writers to embrace French rather than Latin. This is surprising considering the fact that he was raised by tutors that spoke nothing but Latin and was fluent in Latin by the age of 6. What’s more, his native tongue was Gascon, spoken in southwest France.  His in-depth knowledge of Latin served him well throughout school and launched him into the aristocracy. Yet, he insisted on writing his massive volume of philosophical essays in French. Descartes also chose to write in French. Like Rabelais and Montaigne, he recognized French as being a better way to communicate his ideas to ordinary people and he correctly anticipated that French would eventually overtake Latin. Thus, by using French, he bettered the chances of his work being read in the future.

Enlightenment

Voltaire
Portrait of Voltaire, Musée Carnavalet

During the 18th-century, Paris became the intellectual epicenter of Europe. Luminaries of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau, sparked a cultural, philosophical, and literary movement that turned French into Europe’s universal language—at least as far as scholars and noblemen were concerned. The Catholic Church still controlled the universities of France but discussions on a wide-ranging slate of topics began popping up in salons and cafés across Paris. Academies of arts and science proliferated throughout the country.

One of the radical tenets of this new breed of philosophers was that government could not simply justify its existence by claiming a divine right to rule. Instead, in order to be recognized, the state needed to contribute to the happiness and well-being of its subjects. Using reason and natural laws, man would find a better way to organize society, stripping power from the institutions of tradition and religion. Such ideas spread rapidly throughout Europe. Voltaire’s novels and plays, Diderot’s Encyclopedia, and Rousseau’s Social Contract circulated widely throughout Europe. While Voltaire borrowed many ideas from John Locke, most Italians hadn’t even heard of John Locke until his work was translated from English into French. Even in Britain, French was considered a “universally useful language”, according to linguist Ferdinand Brunot.

Regional Languages

By 1790, despite royal and scholarly achievements that increased French’s popularity, the language was almost exclusively spoken and understood by members of the elite. At the time of the French revolution, a newly formed National Assembly sent representatives throughout the country to determine how many people spoke French. They realized they’d have much work ahead of them convincing average citizens to accept and support a new form of government. Out of a population of 28 million, only 3 million people spoke French, and even fewer wrote it. Making matters worse was the fact that many regional languages lacked clear rules, grammar, or defined vocabulary. This rendered translations of important decrees and laws a practical impossibility.

In part two, I cover the Republican government’s efforts to turn French into the “universal language” of its people. It took a surprisingly long time. The Story of French, outside of France will also continue with a brief look at the impact of colonialism and emigration. Finally, I’ll end with the authors’ take on the French Academy and the long-term prospects for the survival of French.


Vendée Globe Update, December 18, 2020

Last week I covered the Vendée Globe, a grueling sailing challenge where mariners must sail solo, non-stop, around the globe. As of this morning, the leaders of the race are passing beneath New Zealand. Jean Le Cam, who detoured from the pack to aid his capsized colleague, Kevin Escoffier, has moved up to the 4th position. Yannick Bestaven and Boris Herrmann, who also detoured to search for Escoffier, are in first and fifth place, respectively.

Officials have calculated the time that will be deducted from these skippers’ total sailing time at the end of the race as a result of their lifesaving efforts. Le Cam’s time will be reduced by 16 hours and 15 minutes. Besthaven and Herrmann’s times will be reduced by 10 hours and 15 minutes and 6 hours, respectively.

One more sailor, Fabrice Amadeo, was forced to abandon the course after his computer systems failed. That leaves, 21 male and 6 female competitors still in the running. The leaders crossed the midpoint of the race two days ago. With both the Pacific and Atlantic still to cross before they reach the finish line, many punishing weeks remain ahead.

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, French to English translator, mother, and lover of: books, travel, history, cultures, art, cooking, fitness, nature.

29 Comments

  1. A fascinating post! I will be waiting for part II. I love linguistics and have always been interested in the history of the French language. A cliché, but it is the most beautiful language in the world. There is nothing quite like it.

  2. I am likewise afflicted with Francophilia and look forward to the next chapter of your story.

    My wife’s mother was born in Brittany and emigrated to the U.S. in the late 1940s. Although probably chauvinistic, she often said that the true French language was spoken in Brittany. I’m sure that residents of other parts of France would insist that true French is what is spoken in their region.

    • Hi Don, that you’re afflicted with the same bug doesn’t surprise me. I think Breton is more closely linked to Welsh or other Celtic offshoots.

      I highly recommend a book called Memoirs of a Breton Peasant. It’s a fascinating story that provides insights into peasant life in the 19th century. Since almost no peasants could read or write, this book is one of history’s precious gems.

      Your mother-in-law might like a blog that I follow called Bonjour from Brittany. Here’s a link: https://bonjourfrombrittany.wordpress.com/

      Thanks for stopping by.

  3. I’m so glad I read your post! Which leads me to think that , in French you can’t have the same subject twice in this kind of grammatical structure.
    Thinking that such an uneasy language was vastly spread is worthy of interest. Does it contradict the fact that nowadays English is the most second language spoken because of its easiness? Much more ‘compliqué’ (one of those popular words in France right now) likely so!

  4. Interesting history, thanks. It sounds as if France went through a process fairly typical of European countries, having to impose a standard language on a disorderly collection of dialects which had grown up in different localities.

    Yes, Breton is a separate language closely related to Welsh. Everyone in Brittany also speaks French, though.

    French and English have similar histories in that both arose due to a formerly Celtic-speaking population adopting a new language — Anglo-Saxon in the case of England, Latin in the case of France. In both cases, surprisingly few Celtic words survived into the new language — but some Celtic grammar did. In English, the odd way we use “do” in questions and negatives (“Did you see him?” “I do not see him.”) which is unlike any other Germanic language, obviously comes from Celtic, since the Celtic languages are the only ones in the entire world, other than English, which use “do” that way. In French, there’s the oddity of expressing the number eighty as four-times-twenty. Latin didn’t do that, but the Celtic spoken in Gaul did. It’s undoubtedly a surviving Celtic feature.

    Curious little fact — in the Persian spoken in Iran (though not the Persian spoken in Afghanistan or Tajikstan), the word for “thank you” is mersî. It comes from French, but indirectly. In the 18th century, as you mention, French became a common language of the educated throughout Europe, and in Russia it became the regular spoken language of the Czar’s court for a while. Via diplomatic contacts, Iranians picked up the usage of “merci” from the Russian court and it eventually filtered down into general usage in Iran, where it remains the normal word for “thank you” to this day. I think most Iranians now don’t even realize it’s of foreign origin.

    • That’s so interesting Infidel. I’ve seen the Iranian mersî and wondered if there was a connection to French. I wouldn’t have guessed the route that you described but it makes perfect sense.

      Of all the things the French might have inherited from the Celts, quatre-vingt should have been near the bottom of the list. Thanks for sharing these fun quirks of history.

  5. The Gaulish language is extinct; it died out in the early medieval period. The only Celtic language spoken in France is Breton. (You might be thinking of Gallo, which is spoken by a few people in eastern Brittany. My grandmother’s family spoke it. It’s not Celtic though, but one of the langues d’oïl, related to French.)

    There is some debate about how much Gaulish influenced French phonology. Some think that the liaison is a vestige of Gaulish, since other Celtic languages have similar traits.

    • Hi James, You’re right Gaulish is long gone. I’m glad you pointed that out. I don’t recall now, why I wrote otherwise. Interesting that it might be the origin of using lisaison. Thanks for stopping by.

  6. Extremely interesting. I do love the sound of French more than that of any other language.

    When you were discussing the philosophers in the late 1700s, I immediately thought of the rapport between the French and the American colonists, who were searching for ways to establish their new government. I learned recently that Washington and Lafayette became close friends. When Washington completed his military service, Lafayette wanted him to travel around the new lands with him. Washington, however, had a government to establish.

    I’m glad you told us that the skippers who stopped to help their stricken competitor had their times adjusted accordingly. Seemed quite humane and genteel—refreshingly so.

    • You’re right Annie, the French had a huge influence on shaping the ideals of our founding fathers. Lafayette was right in the thick of things. I was glad to see him as a principal character in the popular musical Hamilton. In accordance with what you’ve written, Lin-Manuel Miranda portrayed Layfayette as a much freer spirit than Washington.

      From what I’m told, there’s an unspoken code among sailors that if one is in trouble, anyone who can help will unfailingly do so. Even if times aren’t adjusted accordingly, I’d like to believe that the many hours of isolation evoke a high degree of super-rational conduct and people would still divert their course to help a capsized rival.

      Thanks for your comment.

  7. I’ve always been interested in improving my French and I hope to make greater strides! Wonderful post. I know Spanish and so that helps, in a way, to get into the mindset to become more familiar with French. It does feel like a solid, yet quirky, language. It’s great to read how French has developed and established itself, led by such great thinkers as Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau.

    • I highly encourage your interest in learning French Henry. I had a mediocre introduction to French in high school then did nothing with the language for 30 years. When I took it up as a hobby, over 10 years ago, it turned into an obsession. You’re right that Spanish will help you. So will your love for graphic novels. It wasn’t until I started reading French again that I discovered this genre.

      Graphic Novels are fantastic for language learners. The pictures aid comprehension and since GNs are dialogue rich, you quickly start learning how people speak. Molière and Camus are wonderful but they don’t teach you how people talk.

      Thanks for stopping by. Hope you find time to check out part 2.

  8. Well, I think it just sounds so lovely.

  9. Breton is Celtic roots of old armorica today great britain. And now finally the Breton flag is at the Nantes city hall!!! See interceltique festival Lorient.

    • I learned a while ago that the Breton flag was the only black and white flag. Others since have tarnished that claim. Thanks for your comment.

      • Yes with the hermine representing the 9 dioceses of Brittany.best seen in near me in ste Anne d’Auray. Nantes or Loire atlantique is part of historical Brittany and a movement to attach it back. Kenavo

        • I must say Breton is alive here spoken in bars etc and all signage are in French/Breton like our Capital of the Morbihan only French dept not French Mor =sea bihan =small in French would be petite mer! and Vannes is Gwened!! Always an interesting subject evenn if just concentrate on travel. Cheers

  10. That’s fascinating. I know France had a history of regional languages but I’d assumed they were variations of French rather than separate languages.

  11. many tx for the fascinating post. just read Letters from a Peruvian Woman – written in 1747 by a woman author – fascinating take on France & women during that time…

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