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 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
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.
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.
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.