French is one of the five most widely-spoken Romance languages, each descended from Latin. French itself is an evolution of Gallo-Romance dialects - with a rich history well worth exploring. The story begins in Gaul…
Modern-day France and Belgium were once included in an ancient region of Western Europe known as Gaul, and while the Gaulish language hasn't left too much of an imprint on the modern French we learn today, it is the perfect place to begin getting to grips with the history of the French language.
When Gaul was conquered by the Romans in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, the Gaulish language (which was a Celtic language) came under attack - hence the true meaning of a 'Romance language' as "to speak in Roman fashion."
Thanks to the Romans, Latin superseded Gaulish to become the region's predominant language - and to progress up the social ladder, citizens had to learn and fully embrace it.
The Gaulish dialects disappeared, but not before passing on some 150 or so words to Latin. These were then passed on to the French language, with some seventy or so words of Gaulish origin surviving in modern French – "artuas" (ardoise, slate) and "battu" (batter, to beat), for example.
However, even the newly-embraced Latin wasn't safe from transformation. As the Roman Empire expanded, the Latin that was carried across the region was not the literary Latin of playwrights.
In a transformation widely attributed to the lower classes, Latin transmuted from its classical roots and took on a whole host of indigenous influences to become a 'language of the people' - Vulgar Latin.
While the French language has been distinct enough from Latin to be viewed as its own language since the 9th century, the Latin roots are still very much there. It is thanks to these roots that English speakers may feel they enjoy a head-start in learning to speak French.
The Germanic invasions which followed - known by the Romans as the "barbaric invasions" - had a big impact on the French language. When the Empire's frontiers collapsed and Gaul fell into the hands of the Franks, Vulgar Latin was further diluted by dialects from the different regions.
As Malcolm Offord notes in French Words: Past, Present and Future, the Franks imposed their own stress patterns and patterns of usage upon Vulgar Latin, and this goes a long way to explaining why French is so different to other languages descended from Latin - Italian and Spanish, for example.
As such, the Franks ensured the Gallo-Roman population became merged with the German settlers, and from this mixing pot of Germanic, Celtic and (predominantly) Latin roots, the French language emerged.
As with any other language, French has never been immune to strong influences from other languages, particularly Greek, Italian and English – the latter being a huge force on the language throughout the twentieth and twenty first centuries.
As the official language, or one of the official languages, of 33 countries, it's unsurprising that within the French language, different variations and dialects exist. Yet in France itself, Parisian French came to be upheld as the 'model' for French language, due to the capital's increasing importance from a cultural and political perspective.
Structurally, the language hasn't changed too much since that standardization - although linguistically French is always evolving; one of the most exciting things about any language.
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