Today French is spoken on five of seven continents, is an official language in 29 independent nations and has unofficial or secondary status in 30+ others. But how did French get to these places? Has it always been there? And how has it changed over time?
Like many other languages, including English, the history of French is one of conquest, cultural mixing, and standardization, with geography, political power, and prestige all playing a role. Ready for an adventure? On y go! ("Let’s go!" in Franglais 😉)
Il était une fois… (Once upon a time…)
By 800 BCE in what is now France, there were three groups living, working, and speaking their languages in neighboring territories: the Ligurians (in Provence, southeastern France) speaking Ligurian, the Iberians (in Languedoc, south-central France) speaking Iberian, and the Aquitani (in southwestern France) speaking Basque. None of these groups were Indo-European, the common ancestor language for languages spoken over the greater part of Europe and Asia, but soon a number of newcomers would show up with a variety of Indo-European languages that mixed with, competed with, and eventually replaced these original languages. The most influential groups were:
- The Gauls (800 BCE-500 CE)
- The Romans (121 BCE-5th century)
- A number of Germanic tribes (2nd-6th century)
- The Vikings (9th-10th century)
The French often repeat the phrase Nos ancêtres, les Gaulois "Our ancestors, the Gauls" when speaking of their cultural and linguistic heritage, but their influence was actually quite limited. The Gauls were a group of Celtic tribes from present-day Germany who crossed into northeastern France, bringing with them their Celtic language—Gaulish—which was Indo-European. Although now extinct, Gaulish is in the same family tree as other Celtic languages spoken today, like Scottish Gaelic, Irish, and Breton (in northwestern France).
The Gauls didn’t leave much behind language-wise, but you can still find their traces in present-day French if you look hard enough! In standard Continental French, the word for 80 is actually "four twenties" (4 x 20)—quatre-vingts—and you have the Gauls to thank for this batty system! The Celts had a well-known vigesimal ("base 20") counting system: instead of using 10 as the base for counting, they used 20 (for their 10 fingers + 10 toes!). Other French varieties, including some in Switzerland and Belgium, instead use the Latin system based on 10; their word for 80 is from "eight tens" (8 x 10)—huitante or octante.
It was precisely during the Gaulish heyday that the Romans, led by Julius Caesar, showed up and annexed Gaul as part of their rapidly spreading conquest. When the Roman Empire took over around 121 BCE, people were expected to pick up the language of those in power: Latin. Children who were born during this period spoke Gaulish at home and Latin out in the community, but by the time they grew up, Latin was the dominant language. By the end of the 6th century, Gaulish had been entirely replaced by Latin everywhere in Gaul, except in very small towns.
Germanic tribes and the Vikings
As the Roman Empire spread north and west through present-day France from the 2nd to the 6th centuries, Germanic invaders including the Franks, Visigoths, Burgundians, and Alamanni began arriving en masse from the north and east. All this Germanik panik had a lasting effect on French vocabulary (especially words about war, agricultural life, and colors) and pronunciation. Two of the biggest changes were the introduction of a new vowel, the schwa, and the *reintroduction* of the sound "h," as in *heaume* (helmet) and *héron* (heron), which had been lost from the original Latin pronunciation. And actually, that wouldn't be the last time speakers of Germanic languages barged into France; the Vikings made their *entrée* in the 9th and 10th centuries, eventually establishing the Duchy of Normandy (named after Scandinavian *nordmand* "North man"), and bringing with them seafaring vocabulary and a handful of place names.
French emerges as the national language
The first French text
The first identifiably French text emerges in 842 CE, penned at the monumental event known as The Oaths of Strasbourg. At the time, Charlemagne's three grandsons were vying for control of the empire: Lothair, the named heir, had two younger brothers who wanted to rule the kingdom in his place: Louis the German who spoke German with his constituents and Charles the Bald who spoke the ever-evolving local version of what used to be Latin. In the name of all that is reality TV, Charles and Louis each publicly took an oath against their brother Lothair in the other's language so that the other soldiers could understand them (what a Tiktok this would make #oathtok #brothers #germanic #romance #frenchvoilà #lothairsuxx). The oaths didn’t have much political significance after the Treaty of Verdun hacked the empire up among all three brothers, but linguists delight at them because they constitute the oldest French text on record!
One French dialect becomes the standard
All these changes over the centuries led to the separation of France into three main dialect groups, reflective of the cultural and linguistic groups that inhabited them: the Oïl (pronounced OY!) dialect group to the north, the Oc dialect to the south, and Francoprovençal in the east-central. Oïl and Oc don’t look like much more than some rad band names, but they were actually the word for “yes” in each of the dialects—cognates with standard French oui!
In fact, the 5th through the 12th centuries are often referred to as the heyday of dialects—every village had its own variety, and the only time you’d get any kind of uniformity would be in market towns where people from many places would gather together and try to make themselves understood enough to do business. It was during this period that Paris rose to the top as "Best in show" among these market towns. Not because of the ragin’ designer handbag scene but because it was located near three different bodies of water, was close to several fertile agricultural zones, and was the site of the literary scene upheld by the Royal Court. By the end of the 12th century, it was already fashionable to avoid using one’s regional variety in favor of the posh variety coming from Paris. le eyeroll
It wasn’t until 1539 with the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts that French was legally required to replace Latin and regional dialects in administrative documents. This declaration made this offshoot of Latin legitimate and just as worthy of prestige as Latin, so it also paved the way for scientific and literary publications to be printed in French. Such widespread use of French led to all sorts of linguistic innovations:
- the double (two-part) negative: je ne marche pas "I don’t walk a step," je ne bois goutte "I don’t drink a drop," je ne mange mie "I don’t eat a crumb." (Can you tell which one ended up becoming the negative form for all verbs?)
- new words from other languages: académie "academy" from Greek, colombe "dove" from Latin, bizarre "bizarre" from Spanish, and bagatelle "trifle" from Italian.
- the birth of liaison: a pronunciation rule by which all word-final consonants remain unpronounced unless they are followed by a vowel, so today in les maisons (the houses), les is pronounced without the "s" (like "lay" in English), but in les amis (the friends), the "s" is pronounced as a "z" (like "lays" in English). The modern rule has changed since the 1600s, but liaison is still an important part of French pronunciation!
The national language and the French Academy
In the 17th century, the vast majority of people living in France were still speaking regional language varieties (from Latin, Germanic, and other sources) and unable to hold even a simple conversation in the so-called “national language.” In 1635, the Académie française, or "French Academy," was founded to standardize and surveil the language and prevent it from unnecessary changes brought about by outside (read: foreign) contact. Two dramatic changes they advocated for were standardizing the pronunciation of words, which meant choosing which dialect's pronunciation would be counted as "correct", and standardizing spelling (formerly, words were spelled how they were pronounced, which could be different in different places!).
In the following centuries, the French government launched a national campaign to universalize the usage of French throughout France and put an end to regional language varieties. The immediate result of this national initiative was one of bilingualism, where people used French in official settings like school and work, but still preferred their local variety in less formal settings. The French government also enforced the grammar prescribed by the French Academy for all official business, including exams, administrative documents, and even job access. When WWI broke out, soldiers in France were grouped nationally rather than regionally, a feat which was greatly facilitated by their ability to communicate in a common language.
How French spread across the world
During the 17th to 19th centuries, France established colonies in North America, the Caribbean, India, Africa, Indochina, and the South Pacific, transplanting its language and culture alongside its political presence. The linguistic result of this contact was that French was forced on these communities, oftentimes yielding French-based creoles like Haitian Creole, Antillean Creole, and Mauritian Creole, which continue to be spoken today, long after political independence from France.
Meanwhile, back in France, the national campaign to homogenize French citizens and make them French-only speakers had mostly worked: the vestiges of the earlier regional languages and varieties remain today almost entirely in the regional accents used to speak the standard. The so-called neutral variety targeted by news broadcasters is often cited as being from Tours (a city in northeastern France), but it is essentially the same as other northern French varieties, sometimes also called “Parisian” or “Metropolitan” French—that early market-town prestige lives on!
Vive le franglais!
In recent years, French, like many languages, has acquired new borrowings from English that have been popularized in sectors where English-language culture has dominated, such as technology, business, and pop culture. Words like un e-mail, un meeting and un happy end (think Hollywood) are as commonplace in 21st century French as la révolution and une baguette! The French Academy from the 17th century is still very much around today, and a good portion of its job involves creating and prescribing native French equivalents for English borrowings, in an attempt to stave off what they perceive to be unwanted linguistic influence. Accordingly, they instead propose the use of the Frencher alternatives: un courriel (un e-mail), une réunion (un meeting), une fin heureuse (un happy end) for the terms above. It will not surprise you to learn that their attempts to police the language are fabulously unsuccessful.
Quebec has its own French-language academy, known as the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) that does something similar, and it has its own tolerance of English borrowings, too (surprisingly a lot lower than France’s!). For example, un smartphone is the totally accepted term in France, but is seen as entirely too anglo in Quebec, where they instead prefer the term un téléphone intelligent! The OQLF’s attempts to rein in English influence in Canadian French are slightly more respected in Canada than the French Academy’s is elsewhere in the world (this due to Quebec’s aggressive French language planning campaign in the 20th century), but it is still a temporary and inauthentic solution to the unavoidable reality of language contact and mixing.
French marches on
Now that you’ve read all about the history of French and how it has quite naturally absorbed words from many languages and cultures after brief and sustained periods of contact over time, you will honhonhon (laugh à la French) to know that no amount of legislation will ever be able to keep it in check because a language is a living, breathing entity as diverse as the community of speakers who use it. As you study this glorious linguistic tapestry woven by Gauls, Ligurians, Romans, and Germanic tribes, know there's so much more to "French" than meets the œil!