Modern Language: FRENCH

Indo-European > Italic > Western Romance > French

Traditionally the language of international diplomacy and culture, French is the mother tongue of fifty-one million people in France, as well as four million in Belgium, over a million in Switzerland and six million in Canada. The legacy of France's colonial history means that French is the official language of many more countries, most of them in Africa.

Modern French ultimately descended from the Vulgar Latin spoken in the Ile-de-France, though it had been greatly influenced by the Germanic tongue of the Franks. France was traditionally divided into two dialect areas, the Langue D'Oïl in the north and the Langue D'Oc in the south (so named for the local words for 'yes'). Though the southern 'Occitan' (or 'Provençal') became an important language of Mediterranean trade and culture, it was the northern variety that eventually dominated.

The earliest French vernacular texts were the 9th century Strasbourg Oaths, but the flowering of the Old French literary period probably came with the chansons de geste, courtly poems that championed the tales of such figures as Charlemagne. The centuries leading up to the French Revolution in 1789 saw a concerted effort to codify and centralize the language (as well as the state), embodied by the foundation of the Académie française in 1635 (Ayres-Bennet, 1996: p178).

French has had a profound influence on many other languages, but none more so than English. So it is all the more surprising that those who govern the French language have taken measures to restrict the use of anglicismes. While words such as 'le weekend' and 'le shopping' have become very hard to shift, books such as Evitez le franglais, parlez francais offer advice to francophones who wish to give back many English loanwords. In 1994 a law was passed (the Toubon Law) officially protecting French in the media and in education. Such a law does not exist for English in the UK.

examples of french

A tant son pere aperceut que vrayment il estudioyt tresbien et y mettoyt tout son temps, toutesfoys qu'en rien ne prouffitoyt, et que pys est, qu'il en devenoyt fou, niays, tout reveux et rassoté.
François Rabelais, 'Gargantua', 1534. (Translation: "Then his father realized that in truth he was studying very well and applying all his time to it, that nevertheless he was becoming stupid, idiotic, completely foolish and feeble-minded." Ayres-Bennet, p144)

Il en a coûté sans doute pour établir la liberté en Angleterre; c'est dans des mers de sang qu'on a noyé l'idole du pouvoir despotique; mais les Anglais ne croient point avoir acheté trop cher leur lois. Les autres nations n'ont pas eu moins de troubles, n'ont pas versé moins de sang qu'eux; mais ce sang qu'elles ont répandu pour la cause de leur liberté n'a fait que cimenter leur servitude.
Voltaire, 'Lettres Philosophiques sur les Anglais', 1733. (Translation: "The cost of liberty has undoubtedly been high in England; it is in seas of blood that the idol of despotic power has been drowned; yet the English do not think that they have bought their laws too expensively. Other nations have suffered calamities just as great, and have shed as much blood; but the blood they spilt in defence of their liberties only enslaved them more.")

Aujourd'hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. J’ai reçu un télégramme de l’asile : «Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués.» Cela ne veut rien dire. C’était peut-être hier.
Albert Camus, 'L'Etranger', 1942. (Translation: "Mum died today. Or perhaps yesterday, I don't know. I got a telegram from the home: "Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely. That doesn't mean anything. It may have been yesterday.")

a short french bibliography
  • Wendy Ayres-Bennet, A History of the French Language Through Texts (Routledge, London: 1996)
  • Urban T. Holmes Jr & Alexander H. Schutz, A History of the French Language (New York: 1933)
  • Peter Rickard, A History of the French Language (Routledge, London: 1993)
  • Jacques Chaurand, Nouvelle Histoire de la Langue Francaise (Seuil, Paris: 1999)
  • M.K. Pope, From Latin to Modern French (Manchester: 1934)
  • Martin Harris & Nigel Vincent (eds), The Romance Languages (Routledge, London: 1990)
  • Yves Laroche-Clair & Bernard Pivot, Evitez le franglais, parlez français (Albin Michel, Paris: 2004)

some french links


At 03:49, Anonymous sulz said...

hey good post, particularly abt that bit whr french is the biggest influence on the english vocab. i wrote a mini paper on french loanwords, maybe you'd like to read and comment on it in my blog. thanks for reading, bonne journee!

At 05:28, Blogger petescully said...

i wrote a huge mega-paper on the subject, and decided that i didn't like the term 'loanword' any more - after all, we're never going to give the words back, are we!! Maybe if the French cancel the debt, then we will all get along swimmingly. anyway, I've decided that the best term is actually 'sharewords'. It sounds pretty lame I know, but it makes the most sense.

At 14:00, Anonymous sulz said...

you have a point regarding loanwords. in my research i have come across a linguist who has the same sentiments as you but used a more formal term than yours. however, sharewords somewhat connote that the word is shared equal ownership by two languages, which is not the case, is it?

personally, i feel the term 'loanwords' is still appropriate figuratively if not literally because it gives credit to the language we borrowed it from. it's not the question of returning the borrowed words, but rather the acknowledgement of the origin of the loanword. kind of like when someone says he owes his success to his parents, but how is he really ever paying back the success?

one could argue fundamentally english is made up of loanwords but the difference is that french loanwords (and others if the same rule can be applied) do not follow the phonetic and phonological rule in english and therefore cannot be considered truly english in essence, but nevertheless accepted in the language for its wide usage.

so really we should find a term, if loanword is not to one's agreement, that credits the origin of the language the word is taken from. i can top you in the lame-o-meter; how about sourcewords? already i have a mental image of dipping words in mayonnaise...

At 17:00, Blogger petescully said...

sourcewords is good. i definitely prefer it. but as for equal 'ownership', i think as soon as a language starts to use a word, it then does own it. however, it does not mean that the word is like a child - it can't spend two weekends out of every four across the channel. So after the word has been shared with another language, the concept of shared ownership is abandoned.

It's all just terminology. One of the reasons I don't like 'loanwords' is because I feel that Anglo-French is still actually used, within the boundaries of Modern English; those words are our heritage as much as those of Saxon origin. Read William Rothwell on this point, he's spent his career banging on about it.

At 00:44, Anonymous sulz said...

your take on loanwords is very contemporary, but nevertheless a valid point; as i said, english or even any language is made up of loanwords, just the question of how long has it been in the language and is it considered native or foreign.

i shall read rothwell when i can find some time to


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