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Old Language: OLD & MIDDLE FRENCH

Indo-European > Italic > Western Romance > Old French, Middle French

Old French is considered by philologists to be a blanket term for the vernacular Gallo-Romance dialects of northern France. It was these dialects which were most affected by the arrival of the Germanic Franks in the fifth century AD. Often called the Langue d'Oïl, this linguistic area eventually succumbed to the politically prestigious Francien variety of Paris, resulting in middle French and ultimately the modern standard itself.

The oldest written appearance of vernacular French is found in the Strasbourg Oaths, which, though it looks markedly different to its modern descendant, is agreed to be much closer to Old French than to original Latin. As the power of the Kings of France grew, so did their language. OF courtly literature was among the most respected in Europe. Heroic epics such as the La Chanson de Roland, comic yarns such as the Roman de Renart and the romances of the Grail Cycle gave French literature its foundation. Other Oïl varieties were eventually shunned, or fell out of use. Anglo-Norman, an important literary language in England, was one such variety, but it did not die without leaving its indelible mark on Middle English.

The Middle French period is usually said to have lasted from c.1340 - c.1610, and is usually characterised by the loss of noun-declensions. This was a turbulent era for France, which was ravaged by both the Hundred Years War and by bitter religious conflict. Regional dialects were still common in literature, and Latin was still the most common language for legal affairs.

In 1539 King François I passed the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts, which made French the sole official language of the law. This is generally seen as the first major step towards Modern Standard French, though in truth it was many centuries before regional dialects or the Occitan languages were truly superceded in everyday life.

examples of old & middle french

Pro Deo amur et pro christian poblo et nostro commun salvament, d'ist di in avant, in quant Deus savir et podir me dunat, si salvarai eo cist meon fradre Karlo et in ajudha et in cadhuna cosa, si cum om per dreit son fradra salvar dift, in o quid il mi altresi fazet, et ab Ludher nul plaid numquam prindrai qui, meon vol, cist meon fradre Karle in damno sit.
From 'The Strasbourg Oaths', c.842. (Translation: 'For the love of God, and for the salvation of the Christian people and for our common salvation, from this day forward, in so far as God gives me knowledge and power, I will help this my brother Charles both in aid and in everything, as one ought by right to help one's brother, on condition that he does the same for me; and I will never undertake any agreement with Lothair which, by my consent, night be of harm to this my brother Charles.' Peter Rickard)

Franceis i fierent de coer e de vigur;
Paien sunt morz a millers e a fuls:
De cent millers n’en poënt guarir dous.
Dist l’arcevesques : ‘Nostre hume sunt mult proz ;
Suz ciel n’ad rei plus en ait de meillors.
Il est escrit en la Geste Francor
Que bons vassals out nostre empereür.’
From 'La Chanson de Roland' (lines 1438-1444), possibly late 11th C. (Translation: "The Franks have struck with courage and vigour; the pagans have died in swarms, by the thousand. They cannot save two from a hundred thousand men. It is written in the Frankish annals that our emperor has real vassals.’" Glyn Burgess)

Freres humains qui après nous vivez
N’ayez les cuers contre nous endurcis
Car se pitié de nous povres avez
Dieu en aura plus tost de vous mercis.
François Villon, L'Epitaphe Villon (Ballade des Pendus), lines 1-4, c.1462. (Translation: "Brothers who live when we are gone, do not harden your hearts against us. For if you have pity on our poor souls, God will sooner take pity upon you.").

a short old & middle french bibliography
  • Wendy Ayres-Bennet, A History of the French Language Through Texts (Routledge, London: 1996)
  • Peter Rickard, A History of the French Language (Routledge, London: 1993)
  • M.K. Pope, From Latin to Modern French (Manchester: 1934)
  • Jacques Chaurand, Nouvelle Histoire de la Langue Francaise (Seuil, Paris: 1999)
  • Simon Gaunt, Retelling the Tale: An introduction to Medieval French Literature (London: 2001)
  • E. Einhorn, Old French: a concise handbook (Cambridge: 1974)
  • more to follow

some old & middle french links

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