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The French Language

The French language is one of a group belonging to the Romance languages. Romance languages are Italic Indo-European languages derived from Latin since the 9th century.

The history of the French language reaches back to prior to the birth of Christ. The Romans, under command of Julius Caesar, conquered and occupied Gaul (modern-day France). A version of Latin spoken by Roman legions replaced the Gaulish spoken by the inhabitants of Gaul.

Gallo-Romance Era (c400 - c700)

In 406, the Franks, a band of Germanic tribes, invaded Gaul. The Germanic language did not gain precedence over Latin, as these tribes became Romanized, especially after the Frankish king, Clovis, converted to Christianity in 496. From this era, Celtic and Germanic words and pronunciations would influence and form part of the French language. Latin would, however, remain the major contributor to the structure and vocabulary.

Old French Era (c800 to c1200)

It is not known when the vernacular language of French emerged. The earliest vernacular written texts are the Strasbourg Oaths, sworn in 842 by Charlemagne's grandsons. It is not certain which French dialect the Oaths are written in. Of the two extant texts from the 10th century, one uses a mixture of northern and southern dialects in one, while the other is in a dialect from the far north.

French at this time was not a singular language. It was divided into langue d'oïl, spoken in Northern France, langue d'oc, spoken in the south of France, and franco-provençal, spoken in east-central France. Within each of these versions of French, there were dialects.

During the centuries of 1100 and 1200, Paris became the hub of French politics and culture and, with its growing importance, the Parisian French, known as francien, also captured prominence. Francien would become the standard written language by the end of the Old French era.

Middle French Era (c1300 to c1400)

Francien underwent many changes during the Middle French Era. Pronunciation and grammar began to differ substantially from Old French. For example, final consonants were no longer articulated. Legal clerks oversaw Middle French spelling which, in turn, became based on the grammatical elements rather than the phonetic aspect.

Writers promoted the use of francien in an attempt to establish a common literary language. The process of replacing Latin with Middle French in official administrative documents began.

Langue d'oc continued to be the commonly spoken language in the South; however, French or Latin was used for official texts.

Early Modern French Era (c1500)

French became a means of written communications and thesises in academic spheres. The first grammars of French were published.

Royal edicts concerning the promotion of French in legal proceedings cumulated in the Ordonnances de Villers-Cotterêt in 1539, wherein it was declared all court proceedings and deeds were to be written in French.

Early Modern French failed to make substantial inroads in the South and the vast majority of citizens continued to speak langue d'oc. A minimal percentage of these residents were literate.

In the early 1500's, the Italian language had a strong influence on French and contributed Italianisms. These were rejected later in this era.

Latin continued to have a strong hold on grammarians who were attempting to give French stability and rules. Spelling reforms based on phonology were proposed but were not successful.

The cedilla, apostrophe and "é" were incorporated.

Classical Modern French (c1600 – c1700)

French was controlled and codified during this era, resulting in complex rules. The Acadèmie Francaise was established in 1635 with the goal of clarifying French.

The "h" was no longer pronounced and some final consonants were restored. The Subject-Verb-Complement word order became standard.

French became the usual language of upper classes in the North. Meanwhile, in the South, French was becoming more common in towns.

French was adopted in international treaties in 1714. The French language spread to North America, the West Indies, India and Africa through colonization.

Classical and neoclassical French spellings and the reform conducted by the Acadèmie would have far-reaching effects. Modern French remains structurally in the same form to this date.

Contemporary Modern French (c1800 to present)

French experienced yet another unification program under the Revolutionaries. Abbé Grégoire, commissioned by the Revolutionaries, presented his findings in 1794 that 6 million people were unable to speak French and millions of others spoke it incorrectly. Linguistic unification became a priority.

Modern spoken French has evolved to accommodate new needs, however, written French remains substantially as established in the Classical Modern French Era.

Standard French is spoken as a first language by approximately 100 million people and as a second language by 200 million people. Dialects have been lost and are spoken now only in rural areas. Select major dialects are now offered in curriculum.

A spelling reform of 1990 changed the spelling of approximately 2,000 words and some grammar rules, but these have not yet been incorporated although the current Larousse and Le Petit Robert have mostly adopted them.