French

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French

French language, French français, probably the most internationally significant Romance language in the world.

At the beginning of the 21st century, French was an official language of more than 25 countries. In France and Corsica about 60 million individuals use it as their first language, in Canada more than 7.3 million, in Belgium more than 3.9 million, in Switzerland (cantons of Neuchâtel, Vaud, Genève, Valais, Fribourg) more than 1.8 million, in Monaco some 80,000, in Italy some 100,000, and in the United States (especially Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont) some 1.3 million. Furthermore, more than 49 million Africans—in such countries as Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Congo (Brazzaville), Congo (Kinshasa), Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Guinea, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Togo, and Tunisia—use French as a first or second language, and millions of inhabitants of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia use it as their principal international language. Many creole French speakers too use standard French in formal situations.

History

The first document apparently written in French probably dates from 842. Known as the Strasbourg Oaths, it is a Romance version of oaths sworn by two of Charlemagne’s grandsons. Some claim that the text of that document is thinly disguised Latin constructed after the event to look authentic for political propaganda purposes, while others suppose that its Latinizing tendencies reveal the struggle of the scribe with the problems of spelling French as it was spoken at the time. If the language of the Strasbourg Oaths is northern French, it is difficult to ascertain what dialect it represents; some say that of Picard, the dialect of Picardy, others Franco-Provençal, and so on.

The second existing text in Old French (with Picard and Walloon features) is a rendering of a short sequence by Prudentius on the life of St. Eulalia, precisely dated 880–882 CE. Two 10th-century texts (the Passion du Christ and the Vie de St. Léger) seem to mingle northern and southern dialect features, while another (the “Jonas fragment”) is obviously from the far north. In the 12th century the “gem” of the epic poems known as chansons de geste, La Chanson de Roland, was written. One of the most beautiful poems of its type in world literature, it evinces certain dialectal characteristics the origins of which are difficult to establish. In the 12th–13th century the Francien dialect became dominant, and it gained the status of literary language because of both the central position of the Île-de-France region and the political and cultural prestige of Paris.

The Francien dialect was basically a north-central dialect with some northern features. Before that, other dialects, especially Norman (which developed in Britain as Anglo-Norman, widely used until the 14th century) and northern dialects (such as Picard), had more prestige, especially in the literary sphere (see Anglo-Norman literature).

The legal reform known as the Edict of Villers-Cotterêts (1539), however, established Francien as the only official language (as opposed to both Latin and other dialects) after it proved to be the most popular written form. From then on, standard French began to replace local dialects, which were officially discouraged, though the standard language did not spread to popular usage in all regions until well into the 19th century. Dialectal features, which were still admired and cherished by 16th-century writers, were ridiculed in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the grammar and vocabulary of the modern language were standardized and polished to an unprecedented degree.

Francien has largely replaced other regional dialects of French spoken in northern and central France; those dialects made up the so-called langue d’oïl (the term is based on the French use of the word oïl, modern oui, for “yes”). Standard French has also greatly reduced the use of the Occitan language of southern France (the so-called langue d’oc, from Provençal oc for “yes”). Provençal, Occitan’s major dialect, was a widely used medieval literary language.

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