It’s hard to imagine a time when French writers were uncertain about the legitimacy and importance of their language, but that was the case in the sixteenth century. French was considered appropriate for vulgar (that is, popular) writing or for old medieval poetic forms such as rondeaux or madrigals, but not for “higher” forms of writing, higher learning or the sciences, which were still the exclusive domain of Latin. While François I didn’t regulate French in any way, his policies did legitimize the efforts of the many artists, poets, savants and printers who were trying to dump Latin and make French prestigious by inserting it into the language of state administration, universities and spheres of higher learning such as medicine and poetry. In some ways writers led the way in this movement.The most militant anti-Latin lobby in France was a group of poets originally called the Brigade who were soon to choose a more poetic name: La Pléiade. They were up-and-coming writers who wanted to position themselves as a literary avant-garde. Their manifesto, Déffence et illustration de la langue Françoyse (Defence and Illustration of the French Language), was an indictment of Latin in favour of French. It was published in 1549, ten years after the publication of the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts. Signed by the poet Joachim Du Bellay, it begged poets to use French for the new-found forms of classic Greek and Latin literature—the ode, the elegy, and comedy and tragedy (these were, of course, very old forms, but they were only just being rediscovered after having been forgotten for more than a thousand years). In a chapter titled “Exhortation to Frenchmen,” Du Bellay wonders, “Why are we so hard on ourselves? Why do we use foreign languages as if we were ashamed to use our own?…Thou must not be ashamed of writing in thy own language.” The debate is surprisingly similar to the twentieth-century one in which French musicians wondered if it was possible to make rock ’n’ roll in their own language. François I’s policies definitely added weight to the case made by Du Bellay and the Pléiade poets. While Du Bellay’s Déffence was in many ways a squabble between poets over their art, it also contained a program for the promotion of French in science and art.
French picked up and integrated as many as two thousand Italian words, such as arcade, balcon (balcony), concert, cavalerie (cavalry), infanterie (infantry) and bizarre. The result was a cornucopia of terms from regional and foreign languages. For modern readers, the most surprising aspect of sixteenth-century French is its casualness. Most French speakers today, especially the purists, assume that French was born clear and uniform, but until the seventeenth century the language had none of the orderly precision for which it would be famous in centuries to come. During the baroque period, French was indeed baroque. Writers of François I’s era treated French like a buffet dinner, helping themselves to words from regional dialects and foreign languages, creating new words as it suited them, using verbs as nouns and basically serving up the language any way they pleased. This large-scale creativity and inventiveness gave writers a verve and a vigour that would never be matched once the cult of bon usage (correct usage) took hold in the next century.
By the twelfth century, writers from the regions around Paris—Picardy, Wallonie, Normandy, Champagne and Orléans—were making a conscious effort to eliminate dialectal characteristics in their writing so they could be understood by a larger number of people. However, regional influences did not disappear all at once. For example, Béroul’s Tristan et Iseut (Tristan and Isolde) was the work of a Norman-speaking trouvère (a troubadour of the north), whereas Chrétien de Troyes’s Romans de la table ronde (Stories of the Round Table) clearly shows accents of Champagne. Yet their writing shows they purposefully blurred dialectal differences. It was not the last time in the history of French that a group of writers would take the lead in hammering out the language. According to the French lexicographer Alain Rey, by the twelfth century this scripta—which Gaston Paris called Francien— already existed in an oral form among the lettrés (men and women of letters). But Francien took much longer to become a mother tongue. Somewhere between the beginning and the end of the second Hundred Years War (1337–1453), a significant part of the urban population of Paris had acquired a sort of common language they called Françoys, and each generation was transmitting more of this tongue to its children. Year after year its vocabulary widened beyond words for trade and domestic life. After millions of informal exchanges at all levels of society over centuries, this scripta finally became a common mother tongue.
The mixture of a solidly established Romance aristocracy with the Old English grassroots produced a new language, a “French of England,” which came to be known as Anglo-Norman. It was perfectly intelligible to the speakers of other langues d’oïl and also gave French its first anglicisms, words such as bateau (boat) and the four points of the compass, nord, sud, est and ouest. The most famous Romance chanson de geste, the Song of Roland, was written in Anglo-Norman. The first verse shows how “French” this language was: Carles li reis, nostre emperere magnes, set anz tuz pleins ad estéd en Espaigne, Tresqu’en la mer cunquist la tere altaigne… King Charles, our great emperor, stayed in Spain a full seven years: and he conquered the high lands up to the sea… Francophones are probably not aware of how much England contributed to the development of French. England’s court was an important production centre for Romance literature, and most of the early legends of King Arthur were written in Anglo-Norman. Robert Wace, who came from the Channel Island of Jersey, first evoked the mythical Round Table in his Roman de Brut, written in French in 1155. An Englishman, William Caxton, even produced the first “vocabulary” of French and English (a precursor of the dictionary) in 1480. But for four centuries after William seized the English crown, the exchange between Old English and Romance was pretty much the other way around—from Romance to English. Linguists dispute whether a quarter or a half of the basic English vocabulary comes from French. Part of the argument has to do with the fact that some borrowings are referred to as Latinates, a term that tends to obscure the fact that they actually come from French (as we explain later, the English worked hard to push away or hide the influence of French). Words such as charge, council, court, debt, judge, justice, merchant and parliament are straight borrowings from eleventh-century Romance, often with no modification in spelling. In her book Honni soit qui mal y pense, Henriette Walter points out that the historical developments of French and English are so closely related that anglophone students find it easier to read Old French than francophones do. The reason is simple: Words such as acointance, chalenge, plege, estriver, remaindre and esquier disappeared from the French vocabulary but remained in English as acquaintance, challenge, pledge, strive, remain and squire—with their original meanings. The word bacon, which francophones today decry as an English import, is an old Frankish term that took root in English. Words that people think are totally English, such as foreign, pedigree, budget, proud and view, are actually Romance terms pronounced with an English accent: forain, pied-de-grue (crane’s foot—a symbol used in genealogical trees to mark a line of succession), bougette (purse), prud (valiant) and vëue. Like all other Romance vernaculars, Anglo-Norman evolved quickly.English became the expression of a profound brand of nationalism long before French did. As early as the thirteenth century, the English were struggling to define their nation in opposition to the French, a phenomenon that is no doubt the root of the peculiar mixture of attraction and repulsion most anglophones feel towards the French today, whether they admit it or not. When Norman kings tried to add their French territory to England and unify their kingdom under the English Crown, the French of course resisted. The situation led to the first, lesser-known Hundred Years War (1159–1299). This long quarrel forced the Anglo-Norman aristocracy to take sides. Those who chose England got closer to the local grassroots, setting the Anglo-Norman aristocracy on the road to assimilation into English.
The influence of the langues d’oc and d’oïl produced a situation in which French had started exporting itself even before it had become a fully developed language with a coherent writing system. Between the tenth and fifteenth centuries, Romance impressed itself on Europe as the language of worldly business, helping to relegate Latin to the religious sphere, although the latter did remain a language of science and philosophy for many more centuries. In the Mediterranean region, fishermen, sailors and merchants used a rudimentary version of langue d’oc mixed with Italian that people called the lingua franca (“Frankish language”), and over time this spoken language soaked up influences from Italian, Spanish and Turkish. (Today a lingua franca is any common language used in economics, diplomacy or science, in a context where it is not a mother tongue.) The Mediterranean lingua franca never evolved into anyone’s mother tongue, which is why there are very few written traces of it. A rare rendition of it appears in a seventeenth-century comedy by the French playwright Molière, who had been a wandering actor before he entered Louis XIV’s Court. In his Le bourgeois gentilhomme (The Would-Be Gentleman), Molière creates the character of a fake Turk who speaks in lingua franca (for obvious comical effect): Se ti sabir, / Ti respondir; se non sabir, / Tazir, Tazir. Mi star Mufti / Ti qui star ti? Non intendir, / Tazir, tazir. If you know, / you must respond. If you don’t know, / you must shut up. I am the Mufti, / who are you? I don’t understand; / shut up, shut up.2 It was the Crusades, which were dominated by the French, that turned lingua franca into the dominant language in the Mediterranean. More than half a dozen Crusades were carried out over nearly three centuries. Many Germans and English also participated, but the Arabs uniformly referred to the Crusaders as Franj, caring little whether they said oc, oïl, ja or yes. Interestingly, Arabic, the language of the common enemy, gave French roughly a thousand terms, including amiral (admiral), alcool (alcohol), coton (cotton) and sirop (syrup). The great prevalence of Arabic words in French scientific language—terms such as algèbre (algebra), alchimie (alchemy) and zéro (zero)—underlines the fact that the Arabs were definitely at the cutting edge of knowledge at the time.
By the fourteenth century, Romance dialects belonged to two broad categories. Those in which “yes” was pronounced oc—mostly south of the Loire River—were called langues d’oc (oc languages). Those in which speakers said oïl for “yes”—in the north—were called langues d’oïl, a term which came to be used interchangeably with Françoys. Oïl and oc are both derivatives of the Latin hoc (this, that), which at the time was used to say yes. In the south they simply chopped off the h. In the north, for some reason, hoc was reduced to a simple o, and qualifiers were added—o-je, o-nos, o-vos for “yes for me,” “yes for us” and “yes for you.” This was complicated, so speakers eventually settled for the neutral o-il—“yes for that.” The term was used in the dialects of Picardy, Normandy, Champagne and Orléans. Other important langues d’oïl were Angevin, Poitevin and Bourguignon, spoken in Anjou, Poitiers and Burgundy, which were considerably farther south of Paris. Scholars debate who created the designations langues d’oïl and langues d’oc. The poet Dante Alighieri, in his De vulgari eloquentia of 1304, was one of the first to introduce the term langue d’oc, opposing it to the langue d’oïl and the langue de si (Romance from Italy). A fifth important langue d’oïl was Walloon, the dialect of the future Belgium. The langues d’oc attained their golden age in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when groups of wandering musicians, or troubadours, travelled from city to city spreading a new form of sung poem that extolled the ideal of courtly love, or fin’amor. This new poetry was very different from the cruder epic poems of the north, the chansons de geste, and it enjoyed great literary prestige that boosted the influence of two southern rulers, the Count of Toulouse and the Duke of Aquitaine. Even many Italian courts adopted the langue d’oc, which is also known today as Occitan. Wandering poets of the north, the trouvères of Champagne, also borrowed and popularized the song-poems of the south.
In 813 the Council of Tours encouraged priests to preach in rusticam romanam linguam (the rustic Roman language). It was the first clear indication that people outside of the Church spoke not Latin, but Roman. In English this language is often referred to as Romanic and more generally as Romance, derived from romanz, as it was spelled in Romance. The term actually applied to all the Latin-based languages being spoken in France at the time. They are also called Gallo-Romance languages to distinguish them from the Romance languages of Spain, Italy and Romania (Basque and Breton do not fall into this category). The first complete text to appear in French Romance was Les serments de Strasbourg (the Oaths of Strasbourg), a treaty struck between two grandsons of the Frankish Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (742–814), Louis the German and Charles the Bald, in 842. One version of the text is in Romance, the other is in a German vernacular called Francique. According to the treaty, Louis took his oath in Romance in front of his brother’s men, who spoke Romance, while Charles made the same pledge to Louis’s men in Francique.
Roughly ten percent of modern French words come from Frankish, including words describing home life, clothing, war and emotions, such as fauteuil (armchair), gant (glove), robe (dress), champion, guerre (war), muraille (wall), falaise (cliff), émoi (emotion), honte (shame) and orgueil (pride). Although eighty percent of the words in modern French have Latin or Gallo-Roman roots, the Frankish influence explains why French went on to become the most Germanic of Latin-based languages. The Franks also created a strong “brand”—until the tenth century the king in Paris was called King of the Franks. Germans to this day call France Frankreich (empire of the Franks). Over the centuries the language of the Franks gradually came to be known as Françoys. All languages have three parts: phonetics (pronunciation), grammar and a lexicon (vocabulary), and each part changes constantly.