Have you heard of Asterix and Obélix? They were two heroes from a very popular French comic book series that was set in France, from about 52 BC to the fifth century AD, was called La Gaule and was occupied by the Romans. The pair lived in a small village that resisted the occupation and the books followed their adventures. Every French school child has read Asterix and Obélix and so have grown up knowing about La Gaule. Despite this little is known about the origins of the Gaulois language, apart from the fact that it is an ancient Celtic language spoken in the Western and Central parts of Europe and Asia Minor. So how did modern French evolve from these Gaulois times?
The presence of Roman soldiers in Gaul and the fact that Roman administrative dealings were conducted in Latin, introduced to France a form of Latin called Vernacular Latin, which over time replaced Gaulish as the spoken language among the native inhabitants.
Today, however, about 350 Gaulish words exist in modern French – such as alouette (a lark), char (waggon cart, also used for military tank) and benne which eventually became bagnole (a slang way to say ‘car’).
Four hundred years later, the Franks of Germany conquered Gaul and bestowed upon it its modern name, France. They left behind approximately 100 Frank words, such as jardin, guerre and chamberlain. Another 400 years later, Northern France was invaded by Danish Vikings and about 90 words made it into the French language. Expressions from other European languages such as Greek, Spanish, Italian and more Latin vocabulary were also introduced into the French language during the Renaissance.
The first written forms of the language known as Old French were composed of two main dialects (the langue d’oc in the South of France and the langue d’oïl mostly in the North). By 1200, another dialect called Francien, which was spoken in Paris area, had become the dominant form and in 1539, during the reign of François 1, an official act imposed the use of French instead of Latin in the Language Administration of Law, securing French as the official language of France.
At the same time a group of poets called the Pléiades encouraged the French to develop and improve their language and literature. This move continued during the 17th century under the influence of King Louis XIV and Cardinal Richelieu who founded the French Academy – an institution that has had a profound and lasting influence on the development of French. Finally, the Revolution and the successive revolutionary governments imposed a degree of standardization of the French language throughout the entire country.
The French invasion of the English language
Today, the French language is spoken as a first language by more than 70 million people mainly in France, but its influence goes beyond these boundaries. In English there are thousands of French words – some studies say that as much as 40% of English comes from French sources – although English is really part of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family. How did this happen?
Strangely enough, it was not the descendants of those early Celts who transmitted the French language to England, but the Normans. After the Vikings had raided and plundered Northern France, they settled in what is now called Normandy and quickly adopted French culture and the language so that by the mid 1050s, they were completely “Frenchified”.
When William the Conqueror invaded England at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and subsequently distributed English land to his followers, who all spoke French, their language replaced English as the language of administration and culture for the next 200 years. Although initially French and English remained separate and were spoken by two distinct classes of people for the first hundred years, some Norman French words, such as garden, hours, market found their way into English.
The Norman domination in areas such as government, law, the church and the arts contributed expressions like: Court, crown, council, govern, justice, judge, crime, preach, pray, baptism, paradise, virgin, costume, art, colour, music, poems. Many words of Anglo-Saxon origins have since replaced these ‘loan’ words, but some of the latter have survived, and consequently modern English now contains numerous pairs of words of French and Anglo-Saxon origins with a similar meaning.
Many French loan words came from the use of French by the aristocracy, while English words in the same domain derived from ordinary people. Thus home and house are of English origin while manor and palace are French loan words; man and woman, son and daughter are English while butler, nurse, and servant are French. By 1400 English had again become the dominant language and every administrative document in England was written in English.
Political and cultural ties
However, the growing political and cultural influence of Britain during this period meant that the linguistic traffic between English and French became increasingly two-way. There were, of course, a significant number of French imports into English such as muscle, entrance, invite, promenade, liaison, faux pas in the 18th century, while English entries into French in the 17th century include rhum, pacquebot and flanelle.
If during the 19th century the flow of French words into English was steady, with imports such as chef, menu, cliché, restaurant, gourmet, blasé, etc. these were, in fact, outweighed by the number of English words entering the French language due to Britain’s increasing dominance in industry, textiles, sports and fashion. This imbalance increased in the 20th century due to the dominance of the United States in areas such as business, computer technology, finance and media.
However, in France there exists an official body called ‘Académie Française’ whose role it is to maintain the purity of the language. This somewhat anachronistic institution determines which words can be admitted officially into French which may explain why, despite the prevalence of different languages in trade and industry, French has not evolved and expanded as rapidly as English. There is no such official academy in the Anglophone countries, and new expressions find their way into the language almost on a daily basis.
No one knows the exact number of words in the English language today, but the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language suggests that there must be close to one million. Some say that if you allow for scientific terms, it could reach close to two million. When learning French, it might seem overwhelming with so many new vocabulary words to learn, but you’ll be glad to know that French has far fewer words than English (600,000 – 700,000) and that more and more of these French words are ‘English’.
In fact, one could even say that the invasion of English expressions into French has reached epidemic proportions as of late, especially with the increasing use of new technologies (Internet, cell phones, etc.) and in advertising!
Director of Learn French at Home
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