The history and growth of the French language

The history and growth of the French language

by Anne-Lise Vassoille

Updated August 9, 2023

Though Contemporary Modern French has been in use since about the 19th century, this represents just the last stage of a long evolution. French actually traces its roots to the Latin spoken during the Roman Empire, which is why it’s now classified as a Romance language. Throughout the centuries, French has not only evolved considerably but has also transformed other languages such as English. French remains a source of national pride and identity and is seen as an invaluable tool to promote French culture and influence on the global stage. 

With such a fascinating history and place in the world, many questions come to mind. When was French born and how did it become a language? How did French evolve through the centuries to become what it is today? And, with 300 million people speaking French across the world, how did it manage to spread so successfully?

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Where did the French language come from? 

If you’re familiar with French comics, you probably know Asterix, the little Gaulish hero always fighting against the Roman invaders. Funnily enough, Asterix is a perfect metaphor to describe the double origins of the French language. 

The region of Gaul once spread over a large part of Western Europe, including France. It was indeed invaded by the Romans and became a part of the Roman Empire. In order to assert their power, the Roman conquerors established Latin as the predominant language of the region. This effectively spelled the end of the Gaulish dialects, even though about 150 Gaulish words managed to make their way into Latin.

The Latin that was imported into Gaul was not the high-brow language used by the likes of Cicero. Instead, it was what is known as Vulgar Latin, a colloquial form of Latin that was developed through popular usage. In the third century, Germanic invasions contributed to the French language’s evolution away from Latin. In particular, the Franks imposed the use of their own language across the region, further diluting the use of spoken Latin. 

Indeed, the history and geography of France have a lot to say about how the French language was formed and transformed over the centuries. France shares southern borders with both Italy and Spain and sits next to Germany to the east. And on the other side of the Channel, Great Britain is not far away. As such, French has evolved in significantly different ways from other Romance languages. This is why, if you compare French to Italian or Spanish, you’ll find they sound very different, even though the spelling of words is often very similar. 

Let’s look in more detail at how French evolved to become what it is today.

From the origin of the French language to today

By the ninth century, French had distanced itself sufficiently from Latin to be considered a language in its own right. But the French written and spoken in those times was a far cry from the French that’s used today, and modern French speakers would struggle to understand it. This ancient form of French, known as francien, lasted until the 13th century.

It was followed by Middle French, from about the 14th to the 16th centuries. This evolution was marked by significant changes in grammar and pronunciation and by efforts of standardization. The language also became a tool for French kings to assert their power over the country. This is why King François I signed the ordonnance de Villers-Cotterêts (Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts) in 1539, which replaced Latin with French as the official language for all legal and administrative matters. The invention of the printing machine in the 15th century also contributed to standardizing the language.

This led to Classical Modern French in the 17th and 18th centuries. From Molière and Racine illuminating the French stage with some of their most famous plays to the philosophers of the siècle des Lumières (Age of Enlightenment) that paved the way for the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen (Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen), this is a time when the French language thrived. It’s probably no surprise that the Académie française was founded in 1635. This was also a period of international prestige when the French language extended its influence well beyond France.

How has the French language spread around the world?

Of course, the phenomenon started centuries before. As far back as 1066, the invasion of Great Britain by William the Conqueror allowed the French language to enrich the English vocabulary. But the movement gained speed from the 17th century onwards, with the colonial expansion of France from America to Africa. This is why, still to this day, French is the official language of 29 countries, which also makes it the fifth-most-spoken language in the world. It’s also an official language of several global organizations, including the European Union and the United Nations.

With France being one of the top economies in the world, French is a very useful language to master in order to conduct business internationally. There have also been clear efforts by various French governments to promote the French language and culture abroad, in order to help France maintain its influence on the global stage. Organizations such as the Alliance française have been created with this very mission at their core.

The origin story of the French language

Taking its roots from both Latin and Gaulish dialects, the history of the French language is both long and slow. It took many centuries for French to take the shape it has today. Along the way, it had the time to spread in many countries across the world, exporting French culture and helping the country to cement its global influence.

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Anne-Lise Vassoille

Anne-Lise is a translator and copywriter working for various industries… Settled down in London, she cannot get enough of the exceptional cultural life in the English capital city, starting with theater, be it to see a new West End show or to roll up her sleeves with her amateur drama group. She is also interested in photography, as her Instagram profile shows. She indulges her passion for languages in a translation blog she writes with other linguist friends. Go to her Linkedin page to know more about her background and her professional experience.

Anne-Lise Vassoille
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