By Sarah-Claire Jordan
French has always been considered one of the most proper languages, with a strict set of grammar and pronunciation rules that must be followed. This doesn’t mean that its history isn’t full of mixing dialects and the borrowing of words and rules from other languages. Just like most other Romance languages, French borrows heavily from Latin and all of the other languages spoken by those who lived in or conquered territory in what is now known as France.
It is true that today there is really only one “proper” dialect of French, which would be Parisian or Metropolitan French. This dialect is considered standard French in France, and is the dialect that is taught to anyone learning French as a second language. However, other French-speaking countries have their own ideas about what standard French is, like Canada and some francophone countries in Africa. If we are talking only about what is considered standard French within France, though, then we are talking about the Metropolitan/Parisian dialect.
Now that that’s cleared up, it might be useful to delve into the history of French just to get a better idea of how it came to be the language it is today. If you know a bit about ancient European history, you will know that what is now France was first occupied by the Celts, and then by the Romans. The Romans introduced Latin as the standard language for communication and commerce, eventually replacing any remnants of the Celtic/Gaulish languages.
Even before the collapse of the Roman empire, the Latin spoken by conquered peoples was not the same as that spoken by the elite. Once the empire was no more, this Latin became even more diverse, with different regions borrowing from the surrounding communities. Later on, with the Germanic invasions, the territory that is now France was occupied, yet again, by a few of the Germanic tribes, namely the Franks who outlived many of the other tribes. Under this new rule, Latin was only used for official documents, and politicians spoke only one of the Germanic languages.
The common folk, under Frankish rule, soon began speaking a language known as Romanic instead of the old vulgar Latin. Romanic is the language that would later evolve into Catalan, French, and others. More so than in other occupied areas, the Romanic spoken in Gaul evolved a lot thanks to the Germanic languages that were spoken by communities in contact with the people of Gaul. Being under Frankish rule, Frankish was the Germanic language that influenced Romanic the most. Frankish was only spoken among the elite classes.
Soon Romanic split up into different regional dialects, as languages are wont to do. The Romanic that was spoken by over 70% of the population under Frankish rule was influenced heavily by Frankish, and many of these Germanic elements are still seen today. Thanks to this influence, French is the Romance language with the most Germanic influence. The Romanic continued to grow and change, and soon a group of three distinct dialects of regional Romanic called French existed. These groups were langue d’oïl, langue d’oc, and Provençal. These groups still exist today, though modern French is considered part of the langue d’oïl family from the north.
Finally by the 9th century, Old French was more or less established. It still consisted of many different dialects, but one dialect in particular became more and more important thanks to the political and commercial importance of the region it was spoken in. This particular dialect, known as Francien, became very popular among the upper class and the middle class. Yes, that dialect was the ancestor to modern Metropolitan French.
Up until about the 13th or 14th centuries, Old French was alive and well. After that, Middle French developed and was used during the time of the 100 Years’ War and the period after that, which was wrought with famine, plagues, and other such disasters. Since it was such a turbulent time in French history, the structure of Middle French became a bit looser and pronunciation even changed a bit. Scholarly Latin as well as the Italian spoken at the time were huge influences on Middle French as well.
That leads us up to the 1600s, when Modern French was born. In the very beginning, it was still a language only spoken by the aristocracy and middle class, so they had a monopoly on what was considered proper and what wasn’t. Modern French received a bit of a makeover during this early period, with linguists and others deciding which words and pronunciations to continue using and which to toss aside. The purity of the language was so important that the Académie française was established in 1635 as a way to maintain the standards decided upon and to be the final judge of whether a term, structure, or pronunciation fit those standards.
During this whole time, the dialect that would become Metropolitan French, and the standard for French in France, was something that the lower classes had basically no access to. The only education they tended to receive was from the church, but the sermons were given in whatever patois that the peasants of the area spoke and understood. French was for the upper and middle classes, who had their own land and earned good wages. However, the Revolution would pit the middle and lower classes against the upper class. The middle class ended up with all the power, so they got to impose their way of speaking French on the masses. Essentially, whoever is in power decides what language is to be the official language.
If you think about it, keeping the peasants and lower class from learning and speaking the French that the upper class spoke was probably the best way to keep them from moving up the social ladder. If you don’t know how to communicate with anyone except those in your social class and community, you basically don’t stand a chance at migrating to a new social class. Also, if you can’t read or understand the laws and ordinances of your country, you won’t realize that you are in fact paying most of the taxes in your country while earning the least amount of money. Of course, enough people figured that out to revolt, but it might have happened sooner had the language of the land, and for the masses, been French.
French, as in standard French, became the language of the land, but at what cost? The other dialects that were spoken during the early years of Modern French were basically considered anything but French and “degenerate” languages. The dialects and languages considered as such included Breton, Picard, Basque, and Provençal. Thankfully, some of these are still spoken today or evolved into one of the several dialects found in modern France.
In fact, French was not successfully made the national language until the Ferry Law of 1881 which made school free and mandatory. Metropolitan French was taught in schools. Eventually, teachers wouldn’t even be hired unless they proved that they could speak and write in Metropolitan French. Spelling was especially important, and could mark you as belonging to a certain class. If your spelling was “improper”, you were probably lower class. Many of the decrees and ordinances pertaining to education in France were focused solely on the usage of standard French and the elimination of regional dialects.
This isn’t even considering all of the dialects outside of France and Europe, where language purists also tried to impose the same standards in terms of spelling and pronunciation. Today, more people are realizing that they should be proud of the type of French that they speak, and not worry whether it’s the same French that Parisians speak and was considered pure and correct not so long ago. This is a day and age of ease of communication, which means that rules and standards just get in the way sometimes. The best way to get someone to really listen to you, as someone with power, is to speak their language, literally. Imposing a standard can only get you so far, and in France it has clearly seen that.
The morphology, orthography, and structure of Metroplitan French haven’t changed much in over 200 years, and phonological changes have been few and far between in the past century. This actually makes it easier for people to learn it and become fluent in it, and since regional dialects are no longer looked down upon like they were before, the kind of French you speak doesn’t dictate your social status as much. France is finally starting to embrace its linguistic diversity and step into a new era of linguistic acceptance and unity rather than discrimination and oppression. Parisian French may still be the “ultimate” French dialect, and what you will learn in the classroom most likely, but a country with as interesting of a history as France can’t possibly settle for one national dialect. It may sound elegant and refined, but if it keeps someone from expressing their regional identity, it’s not worth promoting so avidly.
For an overview of our translation expertise, visit our editing service page.