Which family does French belong to?
Français derives from the particular evolution of Latin through the contact with Gaelic, a Celtic language. Given the scarcity of language documents relating to the period of the Roman domination in Gaul, we are not able to determine the time when definitively Latin replaced Celtic; however, this substitution occurred gradually, and probably in the 5th century Latin had been imposed in the main centers relegating Celtic in remote areas of the countryside. In this long period of coexistence, Latin absorbed some elements of Celtic vocabulary (words such as bruyère, vassal, chemise are of Celtic origin), but even more it absorbed the particular Celtic phonic trends, which still constitute the main features of French (e.g., the loss of geminate consonants which become simple, the sonorization of voiceless intervocalic consonants, etc.).
The invasion of the Franks (V cent.), a Germanic population, brought a new period of bilingualism; but the language of this people, the Franconian, could not contrast the superior prestige of Latin, where it left, however, numerous lexical residues (e.g., gant, guerre, garder, jardin, baron, fauteuil, galoper, etc.) and also morphological traces (for example the suffix –ard: richard, vantard, bastard, etc.). We are not able to follow the different stages of the evolution of the original Latin, but we know that at the beginning of the 9th century French people spoke no longer the language of Rome, and they were not able even to understand it: in fact, in 813 the Chapter of Tours required the clergy to pronounce the sermons in rustica romana lingua aut theotisca so that the people could follow them.
Where does French come from?
The first document of the Romance language spoken in France is represented by Sacramenta Argentariae (the Oaths of Strasbourg), of the 842, while its first literary use was documented by Cantilène de Sainte Eulalie, of the late 9th century. Since that moment many literary compositions follow; they have a common linguistic basis but also significant dialectal differences, depending on the region of origin. It is possible to distinguish two main dialect areas, one d’oïl (or French as such), in North-Central France, one d’oc (or Provencal), extended in the South. Within the area d’oïl we can distinguish some dialects, among which the most important are the Norman in the west, the Picard and the Walloon in the north, the Lorraine in the east, the dialects of the Champagne, Burgundian in Burgundy, the Angevin in Anjou, and the dialect of Ile-de France (Paris), which will become the language of all the French.
While Latin continued to be the official language of the real chancery, the school and the academic culture, trends of the new culture, especially popular in the middle class, found expression in the new language. In the period from the early XIV to the XVI century, a new literary language arised from spoken French: it finally abandoned the declination in two cases and it gradually acquired a more specific syntactic structure. During the Renaissance the great number of translations from Latin, Greek and Italian enriched the lexicon, and the literary success of Rabelais, Montaigne and Ronsard made sure that it would spread throughout the national territory. In 1539 the Edict of Villers-Cotterêts prescribed the use of French in all legal documents; it became the official state language, which rapidly spread.
The Revolution of 1789 hastened the process of diffusion and popularization of the language throughout the country and in all social classes, imposing its use in all public activities and in the school. It gave impetus to a profound renewal of the language that continued even in the Romantic period and throughout the 19th century, leading to its significant enrichment. All these facts, in addition of course to various historical events, led French to be really the language of all the French people, and to the disappearance of many dialects.
Who speaks French?
Beside France, French is officially spoken today in Luxembourg, Belgium (next to Flemish), Switzerland (along with Italian and German), Canada (along with English) in the Republic of Haiti; it is also used as relational language (in addition to the local languages) in many parts of Africa and Asia which have undergone the French colonization.
What are the main linguistic characteristics of French?
Compared to other Romance languages, French is the one that is more detached from Latin, especially in phonetics; the large current discrepancy between pronunciation and graphic representation of the sounds in French orthography is the result of continuous phonetic evolution that has not been followed by parallel changes in writing, which remained faithful to the older forms. With regard to the lexicon, beside preserving words of Celtic and Germanic origin, French has been greatly influenced, in later times, by Italian (particularly in the 16th century) and English (especially in the 18th century).
- Enciclopedia Grolier