French is a language that really needs no introduction.
It’s the official language of France of course, but it’s an official language of 29 countries in total. That includes other countries in Europe : namely Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Monaco ; numerous countries in Africa ; Canada where it’s spoken mainly in the province of Quebec ; the Caribbean ; South America and the South Pacific.
It’s estimated that French is spoken by more than 200 million speakers, including people who speak it as a second language, the majority of them in Africa.
French is also an important language of international diplomacy and used to be the main global lingua franca.
French is a member of the Gallo-Romance branch of the romance language family which descended from Vulgar Latin, just like all romance languages did. It’s also part of a smaller subset of Gallo-Romance called “Langues d’Oïl”, a dialect continuum in northern France, southern Belgium, and the Channel Islands which includes “Francien”, the dialect from which standard French derived, and its closest relatives.
In the second century BCE, present-day France was part of the Gaul region which also included Belgium, Switzerland, northern Italy and parts of Germany and the Netherlands. The Gaul spoke Gaulish which was not a unified language but rather a series of Celtic languages and dialects, but very little is known about Gaulish.
The Roman Empire conquered Gaul in the second and first centuries BCE, and in order to become Roman citizens, Gauls were required to adopt the Roman way of life, including their language : Latin. Being able to speak Latin became a way to gain social status, economic opportunity, and employment in the civil service.
Over the next few centuries, Gaulish-Latin bilingualism became more common and eventually, Latin dominated, and the Gaulish languages disappeared. The common people spoke Vulgar Latin, a vernacular form of Latin that differed from the formal written language and also differed from place to place throughout the Roman Empire.
Beginning in the year 375 C.E. , the Germanic invasions began and gradually replaced the Western Roman Empire with Germanic kingdoms. The fall of the empire accelerated the divergence of Vulgar Latin into distinct “Romanic” dialects.
The dialect of northern Gaul, which would later develop into the “Langues d’Oïl” changed more than others because of frequent contact with Germanic languages like Frankish spoken by the elite. The Frankish elites spoke both Frankish and Romanic. After a while they spoke mainly Romanic dialects, but Frankish left an important footprint on those dialects.
French (which developed from one of these Romanic dialects) got approximately 550 words from Frankish, or around 13% of the total number of long words in French ; and its phonology was greatly influenced as well. This is a large part of why French phonology is so distinct from other romance languages : it developed from the Germanized Romanic speech of the Frankish elite.
Romanic dialects gradually grew into distinct languages, and by the eighth century, the dialects of the northwestern part of the Frankish kingdom grew into a number of dialects that are collectively referred to as “Old French” which later began to be called the “Langue d’Oïl” as they develop further.
There was no standard form of Old French but rather a dialect continuum. One of those dialect, “Francien” was spoken in a small area around Paris, and it’s the old French variety from which standard French developed. Francien is a modern word. At the time the dialect was actually called “François”. That name later evolved into “Français”, the name of “French” today.
The king of the upper classes spoke Frankish, Latin was the language of writing, and the common people who were mostly illiterate spoke one of the various dialects. But over the next few centuries the upper classes began to speak Francien.
Under King Louis IX, Francien gained new prestige and was adopted by the upper classes in cities around the kingdom. The common people continued to speak local dialects, and Latin continued to serve as the language of education, the courts, and academia throughout the Catholic world.
Under King Philip IV, French began to be used as the language of official documents and government, and began to compete with Latin as a written language.
Middle French: 14th 16th centuries
During the Middle French period, French changed dramatically, particularly in its phonology. But scholars tried to maintain the language which means that the written French of today often reflects the pronunciation of French before those changes took place.
Old French had two cases retained from Latin, but those also disappeared in the Middle French. And this resulted in the word order of French being more fixed. This was during the Renaissance period when the cultural influence of Italy influenced French. 8000 Italian vocabulary words entered French (800 of which are still in use today).
In the 16th century, King François I signed the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts, which made French the official language of administration instead of Latin. The Catholic Church fought hard against this move and didn’t want the Holy Scriptures to be translated into common languages, but their efforts ultimately failed.
The printing press also helped to spread French because people could read and understand it then they could Latin, so publishers printed more books in French.
Modern French: 17th century onwards
In the 17th century, French took the place of Latin as the lingua Franca of Europe and the Catholic world.
This was also the century in which grammarians sought to standardize “proper” French with the publishing of French grammars, and the Académie Française was founded in 1635 with the mission of promoting proper French and preserving that form of the language. At that time, only a small percentage of the people in France actually spoke French, most of them spoke other “Langues d’Oïl”, the other regional varieties of speech.
Later in 1880, universal education would be established, and French would be made the sole language of education, and the only language permitted to be spoken at school. This measure would push standard French to be near universally spoken throughout the country.
In the 18th century, French became the language of international diplomacy, used in international legal documents, and so on, reaching a status similar to the status of English today. French maintained this status until the time of the First World War. French may not currently be the most widely spoken global lingua franca, but it’s still an important diplomatic language : it’s one of the official languages of the UN and the European Union, international courts, as well as aid agencies and NGOs.
You might wonder why is French still spoken in so many countries around the world?
That’s because in the 17th century, France began establishing colonies all over the globe. After losing most of these colonies in wars with other colonial powers, France began a second colonial empire, establishing mainly colonies in Africa, south-east Asia and the south Pacific. Aside from a few overseas department and territories of France, these colonies no longer exist, but French is still spoken in many of those places.