When we think of history, we think of changes to civilizations, ideologies and architecture. But what about the history of the way people spoke? Considering the importance placed on conserving the French language in France, it is surprising that we don’t discuss more how the language evolved into its present state. Babylangues is here to change that! This month, we’re having a little exploration into the Middle French period:
What Is Middle French?
Middle French was a period of the French language from about the 14th to the 17th century. It was preceded by the Old French period and succeeded by the Modern French period. It is an older version of the type of French spoken today, but was not necessarily widely spoken at the time. France had plenty of languages to go around! In southern parts, a variety of “Occitan” languages such as Gascon or Provençal were more widespread, and even the north had other varieties like Picard or Walloon. Then, when you factor in the elite and the royals who spoke Latin, you wonder how anyone managed to communicate.
Why Is It A Significant Period?
Amongst the heaps and heaps of regional varieties of French, one variety started edging out the competitors. The particular one chosen was the France spoken around the Île-de-France region. In 1536, King François I made “the French mother tongue” the language of law and order, therefore kicking Latin out of the administration. But the term “French mother tongue” is a tad ambiguous as it could have also included the numerous regional varieties of French.
We also see serious changes to the language itself: the declension system from Latin finally disappears, meaning that French begins to have a stricter word order. A number of new words were also formed based on Greek, Latin and Italian borrowings. The types of words borrowed were diverse: they had to do with literature, arts, war and trade. In the 17th century, a group of influential poets known as the Pléiades were of the opinion that the more words a language has, the richer it is, so if you don’t have enough words…make more!
The attitude to French in the intellectual sphere also started changing. Latin was usually the language of education before, but writers began appreciating the French language and its value for literary creation. The famous writer, Montaigne, made the conscious choice to write his “Essais” in French rather than Latin, because it allowed him to reach a wider audience of people. His father, on the other hand, was convinced that French would die out and Latin was the language of the future. Oh dear, how he was wrong.
What Happened Next?
Lots! The Modern French period came along, and technological advances as well as introducing compulsory schooling for children meant that the French language (or the variety spoken by royalty and elites, anyway) could be spread around the country much quicker. The following period saw a sharp decrease in speakers of regional French or other regional languages, sadly. French also gained lots more words from English and other languages too.
Why Does It All Matter?
The way people speak and their perception towards their own language is super important. Choosing to speak one variety of a language over another shows what is economically or socially prestigious at the time. It’s another side of history, and we can see its effects today just like with any other historical event. So, if you ever hear about how borrowing words is “polluting” the French language, just remember that it’s all been done before!
For another fun French language article, check out what we have to say on Verlan!