The Romance of French
Very few people know that French has its place in the world not in spite of English, but because of it. We began to think about this when we were at university, back in the days when the Berlin Wall was falling. Jean-Benoît arrived at McGill University speaking a kind of abstract English that was much more formal than the language the anglophones around him were using, especially in casual conversation. Fellow students usually knew what was meant when he mentioned that he was “perturbed” by a sore ankle or had “abandoned” his plan to travel to Africa. But off campus, such stiff language produced blank stares. Julie often served as an interpreter, explaining that Jean-Benoît’s ankle was bothering him and that he had given up his travel plans.
Jean-Benoît’s sophisticated English was normal for a French speaker. French is the Latin of anglophones. Nearly half of the commonly used words in English – for example, chase, catch, surf, challenge and staunch – are of French origin. And while their French origins have been largely forgotten by the majority of English speakers (who tend to believe the words come straight from Latin), the influence of French has remained in their linguistic subconscious. For the most part, so-called Latinate words in English are used only in formal speech: People will say “commence” or “inaugurate” instead of “begin” or “start.”
English is in fact the most Latin, and the most French, among Germanic languages, while French – for reasons that we will see – is the most Germanic among Latin languages. The French and English languages share a symbiotic relationship, and that should come as no surprise, as their histories have been inextricably linked for the past ten centuries. And that connection resulted from events that took place in the ten centuries before that. Few anglophones realize that by keeping French words in the “upper stratum” of their discourse, they are granting French a lofty position in their language and culture. As they export English all around the world, French and its high status have become part of the package. It’s one of the least-known explanations for the resilience of French today.
It is impossible to say exactly when French began. Linguists who study European languages spoken before the second millennium consider themselves lucky to recover sentences, known words or even fragments of written text. In most cases they reconstruct ancient languages by examining how they influenced more recent ones. Historians know more about what happened in France between 400 and 1000 ce than they know about the languages spoken there during that period. The most that can be said is that before French there were many Romance languages; before that there was Gallo-Roman; before that there was Latin, and before that, Gaulish. Three main events pushed the language from one phase to the next: the fall of the Roman Empire, the conquest of England and the rise of Paris as a centre of power.
Before the Romans arrived in what is today the northern half of France, its inhabitants spoke different Celtic languages. They were the descendants of tribes of Indo-Europeans who may have originated in Kazakhstan and who migrated to northern Europe during the third millennium bce. The tongue of the Celts, like Latin or Gaelic, belongs to the family of Indo-European languages, which also includes Greek and Hindi. The term was coined in 1787 by William Jones, a British Orientalist. He was puzzled by the fact that basic words such as papa and mama are remarkably similar in Greek, Latin, German, English, Sanskrit and Celtic, and he came up with the theory that most European languages were derived from a forgotten original tongue, which he called Indo-European.
The first Celts arrived with their Indo-European tongue in what is today northern France sometime during the first millennium bce. In the south of France, long before the Celts arrived, the Greeks had established a colony in Marseilles among the Ligurian people living there. But it was the Celts, not the Greeks, who spread across what is now France, pushing other inhabitants such as the Basques into remote corners of the territory. (Linguists describe the Basque language, which is still spoken in southern France and Spain, as pre-Indo-European. It is regarded as Europe’s oldest language.)
The Celts had barely met up with the Greeks in the south of France when the Romans entered the region in the second century bce. By then Gaul had somewhere between ten million and fifteen million inhabitants, prosperous and innovative farmers and stockbreeders who had invented the threshing machine, the plow and the barrel. But the Gauls were also good fighters, which explains why it took Rome a century and a half to subdue them; Julius Caesar finally conquered Gaul around 50 bce.
Curiously, the Celts of Gaul assimilated quickly into the culture of the Romans and started speaking their language. The Celts of Britannia (Britain), which was conquered by the Romans shortly afterwards, never did assimilate. Historians are still trying to understand this difference. Part of the explanation comes from the fact that prior to the Roman conquest, Gaul was already within the Roman economic sphere of influence. Gauls were already using the Roman sesterce as their currency of reference. When the Roman victors showed up with a new system of administration based on cities, a seductive urban culture, unparalleled building techniques and a complete and unified writing system, the Gauls saw the advantages of Roman culture. It didn’t take long for the Gaulish elite to start speaking Latin.
The Gaulish language ended up contributing very little to the vocabulary of modern French. Only about a hundred Gaulish words survived the centuries, mostly rural and agricultural terms such as bouleau (birch), sapin (fir), lotte (monkfish), mouton (sheep), charrue (plow), sillon (furrow), lande (moor) and boue (mud) – that’s eight percent of the total. However, Gaulish is still relatively well-known, partly because it left many place and family names in northern France. For example, the name Paris comes from the Parisii, a Gaulish tribe, and the word bituriges (which meant “kings of the world”) produced the names Bourges and Berry (the difference comes from whether the original name was pronounced with a Latin or a Gaulish accent). Linguists believe that Gaulish also contributed to development of the peculiar sonority of French, and that it was at the root of some important linguistic variations in what would become French. But, contrary to what some people believe, modern French is not Latin pronounced with a Gaulish accent.