Politics and the Development of the French Language Standard

Jeremy Hubble
1 July 1997
Linguistics 485
Dr. Weeda
I. Linguistic Heritage of France
II. Dialect Development
III. Other languages and Dialects in France
. A. Northern France: Walloon - Picard - Breton - Norman French
. B. Southern France: Occitan - Catalan - Basque - Italian - Spanish
. C. Other Languages: Romani - English
IV. Bibliography

Politics and the Development of the French Language Standard

The French culture holds in high esteem all things French. From language to music to visual arts, France has attempted to regulate many areas of its everyday culture. Accordingly, French is one of the most stringently codified languages in existence today. The French Academy works to ensure that non-French words are kept out or expurgated from the language. Today, even areas such as the Internet and technology are unsafe from the intrusion of the Académie Française. Recent laws have restricted the use of non-French words, and required all French operations, even Internet sites, to have all content available in French. [ The Internet site from Georgia Tech’s French campus was the first to feel the wrath of this law. They have been prosecuted for having English without French translation on their site. [Kramer (1997), p. 1]] Furthermore, all new foreign technological words that enter the country are banned and French equivalents are prescribed. Today, like in the past, France remains remarkably resilient to linguistic invasion.

Linguistic Heritage of France

Today the French hold their language in high regard. Talking to a Frenchman, it would almost be assumed that French is a direct descendent of the original pure language of the Garden of Eden. Even though France is home to some of the oldest cave paintings, its language is anything but Adamic. Millennia after the cave painters, the recorded history of France begins around 1000 BC, when the area of modern day France was occupied by Celtic tribes. These tribes established their civilization and occupied the country with little trauma for the next nine centuries. They had some influence in the culture of the area, leaving behind a significant number of artifacts, but they had only a marginal impact on the language of today.

The major force for the development of the modern French language was the Roman occupation of Gaul. The Romans set up an outpost in Southern France in 121 BC to protect important trade routes. The Romans later, realizing the vast riches of the region, decided to take it all for themselves. In 52 BC, Julius Caesar defeated king Vercingetorix at Alesia, thus establishing Roman domination of the area. With the Roman victory came the firm establishment of the Latin language standard. This would be the standard from which modern French would eventually evolve.

The Roman province of Gaul [ "In 120 BC South-East Gaul was constituted a Roman Province: Gallia Transalpina ; ... by 51 BC, Caesar had completed the conquest of North Gaul, and out of the later acquisitions there were constituted by Augustus the three provinces, Aquitania, Gallia Lugdunensis (la Lyonnaise) and Gallia Belgica in 27 BC." [Pope (1952), p. 1]] , which consisted of most of modern day France thrived during the Pax Romana. As the Roman Empire prospered in the first two centuries AD, so did Gaul. During this time, Latin became firmly entrenched as the standard language of the area, and there were few other significant influences. Unfortunately, this peace and prosperity would not last forever. The Roman Empire had spread itself too thin, and would eventually fall to various attacking tribes. The tribes were unable to entirely supplant the Latin language base. Even though the Romans were conquered, the Vulgar Latin spoken by the people would evolve as the base for all of the modern Romance languages.

The most significant of the early invaders were the Franks, from which the present day name "France" is derived. During the violence of the Middle Ages, the Salian Franks, seeking new territory, invaded Gaul. They eventually settled permanently in France, and coexisted in a period of bilingualism with the descendants of the Romans. Due to respect for the Roman Empire, and the fact that the ex-Roman inhabitants greatly outnumbered them, the Franks assimilated the culture of the natives. The Franks, a Germanic people, saw themselves as a weaker race and adopted the Romance tongue and many of the Roman customs already being practiced in the region. Eventually, the Franks and the Gallo-Latins became one unified French culture.

In the process of assimilation, however, the Franks had a significant impact on the language being spoken in Gaul. During the rapid assimilation of the Franks, there was a great degree of lexical borrowing and phonological alteration. Of even greater import, the Frankish leadership permitted the peaceful entry of a large number of Rhine Franks into Eastern Gaul. The large number of new Franks had an even greater impact on the language, and in total the Franks added at least 1000 words to the French lexicon.

By 800 BC, Charlemagne had successful joined much of the territory of the former Latin empire in the new Holy Roman Empire [ In 768, Charlemagne inherited the kingdom of the Franks. From there, he launched a large-scale campaign, converting pagans to Christianity, conquering other tribes, and restoring religion and the arts to much of Europe. [Dagenais (1991)]] . This empire, however, was short lived. Various other invaders soon returned to the region, splitting up the empire once and for all. Of these, the most significant in France were the Normans. Their invasion destroyed the unity of France, and resulted in the country being divided into a multitude of various independent feudal lordships. The lack of central authority would help lead to a large number of dialect differentiations. However, like the Franks, the Normans adopted a form of the Romance language as their own. Their primary area of influence was in the Normandy region of Northeastern France. From there, William the Conqueror would later begin his exploits that would include the conquest of England. This had a major impact on the English language, but the future exploits of English leaders would prove more significant for France.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, in the 12th Century, married the English monarch Henry II (after having her marriage with the French Louis VII annulled), thus giving control of Western France to England. [ England at this time maintained French as its preferred language for elite and official discourse. The variety of French spoken in England, however, had degenerated to some degree from that spoken in mainland France.] This situation, however, was short lived. By the beginning of the 13th century, Phillippe II Auguste completed a series of exploits in the bedroom and the battlefield to effectively strip Normandy from the Normans and unify most of France. The score with England, was not yet settled, and the two countries would be at war almost continuously up until the 19th century. The borders of France, however, for the most part would remain intact, and a unified language could finally begin to develop.

Dialect Development

After the fall of the Roman Empire, a great number of Latin derivatives began to form. The Middle Ages provided an ideal time for the formation of new languages. The common spoken languages began to differentiate significantly from the Roman written standard. This written standard of Latin was retained by the learned and the clergy (often the same people) for the continuation of written discourse. The common people, however, were uneducated in either the written or spoken forms of Latin. For local communication, they began to adopt their own regional dialects. There was limited travel during the time period, thus a continuum developed as the language tended to diverge from one site to another. Neighbors could often understand each other. However, as they moved further and further from home, the language distinction grew. At this time leadership was localized, with the lords and princes exercising primary control over their peasants. The unified kingdoms and nations were still yet to be formed. Thus, each locality had a greater degree of autonomy, and accordingly, had a greater degree of linguistic variation.

The Crusades were the first major instance of large-scale ‘peaceful’ contact of the people occupying the areas formerly contained in the Roman Empire. Pope Urban II essentially began the first Crusade by gathering people outside the central French city of Clermont-Ferrand in 1095. During the First Crusade, we have some of the earliest records of acknowledgment of the distinction between the French of Northern France and that of Southern France. [ Lodge (1993), p. 96] (During this time, however, there was a great degree of ambiguity in the employment of the term "France" and consequently "French". Sometimes "France" referred to the Ile-de-France and the dialect thereof. At other times, however, it referred to the entire northern region that was governed by the King of France and all the dialects thereof.)

In the northern region of France, the upper class adopted the speech of Paris as their standard. In distinguishing between the dialects of France, Roger Bacon referred to Parisian French as "pure French", while referring to the other dialects by their regional names. [ Lodge (1993), p. 100] Not only had Parisian French become the standard of northern France, it also was adopted by many of the neighboring countries as a standard language of diplomacy. Paris at the time had been growing greatly in size and was to become the largest of the cities of Northern Europe. With size and influence in political actions, linguistic strength follows.

Paris, however, is a large, diverse city with a great deal of variation within itself. Thus, many French, even to this day, consider the language of Tours to be the most ‘pure’ French. [ Hawkins (1993), p. 75] This belief came in to existence in the 15th and 16th centuries when the court spent long periods of residence in the region. Furthermore, foreigners frequently studied French in the region. The relative proximity to Paris allows Tours to quickly adopt major linguistic changes. However, by being outside of Paris, the region was spared from a great deal of non-standard and street variations of the language. Thus the myth persists that Tours is home to the most ‘pure’ French. However, even in Tours, the linguistic ‘purity’ is often restricted to the upper and middle classes. The lower classes still retain a flavor of their local dialect. Furthermore, Paris remains the center from which most all standards in French emanate. Thus, in spite of its reputation, the French of Tours is no more pure than that of any other region.

At the time of the standardization of Parisian French, the only dialect giving serious competition was the language of the ruling elite of Toulouse. Southern France had once occupied a position of greater importance than the north. Accordingly, Occitan [ Today, Occitan serves as both an umbrella term for the many different languages of the south, and as specific identifier of the various languages themselves (Languedocien, Limousin, Gascon, Provençal). In this initial discussion, it will be used to refer to the language group, with emphasis on the Toulouse region (the area that had the most impact on the development of the language)] was one of the first quasi-standards of communication in France. Occitan had spread in importance throughout southern France in the 13th and 14th centuries, with many of the legal records of those days being recorded in Occitan. However, the southerners were unable to unify and maintain their political power to the extent that their northern counterparts were able. While the power of Northern France was centered upon a supreme authority in Paris, no power in Southern France enjoyed that degree of supremacy. Unable to unify its forces politically, southern France was subsequently unable to create linguistic unity. To this day, there does not exist a single standard for spoken (or written) Occitan.

Even though the northern and southern varieties of French were dueling for dominance in Medieval France, there was still no clear standard among the individual varieties. There was a great degree of variation in the various dialects spoken throughout France. Disparity was even to be found within the dialects themselves. One dialect would often adopt characteristics of another in literary writing. Furthermore, it is difficult to find a precise central point from which a feature may have emerged. Prior to the invention of the printing press, there can be seen a great degree of variation in the written texts of even the regions of Northern France. These differentiations are probably due to distinctions in the pronunciation of the various regions. One characteristic that exhibited extreme variation was the distinction between the use of -s or -z as the final consonant in past forms. [The differentiation ranged sporadically from 0 to 100% usage throughout Northern France. There was, however, no distinct regional pattern. [Dees (1980),p. 282]]

Other languages and Dialects in France

Today, Parisian French has been adopted as the universal language standard in France. Throughout the world, however, this standard has diverged heavily to form regional dialects and creoles. Furthermore, even in France itself, there remain a number of languages that are vying for more attention. Especially in rural regions, many of these antiquated languages are still held in high esteem by their speakers.

There is much dispute concerning what should be considered a distinct language, and what should be considered a dialect of another language. Often politics come to be involved more than linguistic heritage. For the sake of simplicity, all Latin-derivatives spoken in areas in which France is the official language will be grouped together in this consideration of minority tongues in France. Furthermore, other significant non-Romance tongues will also be considered. The terms dialect and language will be used interchangeably to refer to these minority tongues.

Northern France

The Langue d’oil [ The terms Langue d’oc and langue d’oc are dervived from the medieval terms for yes in the languages. [Lodge(1993), p. 73]] spoken in Northern France is that which would eventually give birth to standard French spoken today. The Parisian dialect was eventually adopted as the basis for the standard; however, it was not without competition from other local dialects. Furthermore, Northern France borders on a number of Germanic speaking regions. Accordingly there are a number of German and Dutch dialects spoken primarily in the border regions of France. These neighboring countries had significant impact on the development of the language of the border regions. Regions such as Alsace and Lorraine have been traded back and forth between Germany and France for centuries. Because of this trading, it is only natural that a German dialect (Alsatian) develop in those regions when they are under German control. However, when control switches to France, the German quickly subsides and French becomes the standard, and there is very little complaining that Alsatian is not taught in schools. Thus, even though the Germanic languages have played a very important role in the region, they have had very little impact on the national linguistic picture. Like the Franks and the Normans, the ‘modern’ Germans have eventually succumbed to the French language pressure.


Walloon is a Romance dialect that was spoken in the French section of Belgium and some of the bordering regions in France. Today, it is nearing extinction, with only a few native speakers remaining. However, there is a revitalization movement underway. It has no spoken standard, and a written standard is only now being formed. Thus, there is a great degree of dialectal differentiation even within the small region in which Walloon is spoken. Being located primarily in the bilingual country of Belgium, Walloon has been significantly influenced by Belgian Dutch. Many word borrowings have occurred, especially from Flemish (the Belgian dialect of Dutch). Syntax has also been affected, adopting some constructions and word order differing from the Romance standard. (Adjectives generally go before the noun instead of after.) The lack of a standard made it impossible for Walloon to achieve linguistic prominence. Instead it grew to be a ‘buffer’ language connecting the Germanic in the north to the Romance in the South. Even though Wallonia would later blossom to be a major urban center in Europe, it was never closely allied with France. It would, however, eventually adopt the Parisian French as its standard for communication. Walloon is often considered to be a dialect of French.


Picard bears a great deal of similarity to Walloon, and in many cases they two are referred to as the Picard-Walloon dialect. [ Ewert (1969), p. 7] Like Walloon and Parisian French, Picard is a northern dialect (Langue d’oil). Near the end of the 12th century, Picard lodged one of the most serious challenges to the regional dominance of Parisian French. The Picardians would eventually succumb to the influence of Paris, but not without a fight. In the process of the duel, Parisian French adopted a number of characteristics of the Picardian variety. Furthermore, the Picard dialect continued to be used literarily until the 15th century. Any degree of respect that Picard had enjoyed quickly waned in the centuries that followed. Due to the similarity between Picard and the ‘standard’ French dialect, there was a great deal of mutual intelligibility. Instead of being considered separate language systems, Picard, like other northern dialects, grew to be considered as a "comic deviation from higher-class norms." [ Lodge (1993), p. 195]


Breton is a Celtic dialect spoken in the Brittany region of France. To a limited extent, it still thrives today. As a Celtic language, it differs significantly from the other languages spoken in France. However, just as the Celts were conquered and assimilated into the Roman culture, the Celtic language, too, was to be placed behind the more important Romance languages. The inhabitants of the Breton region feel much more strongly about their regional identity than the inhabitants of most other regions of France. There have been various movements for granting Brittany’s independence. However, there has never been a serious threat of Brittany leaving France. Instead, most of the Breton "nationalists" have settled instead for concessions from the French government. Thus, Brittany has a greater degree of autonomy than other regions of France. Furthermore, though Breton has not been granted official status, it is taught regularly in the schools. The language is still alive today, and may yet grow to achieve a degree of official respect.

Norman French

Norman French will be more remembered for its impact on English than French, though it was not without impact in France. The Normans, a Germanic tribe from Northern Europe, settled in Normandy in the 10th century. By 910 they had settled ‘Haute Normandie’, and by 923 they had completed their conquest of ‘Basse Normandie’. [ Pope (1952), p. 11] Like the Franks before them, the Normans adopted the local Romance tongue, with a small number of Germanic variations. Though the Normans were a strong, war-like people, they were also clearly different than the French. The French had already began to establish their sense of national pride, and thus tended to relate more with Paris than any other region. Even though the Normans grew to a control a great deal of what is now France, the Norman culture was still viewed as an outside force, differing from that of France. Today, a descendent of Norman French is still used today by some rural inhabitants of the Channel Islands [ World Factbook (1995), p. 2] .

Southern France

The Langue d’oc of Southern France was never standardized. Thus there are a wide variety of different dialects still spoken today in Southern France. Furthermore, the south shares borders with three other Romance language countries (Spain, Italy, and Andorra.). Since the languages of all these countries are derived from the same Vulgar Latin, it is natural for there to be a great degree of interaction between the two languages at the border. Furthermore, the great distance from the northern linguistic center of France further exacerbates the problem and thus permits a great degree of variation from the ‘standard’ dialect of French.


Occitan is an important and diverse group of languages spoken throughout much of Southern France. Today, it is still spoken by a large number of people [ Estimates vary considerably. Wardhaugh (1987) estimates there are 2,000,000 Occitan speakers in Southern France. The Ethnologue database [Grimers(1997)] separates the various southern languages and puts a total figure of slightly more than 1,000,000 speakers, with many of those having only "some knowledge" of the language.] and is also taught (as a second language) in many of the region’s schools. It represents the most significant string of the southern French languages (Langue d’oc). Its importance, however, has waned significantly from the time in which it was a significant competitor with Parisian French. Though there can still be found many early records written in French, Occitan of today commands little respect among non-speakers Thus, the various Occitan languages are often viewed today as a remnant of the rural past, and standardization has had little success.

Throughout its history, Occitan has been hampered by the lack of a distinct standard. Recent attempts have been made to implement semi-official bodies for the standardization of Occitan [ Lodge (1993), p. 219] . Unfortunately, these efforts are coming centuries after they might have been effective. Today, Occitan can be divided in to three very distinct language groups: Nord (Limousin), Sud, and Gascon. [ Laroussi (1993), p. 91. He refers to these as dialects of Occitan. Other linguists, however, consider Provençal, Languedocien, Gascon, Limousin, and Auvergnat to be structurally separate languages. [See France in Grimers(1997)] ] The Sud variety is even further divided into Langdocien and Provençal. This great variation and lack of mutual intelligibility have made it difficult for a standard to develop. In the 19th century there was a short lived literary revival of Occitan. However, the revival has since given way to the old status as a highly fragmented group of related languages.


Today over 11 million people speak Catalan, and in Northern Spain and Andorra the language enjoys official status. In France, the number of Catalan speakers is small, numbering less than 300,000 today, and concentrated in the border regions of Southern France. The literary dialect of Catalan is a composite of the any regional variations. Catalan, along with Breton, Basque and Occitan, was granted ‘promoted status’ in 1951, allowing it to be taught in state schools. As is the case with Occitan, there have also been attempts to standardize Catalan. These attempts have only recently achieved success in Spain and Andorra (due in part to the official status of the language) [ Catalan is the official language of the province of Catalonia in Spain and the principality of Andorra] . However, in France, Catalan remains a fringe dialect. Furthermore, due to the southern isolation of Catalan, it never had a significant chance of becoming the official language of France. Catalan is more closely related to other Spanish dialects than it is to French dialects, and accordingly was never seen as a truly French tongue.


Basque, like the northern Breton is a non-Romance language with a strong nationalistic following. However, Basque is further distinguished by not being related to any of the Indo-European languages. The Basque language is vastly different than any of the other tongues spoken in modern France. Through time, its lexicon has a incorporated a variety of words from many different languages. The Basque people, however, are very independent with a strong sense of pride. This has allowed their language to still remain strong today, in spite of the lack of any official status. However, the uniqueness of the language and the people have made it difficult for the language to assume any important role as a standard tongue.


Today various dialectic strains of Italian are spoken by approximately one million Frenchmen, primarily near the Italian border. Most of these speakers, however, are also completely fluent in French. Today, Italian is not given much consideration as a separate tongue in France. It is rare to see movements for independence and official status as are seen with Basque and Breton. Most Italian dialects spoken in France are more closely related to Occitan than they are to Italian. Thus the speakers rarely think of themselves as speaking Italian, and instead tend to consider that they are speaking a variety of French. These dialects are remnants of the pre-codified Romance language continuum stretching through Italy and France.

Italian is the major language which bears the closest lexical similarity to modern French. Accordingly, prior to codification, Italian was the chief linguistic rival of French. Perhaps the influence of Italian in the south was one of the factors that helped contribute to the success of the standardization of the northern variety of French. France needed to have a language that was clearly differentiated from Italian, while at the same time being decidedly French. Italy was the first country to go through the Renaissance. Accordingly, Italian was also the first language to be standardized and codified. (Albeit, the codification only took place among only one of the Northern Dialects of Italy. Even today, regional dialects remain very successful and common throughout Italy.) This Italian codification helped prompt the French to institute their own codification of the French tongue. From this arose the French Academy and some of the first standard French dictionaries and grammar books.

Had the French Academy not acted when it did it is difficult to tell what the magnitude of the Italian influence would have been. Certainly, the Frenchmen near the Italian border would continue with their Italian dialect. Perhaps the influence of Italian would further spread throughout southern France. Had the French not been so French they may have even joined in with a quasi-Italian compromise dialect. However, the French are French, and they would have never settled for another language to be used in their homeland. The French Academy was formed so that the French language could achieve a degree of respect and recognition as had the codified Italian language.


Like Italian, it is spoken by small groups near the Spanish border. Unlike Italian, Spanish never played a significant roll in the French language. The Spanish border is very geographically pronounced, and dominated by Basque and Catalan speakers. Thus, there is a significant buffer region between France and Spain. Furthermore, Spain was not an innovator as was Italy. France tended to focus more on its advanced Italian neighbor than on the seemingly backward Spanish neighbor. Then, as today, France sees itself linguistically and culturally superior to Spain. Spanish never posed a significant threat to French.

Other Languages

In addition to the regional languages of France, there have been other languages that have entered the country without achieving dominance. Today, African immigrants have brought with them unique African dialects. The Jewish inhabitants of the past had their languages. However, these, the Zarphatic and Shuadit dialects are now for the most part extinct. Other languages today are still contenting for a place in France.


Romani is the language associated with the people commonly referred to as "Gypsies" in Europe. The Romani have penetrated most countries in Europe. However, they have not set up significant permanent population centers in any country. Their nature as a nomadic people has contributed to their identity. Today, there are three distinct strands of the Romani tongue spoken in France. Even grouping together the speakers all the strands there are less than 50,000 speakers in all of France. Due to the limited impact of the Romani people in France, their language never seriously contended for official usage in France.


English was never spoken natively by a large number of people in France. However, its proximity and constant interaction make it a force to be considered. If the Anglo-Saxons would not have invaded England, the Bretons would not have settled Brittany, and the region would not have had the Celtic influence that it now has. Furthermore, when the Normans conquered England in 1066, they took with them their language. The Normans attempted to retain their French language in England. However, "a peculiar variety of Norman modified by the Germanic habits of English speech took definite shape in the course of the twelfth century." [ Holmes (1938), p.45] Thus Germanized French, was, however, despised by the upper classes. In order to prevent further erosion of their language, they sought native French teachers to educate them in the true language. The stubbornness of the Anglo-Saxons along with other factors contributed to the eventually reemergence of English (now heavily influenced by Norman French) as the official language in England. Thus, in 1362, Edward III completed the task by abolishing the use of French in England’s parliamentary sessions.

The experience of the Normans in England was very similar to that of the Franks in France. In both cases the conquerors eventually assimilated the language of the conquered. The Normans, however, were in fact a Germanic tribe that had adopted a modified Romance tongue after settling in Normandy. They may have still retained touches of their Germanic tongue in their speech, thus making it easier to assimilate the English language. With the Anglification of the Normans in England, would the Normans in France follow, adopting a Germanic speech, too? If they did, the effects are largely gone today. By 1362, the Normans were already deeply entrenched in France. They had adopted the French language as their own and were reluctant to change. However, with the strong connections between Normandy and England, English did have the possibility of emerging strong in France.

Today, English poses an even greater threat than before. With the spreading of the global society, English has been adopted with increasing frequency as a global lingua franca. Though French still holds its important position as the language of diplomacy, that position is now falling. Many school children in other countries are now being taught English instead of French as a second language. Furthermore, the English language dominates the high-technology and entertainment industries. France is thus doing all that it can to keep the French people speaking French. The government has passed laws mandated the usage of French language on the Internet. Furthermore, French cinema and music are encouraged by the government over their English language counterparts. The French, however, have already survived two significant waves of Germanic invasion, and are not about to let English conquer them. The French take threats of linguistic invasion almost as seriously as formal military invasion, and will not go down without a fight.


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