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History of the French Language

The American arrives in Paris with a few French phrases
he has culled from a conversational guide or picked up from a
friend who owns a beret.

—  Fred Allen (1894-1957), U.S. radio comic.

The Romance languages are a group of closely related vernaculars descended from the Latin language, a member of the Italic branch of Indo-European languages. The designation Romance is derived from the Latin phrase romanica loqui, "to speak in Roman fashion," which attests to the popular, rather than literary, origins of the languages.

The Romance languages that have acquired national standing as the official tongues of their countries are French, with approximately 98 million speakers living principally in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, and parts of Africa; Italian, with 65 million speakers in Italy, Switzerland, and parts of Africa; Portuguese, with 137 million speakers in Portugal, Brazil, and parts of Africa and Asia; Spanish, with 231 million speakers in Spain, Latin America, and parts of the Caribbean; and Romanian, with 25 million speakers in Romania and other parts of the Balkans.

Several distinct Romance languages function as non-national, regional vernaculars. Among these are Rheto-Romance, or Rhaetian, which consists of a group of related languages spoken in Switzerland, where they are called Romansch, and in northern Italy, where they are called Ladin or Friulian. In southern France, Provençal, or Occitan, is spoken by about 12 million people. Formerly more unified as a literary language, Provençal now consists of a series of local dialects.

Romance creoles, whose origins are found in pidgins or simplified trade languages, have also sprung up around the world. Haitian and Louisiana French are such languages, as are the varieties of Portuguese found in Macao and Goa.

From the evidence of Latin grammarians, popular playwrights, and inscriptions, it is apparent that in Republican Rome the spoken language of the lower classes was undergoing modifications in pronunciation and grammar that ultimately were to differentiate it from the written language and the language of the privileged. During the period of empire and Roman expansion, it was this Latin of the people, so-called Vulgar Latin, that was carried to the far-flung provinces by soldiers, merchants, and colonists.

Not all provinces were Romanized at the same time, however. Sicily and Sardinia were colonized as early as 238 BC, while Dacia – modern Romania – did not come under Roman occupation until about AD 100. In the provinces, Vulgar Latin underwent further modification by the subjugated peoples, who brought to it their own speech habits and pronunciation influenced by their own indigenous languages. The Iberians, for example, pronounced Latin one way, whereas the Gauls pronounced it another.

The collapse of the empire's frontiers during the 5th century under the thrust of Germanic tribes left Rome cut off from the provinces, and the outer regions drifted apart as each modified its form of spoken Latin in unique ways. In every region of the former Latin-speaking world, the emerging Romance languages then in turn began to break up among themselves.

French and Provençal

In Gallo-Roman France, a split occurred between north and south, assisted by incursions of Germanic-speaking Franks – whence the name "France" – into the north. Here, too, further dialectalization occurred throughout the Middle Ages, resulting in a multitude of speech forms such as Francien, Picard, Norman, Lorrain, and Walloon. Southern French, or Provençal, split into Languedocien, Auvergnat, and many other dialects. The dialect of Paris gradually became the national language, however, because of the political prestige of the capital and today is accepted as the model for the French language.

The Case System

Broadly speaking, the trend or direction of change in the Romance languages has been to reduce the Latin case system through elimination of the distinctive endings. The Latin word porta, "door," for instance, had three singular forms: nominative, vocative, and ablative porta; accusative portam; and genitive and dative portae. Modern Romance languages, however, use only one singular form: French porte, Italian and Portuguese porta, and Spanish puerta. Other modern Romance linguistic features include the elimination of neuter gender, the development of the definite article, greater use of prepositions, stricter word order, and the emergence of auxiliary verbs to express tense.

Verb Paradigms

French leveled the verb paradigms to such an extent that subject pronouns became mandatory (contrast French je chante, "I sing," with Italian canto); but in general the Latin paradigm has remained intact.

Notable in phonology was the loss of opposition between Latin long and short vowels, the voicing of intervocalic voiceless consonants, and in some languages the loss of syllable- and word-final s. The emergence of accentual patterns led to the reduction or loss of many unstressed vowels in the more heavily accented languages such as Gallo-Roman and Old French, and to the diphthongization of some stressed vowels in most of the Romance languages. Only in French and Portuguese, however, did vowels before a nasal consonant undergo nasalization – compare French main, "hand," with Portuguese mao and Spanish and Italian mano.

James M. Anderson
Source: The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Release #8, ©1996
Bibliography: Anderson, James M., and Rochet, Bernard, Historical Romance Morphology (1978); Auerbach, Erich, Introduction to Romance Languages and Literature (1961); Elcock, W. D., The Romance Languages (1960); Grandgent, C. H., An Introduction to Vulgar Latin (1907); Hall, Robert, External History of the Romance Languages (1974); Harris, M., and Vincent N., eds., The Romance Languages (1990); Heatwole, O. W., A Comparative Practical Grammar of French, Spanish, and Italian (1956); Iordan, Iorgu, and Orr, John, An Introduction to Romance Linguistics, Its Schools and Scholars, 2d ed. (1970); Posner, R., The Romance Languages: A Linguistic Introduction (1970); Pountain, C. J., Structures and Transformations: The Romance Verb (1983).

Distinct Languages & Dialects in France


Basque, or Euskara, is a language spoken by about a million people in northern Spain and southwestern France. Although attempts have been made to link it to ancient Iberian, the Hamito-Semitic group, and Caucasian, its origins remain uncertain.

The sound pattern resembles that of Spanish, with its five pure vowels and such peculiarities as a trilled r and palatal n and l. In spite of this, and the presence of numerous Latinate loanwords, Basque has maintained its distinctiveness throughout two millennia of external contacts. For example, it still places a unique emphasis on suffixes to denote case and number and to form new words.

Basque is the only language remaining of those spoken in southwestern Europe before the Roman conquest. Since the 10th century, it has gradually been supplanted by Castilian Spanish, and under the Franco regime its use in Spain was outlawed altogether. The ethnic insularity of the Basques, however, has fostered revivals. Attempts are now being made to standardize the orthography.

Source: The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Release #8, ©1996
Bibliography: Russell, H., et al., Basque Essay (1974); Tovar, Antonio, The Basque Language (1957); Vallie, F., Literature of the Basques (1974).


Creole languages are fully formed languages that develop from a PIDGIN language and gradually become the primary language of a linguistic community. As the domains of the use of the pidgin language expand, often with the development of a LINGUA FRANCA used for communication between different groups, it develops lexically and becomes phonologically and grammatically more complex. When the pidgin replaces the community's original language, it is called a creole.

Widely distributed throughout the world, creolized languages are native to between 10 and 15 million people. Different creoles share many common features, such as an outward simplicity and regularity that is believed to reflect universal linguistic processes.

Most creole languages have vocabularies derived from major European languages. French-based Creole is found in Haiti, Mauritius, the French Overseas Departments of Guadeloupe, Martinique, Reunion, and Guyana, in Dominica and St. Lucia, and, although disappearing, in various British-influenced Caribbean islands and in southwestern Louisiana.

When creole coexists with the language on which it is lexically based, it blends with the base language to form a decreolization continuum. Except for Tok Pisin, which has semiofficial status in Papua New Guinea, and Creole, endowed with a semicodified orthography in Haiti, creoles still bear the stigma of their pidgin origin and their association with slavery and social inferiority. They are vernaculars that are not thought appropriate for administrative, educational, and literary functions.

Albert Valdman
Source: The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Release #8, ©1996
Bibliography: Byrne, Francis, and Holm, John, eds., Atlantic Meets Pacific (1992); Gilbert, G. G., ed., Pidgin and Creole Languages, 2 vols. (1980-87); Lalla, Barbara, and D'Costa, Jean, Language in Exile: Three Hundred Years of Jamaican Creole (1990); Holm, John A., Pidgins and Creoles, 2 vols. (1988-89); Muhlhausler, Peter, Pidgin and Creole Linguistics (1986); Taylor, D. M., Languages of the West Indies (1977).


Alsatian || Auvergnat || Breton || Caló || Catalan || Corsican || Dutch
Franco-Provençal || French Sign Language || Gascon || Greek || Italian
Languedocien || Ligurian || Limousin || Lyons Sign Language
Portuguese || Provençal || Romani || Shuadit || Spanish || Zarphatic

French Language Links:

ARTFL Project
Project for American and French Research on the Treasury of the French Language, University of Chicago

Centre Audio-Visuel de Langues Modernes in Vichy, France

Directory of French Language Schools throughout France

Exquis Mots (La Passion des Mots)

Foreign Language Associations

French Language Instruction at the International House in Paris

How To Be Obnoxious in French (humor)

Institut National de la Langue Française

Online Dictionaries

Online French Lessons

Study Abroad Programs in France

Yahoo! Index of French Educational Programs

ePALS Classroom Exchange

ePALS Classroom Exchange
Meet and correspond with over 7,500 international K-12 students, schools, teachers, keypals and pen pals. ePALS are educational and FUN!

French In Action (as seen on PBS)
This video series uses active participation to increase your fluency in French and help you experience French culture. Pierre Capretz's proven language immersion method places you into a humorous teleplay with native speakers of all ages and backgrounds.
[Produced by Yale University and WGBH/Boston with Wellesley College.]

French Language at
Laura K. Lawless, an adult-education French teacher and freelance translator currently pursuing a Master's degree in French, is your Guide to French Language at, providing a host of helpful articles and links.

Virtual Writer (L'écrivain public virtuel)
Need to write a business letter? Invitation, note of congratulations, or a solicitation of employment? This site provides a variety of ready-to-use templates which will assure you the correct elements of style for a number of purposes; or you can consult their list of writers at your disposal.

Translate this page into French
[Warning: results may be hilarious!] AltaVista provides a translation feature which will re-load this page in French. Machines and software are far from perfect, as you will see, because idiomatic expressions and even certain aspects of text formatting can confuse them terribly. However, at the very least, you may get a good laugh or even be amazed at what "artificially intelligent" programs can do these days!


The Foreign Language Teaching Forum List, FLTEACH, is intended to serve as a forum for communication among foreign language teachers at the high school and college levels. Our aim is to improve communication among the professionals involved in teaching languages and training student teachers. On a local level we are concerned with certification in language teaching in New York State. The FLTEACH audience includes Methodologists, University Supervisors, Cooperating Teachers in junior high and high school, Student Teachers, and all language teachers involved in developing or implementing a FL curriculum or engaged in the certification process. The need for such a forum has often been expressed in meetings of NYSAFLT in the context of articulation, bridging the gap between secondary and post-secondary teachers.

Although our initial focus was on language teaching in New York State, FLTEACH has developed a much broader base. We hope that the subscribers will use FLTEACH as a tool to solve problems together in a regional, national, and even international forum.

Jean LeLoup and Robert Ponterio, Co-Managers, International Communications and Culture, SUNY-Cortland, Cortland, NY 13045


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