The history of the French language, like that of many others, is a story of conquering and being conquered, interspersed with occasional flashes of brilliance and twists of fate.
In pre-Roman times, the territory now known as France was inhabited by Celtic-speaking Gauls in the north, Iberians in the southwest, a few Greek colonies in the southeast, and a spattering of other tribes besides. Although French today is considered a Latin, or Romance, language, it has retained heavy influence from its Gaulish roots, and about 200 Celtic-based words are still in common use today.
Phonologically, modern French is also well connected to these origins. Latin was rendered mandatory by the Roman conquest of Gaul, and was adopted by urban aristocrats and traders, while unwritten traditional languages held out in rural areas a while longer. Over the following few hundred years, and in particular during the 9th century, Germanic and Nordic tribes invaded from the northeast, bringing their own terms and jargon to the mix. The next major milestone was the integration of the Duchy of Normandy into the Kingdom of France, which brought Anglo-Norman words, also with strong Nordic roots. Slowly the language pot continued to be stirred, helped by France’s increasing pan-European, Middle Eastern, and North African trade. Arabic words crept in through Moor-influenced medieval Latin, Spanish, and Italian, and today, several French words related to spices and other luxuries of the time, as well as mathematics, have Arabic roots.
In 1539, King Francis I introduced “Modern French” as the official language of business, science, and law, formally replacing Latin. Less than 100 years later, the Académie Française was created as the official and supreme guardian of the language, a role it executes actively and sometimes chauvinistically to this day. Such visionary gestures, along with France’s economic and cultural success, saw French adopted as the international, and especially diplomatic, lingua franca. By the end of the 19th century, no one could pass for educated without speaking French, from the American far West to the eastern steppes of Russia.
In the latter part of the second millennium, French colonization in Africa, the Far East, the Caribbean, and the South Pacific led to colourful variations and versions of French. Many crept back to the mother country, and in some cases, into the ledgers of the Académie. But despite the ever-expanding richesse of the language, the debate is now open as to whether French is expanding or retreating globally; projections predict both, but it is undeniable that English has taken over as the global common denominator, and that Mandarin Chinese is spoken by more human beings on Earth than any other language. But if the pride of the French people and the elegance of their tongue have anything to do with it, the medium of Voltaire, Balzac, and Sartre will continue to evolve and be appreciated for millennia to come.
About Paul van Essche: Born in South Africa and currently living in Brooklyn, New York, Paul van Essche holds dual nationality in his home country and Switzerland. A business consultant and executive adviser, van Essche is fluent in English and French. Learn more about him at http://www.vanessche.com.
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