Movement: the evolution of the French language

Thomas – Year 12 Student

Editor’s Note: This well-crafted and expertly argued essay on the chosen word ‘movement’ was originally written for The Dukes Essay Prize by Thomas in Year 12. Thomas embarks on a detailed exploration of the evolution of the French language and linguistics, and examines its decline in the face of increasing Anglicisation. Mei – Chief Editor, Humanities Journal

[Featured image: Flag for French Language (Public Domain)]

The definition of the word ‘movement’ is an act of moving, or as change or development. The nature of any language perfectly encompasses this dual meaning in such a manner that the examination of the evolution of a language, as well as its linguistics over time can contribute to exploring the physical movements that constitutes communication within that language. Focusing upon French, in order to understand fully the movement from its older variant to the modern-day tongue recognized today, it is logical to begin by examining its origins and the dialect it once was.

Initially, French derived from the ancient Gaulish language that was spoken before the Roman conquest of the area, forcing the French to abandon Gaulish and speak as the Romans did. This is why French is classified as a Romance language and originates from Latin. (Argento, 2018). The oldest document likely written in French dates from around 842 AD, the latter Carolingian period, and is known as the ‘Strasbourg Oaths’. (Sala and Posner, 2018). Some claim that the text was actually written in thinly disguised Latin and this uncertainty clearly demonstrates the Latin influence on the roots of the earliest dialect, known as Old French. Interestingly, in the second text written in Old French in 880–882 CE, the Passion du Christ and the Vie de St. Léger, northern and southern dialects seem to have been amalgamated, showing how the language had developed regional differences early on. It is from acknowledging the existence of these different dialects, such as the northern Picard and the southern Norman, that we see the first movement: the emergence of Francien.

In the 12-13th century, the Francien dialect became dominant most likely due to the political and cultural prestige of Paris, from where it originated. Although other dialects were still spoken across differing regions, they were losing stature amidst the rise of Francien. Later, the legal reform, known as the Edict of Villers-Cotterêts, established Francien as the sole official language in 1539, affirming this movement and branding the dialect as ‘Standard’ French. From that moment onwards, Standard French began to replace the northern dialects, collectively known as langues d’oïl, as well as greatly reducing the use of the southern dialects, or the langues d’oc. This movement occurred until well into the 19th century, when Standard French reached popular usage in all regions, thus becoming Modern French. Hence, through the movement of the language from Old French to Modern French, we see how initially one of many regional dialects can develop and become the official language of a country, rendering other regional tongues increasingly less prevalent in the process.

However, the development of the French language was not strictly oral; in fact, it could be said that an evolution even more pertinent to this title comes from the emergence of French sign language (LSF), which fully implements physical movement in order to communicate. Interestingly, LSF originated from a chance encounter; in 1760, a French educator known as Charles-Michel de l’Épée met two deaf-mute sisters who had created their own sign language and used it to communicate with each other (Fernández Calzada, 2018). The complexity of their sign language surprised and impressed de l’Épée, so much so that he set up a small school in order to study and standardize this communication system. In his success, he proved that it was possible to express human thoughts only through gestures. The creation of this language was revolutionary and many sign languages, such as ASL, stem from the foundation implemented by their French counterpart. However, in the 1880s, educators decided that sign language was more of a hindrance on speaking pupils than it was an aid for the deaf and thus it was banned from classrooms until the 1970s, when the deaf community began to ask for greater recognition (sixcontinents, 2019). Furthermore, in 1991, the French National Assembly passed the Fabius law, allowing LSF to be used in the education of deaf children. Therefore, through LSF proving that the deaf can communicate, a movement launched within the community fighting for fair treatment and recognition and, in 2005, LSF was declared an official language.

Thus far, this essay has only examined the movement undergone by the linguistics of the French language. However, language transcends syntax and gestures; it is also a part of the global and political influence of a country. Therefore, assessing this global and political presence of the French language and how it has changed over time is necessary when extensively examining its movement. In doing so, it becomes clear that French was once the dominant language of the world.

Once more, an optimal starting point can be uncovered via delving into the language’s global influence held in the past. France was incredibly prosperous under the reign of King Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’, during the 17th century, known as the Grand Siècle or Great Century. Thus, the monarch appointed himself patron of the Académie Française to police and promote the language, which is still active to this day. Due to this growing global prestige, the French aristocrats used French exclusively and, in 1714, the Treaty of Bastatt established French as the international diplomatic language. This was significant because political delegates from around the world thus learned to speak French, which also served to improve their social status as the language was associated with the higher echelons of society (Why Is French Considered the Language of Diplomacy? – LLS, 2016). This popularity caused French to become a lingua franca, in other words the common language adopted by speakers of different native tongues when conversing, and thus this assumption that everyone of political stature would be competent in the language shows its far-reaching global presence.

However, the status quo is quite different. These days, a conversation between two people speaking different languages would occur in English rather than in French, hence it is already clear that French’s global presence has declined. Nevertheless, amidst this movement, it is important to note that French has attempted to retain some of its former influence. Notably, this is seen through the fact that the Académie Française still tightly governs the French language, determined to resist outside influences with laws such as the Toubon Law mandating the use of French in the workplace and in all official advertising. Additionally, French is still one of only six official languages of the United Nations and is spoken as an official language in twenty-nine countries. Thus, even if it has lost its status as the lingua franca to the English language, French still carries a degree of importance in today’s political world, albeit less than previously. Furthermore, we begin to see how the rise of English caused French to lose its prior global and political domination, in spite of the latter’s best efforts to hold onto it.

Currently, English is the most studied second language in the world with French in second place, leaving the Romance language with only memories of its earlier sovereignty. In spite of the global reach of the British Empire, it was not until World War One and the emergence of the USA as the global superpower that French was first dealt a serious blow when the Treaty of Versailles, arguably one of the most crucial documents detailing plans for peace, was written in both English and French. From then on, the two languages battled for dominion over diplomacy, with English emerging as the victor and dethroning French. However, it did not stop there. English’s reign over the media and popular culture propelled it further ahead of French and increases in interest for other major languages, such as Mandarin and Spanish, rendered French a hollow shell of its former glory. This drastic movement seemed to occur rapidly, yet the French refusing to accept English only worsened its position as the language found itself stranded in a continent dominated by English. In order to survive, French would need to adapt and embrace the dreaded ‘Anglicisms’.

‘Languages are living, breathing systems’ that constantly evolve, which is why a language must willingly embrace and invite change (Reed, 2015: online). However, French has refused to do so, waging a war against ‘Anglicisms’ for years and rejecting the cultural influences of English in its endeavour to achieve French purism. As a result, the Académie Française has watched their language increasingly lose recognition as English became more and more prevalent. Thus, in order to survive, a movement is required. A movement towards a language that allows itself to be influenced by ‘Anglicisms’ and a movement towards a language that is more tolerant to change and development. In doing so, French will ensure that it is not securing its own demise and that it can be a prevailing language of the current world. Based on what we have examined so far, the French language is fully capable of such a development and, in conjunction with its presence in Africa, where current population surges are bringing thousands of new French speakers into the world each day, French’s time may not be over yet.

Thomas

References

Argento, J. (2018) Take A Peek At The Evolution Of The French Language. [online] Day Translations Blog. Available at: <https://www.daytranslations.com/blog/evolution-of-french/> [Accessed 10 May 2020].

Fernández Calzada, L. (2018) The History Of Sign Language In European Culture | Blog Eazylang. [online] Blog Eazylang. Available at: <https://www.eazylang.com/blog/index.php/en/2018/03/16/the-history-of-sign-language-in-european-culture/> [Accessed 10 May 2020].

Legal Language Services. (2016) Why Is French Considered The Language Of Diplomacy? – LLS. [online] Available at: <https://www.legallanguage.com/legal-articles/language-of-diplomacy/> [Accessed 10 May 2020].

Reed, J. (2015) The Battle To Keep French Pure Is Doomed | Jessica Reed. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/mar/13/the-battle-to-keep-french-pure-is-doomed> [Accessed 10 May 2020].

Sala, M. and Posner, R. (2018) French Language | Origin, History, Grammar, & Speakers. [online] Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: <https://www.britannica.com/topic/French-language> [Accessed 10 May 2020].

sixcontinents. (2019) French Sign Language – LSF – Six Continents Translations. [online] Six Continents. Available at: <http://sixcontinents.fr/en/2019/10/02/lsf-french-sign-language/> [Accessed 10 May 2020].

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