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The discussion of the history of a language is typically divided into "external history", describing the ethnic, political, social, technological, and other changes that affected the languages, and "internal history", describing the phonological and grammatical changes undergone by the language itself.
Before the Roman conquest of what is now France by Julius Caesar (58–52 BC), much of present France was inhabited by Celtic-speaking people referred to by the Romans as Gauls and Belgae. Southern France was also home to a number of other remnant linguistic and ethnic groups including Iberians along the eastern part of the Pyrenees and western Mediterranean coast, the remnant Ligures on the eastern Mediterranean coast and in the alpine areas, Greek colonials in places such as Marseille and Antibes, and Vascones and Aquitani (Proto-Basques) in much of the southwest. The Gaulish-speaking population is held to have continued speaking Gaulish even as considerable Romanisation of the local material culture occurred, with Gaulish and Latin coexisting for centuries under Roman rule and the last attestation of Gaulish to be deemed credible having been written in the second half of the 6th century about the destruction of a pagan shrine in Auvergne.
The Celtic population of Gaul had spoken Gaulish, which is moderately well attested and appears to have wide dialectal variation including one distinctive variety, Lepontic. The French language evolved from Vulgar Latin (a Latinised popular Italo-Celtic dialect called sermo vulgaris), but it was influenced by Gaulish. Examples include sandhi phenomena (liaison, resyllabification, lenition), the loss of unstressed syllables and the vowel system (such as raising /u/, /o/ → /y/, /u/, fronting stressed /a/ → /e/, /ɔ/ → /ø/ or /œ/). Syntactic oddities attributable to Gaulish include the intensive prefix ro- ~ re- (cited in the Vienna glossary, 5th century) (cf. luire "to glimmer" vs. reluire "to shine"; related to Irish ro- and Welsh rhy- "very"), emphatic structures, prepositional periphrastic phrases to render verbal aspect and the semantic development of oui "yes", aveugle "blind".
Some sound changes are attested: /ps/ → /xs/ and /pt/ → /xt/ appears in a pottery inscription from la Graufesenque (1st century) in which the word paraxsidi is written for paropsides. Similarly, the development -cs- → /xs/ → /is/ and -ct- → /xt/ → /it/, the latter being common to much of Western Romance languages, also appears in inscriptions: Divicta ~ Divixta, Rectugenus ~ Rextugenus ~ Reitugenus, and is present in Welsh, e.g. *seχtan → saith "seven", *eχtamos → eithaf "extreme". For Romance, compare:
Both changes sometimes had a cumulative effect in French: Latin capsa → *kaχsa → caisse (vs. Italian cassa, Spanish caja) or captīvus → *kaχtivus → Occitan caitiu, OFr chaitif (mod. chétif "wretched, feeble", cf. Welsh caeth "bondman, slave", vs. Italian cattivo, Spanish cautivo).
In French and the adjoining folk dialects and closely-related languages, some 200 words of Gaulish origin have been retained, most of which pertaining to folk life. They include:
Other Celtic words were not borrowed directly but brought in through Latin, some of which had become common in Latin, braies "knee-length pants", chainse "tunic", char "dray, wagon", daim "roe deer", étain "tin", glaive "broad sword", manteau "coat", vassal "serf, knave". Latin quickly took hold among the urban aristocracy for mercantile, official and educational reasons but did not prevail in the countryside until some four or five centuries later since Latin was of little or no social value to the landed gentry and peasantry. The eventual spread of Latin can be attributed to social factors in the Late Empire such as the movement from urban-focused power to village-centred economies and legal serfdom.
In the 3rd century, Western Europe started to be invaded by Germanic tribes from the north and the east, and some of the groups settled in Gaul. In the history of the French language, the most important groups are the Franks in northern France, the Alemanni in the modern German/French border area (Alsace), the Burgundians in the Rhône (and the Saone) Valley and the Visigoths in the Aquitaine region and Spain. The Frankish language had a profound influence on the Latin spoken in their respective regions by altering both the pronunciation (especially the vowel system phonemes: e, eu, u, short o) and the syntax. It also introduced a number of new words (see List of French words of Germanic origin). Sources disagree on how much of the vocabulary of modern French (excluding French dialects) comes from Germanic words and range from just 500 words (≈1%) (representing loans from ancient Germanic languages: Gothic and Frankish) to 15% of the modern vocabulary (representing all Germanic loans up to modern times: Gothic, Frankish, Old Norse/Scandinavian, Dutch, German and English) to even higher if Germanic words coming from Latin and other Romance languages are taken into account. (Note that according to the Académie française, only 5% of French words come from English.)
Frankish had a determining influence on the birth of Old French, which partly explains that Old French is the earliest-attested Romance language, such as in the Oaths of Strasbourg and Sequence of Saint Eulalia. The new speech diverged so markedly from the Latin that it was no longer mutually intelligible. The Old Low Frankish influence is also primarily responsible for the differences between the langue d'oïl and langue d'oc (Occitan) since different parts of Northern France remained bilingual in Latin and Germanic for several centuries, which correspond exactly to the places in which the first documents in Old French were written. Frankish shaped the popular Latin spoken there and gave it a very distinctive character compared to the other future Romance languages. The very first noticeable influence is the substitution of a Germanic stress accent for the Latin melodic accent, which resulted in diphthongisation, distinction between long and short vowels and the loss of the unaccentuated syllable and of final vowels: Latin decima > F dîme (> E dime. Italian decima; Spanish diezmo); Vulgar Latin dignitate > OF deintié (> E dainty. Occitan dinhitat; Italian dignità; Spanish dignidad); VL catena > OF chaiene (> E chain. Occitan cadena; Italian catena; Spanish cadena). On the other hand, a common word like Latin aqua > Occitan aigue became Old French ewe > F eau 'water' (and évier sink) and was likely influenced by the OS or OHG word pronunciation aha (PG *ahwo).
In addition, two new phonemes that no longer existed in Vulgar Latin returned: [h] and [w] (> OF g(u)-, ONF w- cf. Picard w-), e.g. VL altu > OF halt 'high' (influenced by OLF *hauh; ≠ Italian, Spanish alto; Occitan naut); VL vespa > F guêpe (ONF wespe; Picard wespe) 'wasp' (influenced by OLF *waspa; ≠ Occitan vèspa; Italian vespa; Spanish avispa); L viscus > F gui 'mistletoe' (influenced by OLF *wihsila 'morello', together with analogous fruits, when they are not ripe; ≠ Occitan vesc; Italian vischio); LL vulpiculu 'little fox' (from L vulpes 'fox') > OF g[o]upil (influenced by OLF *wulf 'wolf'; ≠ Italian volpe). Italian and Spanish words of Germanic origin borrowed from French or directly from Germanic also retained [gw] and [g]: It, Sp. guerra 'war'. Thise examples show a clear result of bilingualism, which frequently altered the initial syllable of the Latin.
There is also the converse example in which the Latin word influenced the Germanic word: framboise 'raspberry' from OLF *brambasi (cf. OHG brāmberi > Brombeere 'mulberry'; E brambleberry; *basi 'berry' cf. Got. -basi, Dutch bes 'berry') conflated with LL fraga or OF fraie 'strawberry', which explains the shift to [f] from [b], and in turn the final -se of framboise turned fraie into fraise (≠ Occitan fragosta 'raspberry', Italian fragola 'strawberry'. Portuguese framboesa 'raspberry' and Spanish frambuesa are from French).
Philologists such as Pope (1934) estimate that perhaps 15% of the vocabulary of Modern French still derives from Germanic sources, but the proportion was larger in Old French, as the language was re-Latinised and partly Italianised by clerics and grammarians in the Middle Ages and later. Nevertheless, many such words like haïr "to hate" (≠ Latin odiare > Italian odiare, Spanish odiar, Occitan asirar) and honte "shame" (≠ Latin vĕrēcundia > Occitan vergonha, Italian vergogna, Spanish vergüenza) remain common.
Urban T. Holmes Jr. estimated that German was spoken as a second language by public officials in western Austrasia and Neustria as late as the 850s and that it had completely disappeared as a spoken language from those regions only in the 10th century, but some traces of Germanic elements still survive, especially in dialectal French (Poitevin, Norman, Burgundian, Walloon, Picard etc.).
In 1204 AD, the Duchy of Normandy was integrated into the Crown lands of France, and many words were introduced into French from Norman of which about 150 words of Scandinavian origin are still in use. Most of the words are about the sea and seafaring: abraquer, alque, bagage, bitte, cingler, équiper (to equip), flotte, fringale, girouette, guichet, hauban, houle, hune, mare, marsouin, mouette, quille, raz, siller, touer, traquer, turbot, vague, varangue, varech. Others pertain to farming and daily life: accroupir, amadouer, bidon, bigot, brayer, brette, cottage, coterie, crochet, duvet, embraser, fi, flâner, guichet, haras, harfang, harnais, houspiller, marmonner, mièvre, nabot, nique, quenotte, raccrocher, ricaner, rincer, rogue.
Likewise, most words borrowed from Dutch deal with trade or are nautical in nature: affaler, amarrer, anspect, bar (sea-bass), bastringuer, bière (beer), blouse (bump), botte, bouée, bouffer, boulevard, bouquin, cague, cahute, caqueter, choquer, diguer, drôle, dune, équiper (to set sail), frelater, fret, grouiller, hareng, hère, lamaneur, lège, manne, mannequin, maquiller, matelot, méringue, moquer, plaque, sénau, tribord, vacarme, as are words from Low German: bivouac, bouder, homard, vogue, yole, and English of this period: arlequin (from Italian arlecchino < Norman hellequin < OE *Herla cyning), bateau, bébé, bol (sense 2 ≠ bol < Lt. bolus), bouline, bousin, cambuse, cliver, chiffe/chiffon, drague, drain, est, groom, héler, merlin, mouette, nord, ouest, potasse, rade, rhum, sonde, sud, turf, yacht.
The medieval Italian poet Dante, in his Latin De vulgari eloquentia, classified the Romance languages into three groups by their respective words for "yes": Nam alii oc, alii si, alii vero dicunt oil, "For some say oc, others say si, others say oïl". The oïl languages – from Latin hoc ille, "that is it" – occupied northern France, the oc languages – from Latin hoc, "that" – southern France, and the si languages – from Latin sic, "thus" – the Italian and Iberian peninsulas. Modern linguists typically add a third group within France around Lyon, the "Arpitan" or "Franco-Provençal language", whose modern word for "yes" is ouè.
The Gallo-Romance group in the north of France, the langue d'oïl like Picard, Walloon and Francien, were influenced by the Germanic languages spoken by the Frankish invaders. From the time period of Clovis I, the Franks extended their rule over northern Gaul. Over time, the French language developed from either the Oïl language found around Paris and Île-de-France (the Francien theory) or from a standard administrative language based on common characteristics found in all Oïl languages (the lingua franca theory).
The Middle Ages also saw the influence of other linguistic groups on the dialects of France.
Modern French, which was derived mainly from the langue d'oïl, acquired the word si to contradict negative statements or respond to negative questions, from cognate forms of "yes" in Spanish and Catalan (sí), Portuguese (sim), and Italian (sì).
From the 4th to the 7th centuries, Brythonic-speaking peoples from Cornwall, Devon and Wales travelled across the English Channel for reasons of trade and of flight from the Anglo-Saxon invasions of England. They established themselves in Armorica, and their language became Breton in more recent centuries, which gave French bijou "jewel" (< Breton bizou from biz "finger") and menhir (< Breton maen "stone" and hir "long").
Attested since the time of Julius Caesar, a non-Celtic people who spoke a Basque-related language inhabited the Novempopulania (Aquitania Tertia) in southwestern France, but the language gradually lost ground to the expanding Romance during a period spanning most of the Early Middle Ages. Proto-Basque influenced the emerging Latin-based language spoken in the area between the Garonne and the Pyrenees, which eventually resulted in the dialect of Occitan called Gascon. Its influence is seen in words like boulbène and cargaison.
Vikings from Scandinavia invaded France from the 9th century onwards and established themselves mostly in what would be called Normandy. The Normans took up the langue d'oïl spoken there, but Norman French remained heavily influenced by Old Norse and its dialects. They also contributed many words to French related to sailing (mouette, crique, hauban, hune etc.) and farming.
After the 1066 Norman conquest of England, the Normans' language developed into Anglo-Norman, which served as the language of the ruling classes and commerce in England until the Hundred Years' War, when the use of French-influenced English had spread throughout English society.
Around then, many words from Arabic (or from Persian via Arabic) entered French, mainly indirectly through Medieval Latin, Italian and Spanish. There are words for luxury goods (élixir, orange), spices (camphre, safran), trade goods (alcool, bougie, coton), sciences (alchimie, hasard), and mathematics (algèbre, algorithme). It was only after the 19th-century development of French colonies in North Africa that French borrowed words directly from Arabic (toubib, chouia, mechoui).
For the period until around 1300, some linguists refer to the oïl languages collectively as Old French (ancien français). The earliest extant text in French is the Oaths of Strasbourg from 842; Old French became a literary language with the chansons de geste that told tales of the paladins of Charlemagne and the heroes of the Crusades.
The first government authority to adopt Modern French as official was the Aosta Valley in 1536, three years before France itself. By the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts in 1539 King Francis I made French the official language of administration and court proceedings in France, which ousted Latin, which had been used earlier. With the imposition of a standardised chancery dialect and the loss of the declension system, the dialect is referred to as Middle French (moyen français). The first grammatical description of French, the Tretté de la Grammaire française by Louis Maigret, was published in 1550. Many of the 700 words of Modern French that originate from Italian were introduced in this period, including several denoting artistic concepts (scenario, piano), luxury items and food. The earliest history of the French language and its literature was also written in this period: the Recueil de l'origine de la langue et poesie françoise, by Claude Fauchet, published in 1581.
Following a period of unification, regulation and purification, the French of the 17th and the 18th centuries is sometimes referred to as Classical French (français classique), but many linguists simply refer to French language from the 17th century to today as Modern French (français moderne).
The foundation of the Académie française (French Academy) in 1634 by Cardinal Richelieu created an official body whose goal has been the purification and preservation of the French language. The group of 40 members is known as the Immortals, not, as some erroneously believe, because they are chosen to serve for the extent of their lives (which they are), but because of the inscription engraved on the official seal given to them by their founder Richelieu: "À l'immortalité" ("to [the] Immortality [of the French language]"). The foundation still exists and contributes to the policing of the language and to the adaptation of foreign words and expressions. Some recent modifications include the change from software to logiciel, packet-boat to paquebot, and riding-coat to redingote. The word ordinateur for computer, however was created not by the Académie but by a linguist appointed by IBM (see fr:ordinateur).
From the 17th to the 19th centuries, France was the leading land power in Europe; together with the influence of the Enlightenment, French was therefore the lingua franca of educated Europe, especially with regards to the arts, literature and diplomacy. Monarchs like Frederick II of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia spoke and wrote in most excellent French. The Russian, German and Scandinavian courts spoke French as their main or official language and regarded their national languages as the language of the peasants. The spread of French to other European countries was also aided by emigration of persecuted Hugenots.
In the 17th and the 18th centuries, French established itself permanently in the Americas. There is an academic debate about how fluent in French the colonists of New France were. Less than 15% of colonists (25% of the women – chiefly filles du roi – and 5% of the men) were from the Paris region and presumably spoke French, but most of the rest came from north-western and western regions of France in which French was not the usual first language. It is not clearly known how many among those colonists understood French as a second language, and how many among them, nearly all of whom natively spoke an oïl language, could understand and be understood by those who spoke French because of interlinguistic similarity. In any case, such a linguistic unification of all the groups coming from France happened (either in France, on the ships, or in Canada) that many sources noted that all "Canadiens" spoke French (King's French) natively by the end of the 17th century, well before the unification was complete in France. Canada had a reputation of speaking French as well as in Paris. Today, French is the language of about 10 million people (not counting French-based creoles, which are also spoken by about 10 million people) in the Americas.
Through the Académie, public education, centuries of official control and the media, a unified official French language has been forged, but there remains a great deal of diversity today in terms of regional accents and words. For some critics, the "best" pronunciation of the French language is considered to be the one used in Touraine (around Tours and the Loire Valley), but such value judgments are fraught with problems, and with the ever-increasing loss of lifelong attachments to a specific region and the growing importance of the national media, the future of specific "regional" accents is often difficult to predict. The French nation-state, which appeared after the 1789 French Revolution and Napoleon I's empire, unified the French people in particular through the consolidation of the use of the French language. Hence, according to the historian Eric Hobsbawm, "the French language has been essential to the concept of 'France', although in 1789 50% of the French people did not speak it at all, and only 12 to 13% spoke it 'fairly' – in fact, even in oïl language zones, out of a central region, it was not usually spoken except in cities, and, even there, not always in the faubourgs [approximatively translatable to "suburbs"]. In the North as in the South of France, almost nobody spoke French." Hobsbawm highlighted the role of conscription, invented by Napoleon, and of the 1880s public instruction laws, which allowed to mix the various groups of France into a nationalist mold, which created the French citizen and his consciousness of membership to a common nation, and the various "patois" were progressively eradicated.
There is some debate in today's France about the preservation of the French language and the influence of English (see Franglais), especially with regard to international business, the sciences and popular culture. There have been laws (see Toubon law) enacted to require all print ads and billboards with foreign expressions to include a French translation and to require quotas of French-language songs (at least 40%) on the radio. There is also pressure, in differing degrees, from some regions as well as minority political or cultural groups for a measure of recognition and support for their regional languages.
Once the key international language in Europe, being the language of diplomacy from the 17th to the mid-20th centuries, French lost most of its international significance to English in the 20th century, especially after World War II, with the rise of the United States as a dominant global superpower. A watershed was the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I and was written in both French and English. A small but increasing number of large multinational firms headquartered in France use English as their working language even in their French operations. Also, to gain international recognition, French scientists often publish their work in English.
Those trends have met some resistance. In March 2006, President Jacques Chirac briefly walked out of an EU summit after Ernest-Antoine Seilliere began addressing the summit in English. In February 2007, Forum Francophone International began organising protests against the "linguistic hegemony" of English in France and in support of the right of French workers to use French as their working language.
French remains the second most-studied foreign language in the world, after English, and is a lingua franca in some regions, notably in Africa. The legacy of French as a living language outside Europe is mixed: it is nearly extinct in some former French colonies (Southeast Asia), but the language has changed to creoles, dialects or pidgins in the French departments in the West Indies even though its people are educated in Standard French. On the other hand, many former French colonies have adopted French as an official language, and the total number of French speakers has increased, especially in Africa.
In the Canadian province of Quebec, different laws have promoted the use of French in administration, business and education since the 1970s. Bill 101, for example, obliges most children whose parents did not attend an English-speaking school to be educated in French. Efforts are also made such as by the Office québécois de la langue française to reduce the variation of French spoken in Quebec and to preserve the distinctiveness of Quebec French.
There has been French emigration to the United States, Australia and South America, but the descendants of those immigrants have been so assimilated that few of them still speak French. In the United States, efforts are ongoing in Louisiana (see CODOFIL) and parts of New England (particularly Maine) to preserve French there.
|Latin||Written French||Spoken French||Italian||Spanish||Portuguese||Romanian|
|ADIV̄TĀRE "to help"||aider||/ɛde/||aiutare||ayudar||ajudar||ajuta|
|IACET "it lies (e.g. on the ground)"||gît||/ʒi/||giace||yace||jaz||zace|
|Vulgar Latin||Vowel length is replaced
by vowel quality
|Western Romance||vowel changes,
|Gallo-Romance||loss of final vowels||sabud||/saˈbud/|
|loss of /v/ near
|Old French||fronting of /u/||seüṭ||/səˈyθ/|
|loss of dental fricatives||seü||/səˈy/|
|French||collapse of hiatus||su||/sy/|
|Vulgar Latin||Vowel length is replaced
by vowel quality
|Western Romance||vowel changes,
|Old French||second lenition,
final /a/ lenition to /ə/
|loss of dental fricatives||vie||/ˈviə/|
|French||loss of final schwa||vie||/vi/|
The Vulgar Latin[a] underlying French and most other Romance languages had seven vowels in stressed syllables (/a ɛ e i ɔ o u/, which are similar to the vowels of American English pat/pot pet pate peat caught coat coot respectively), and five in unstressed syllables (/a e i o u/). Portuguese and Italian largely preserve that system, and Spanish has innovated only in converting /ɛ/ to /je/ and /ɔ/ to /we/, which resulted in a simple five-vowel system /a e i o u/. In French, however, numerous sound changes resulted in a system with 12–14 oral vowels and 3–4 nasal vowels (see French phonology).
Perhaps the most salient characteristic of French vowel history is the development of a strong stress accent, which is usually ascribed to the influence of the Germanic languages. It has led to the disappearance of most unstressed vowels and to pervasive differences in the pronunciation of stressed vowels in syllables that were open or closed syllables (a closed syllable is here a syllable that was followed by two or more consonants in Vulgar Latin, and an open syllable was followed by at most one consonant). It is commonly thought that stressed vowels in open syllables were lengthened, and most of the long vowels were then turned into diphthongs. The loss of unstressed vowels, particularly those after the stressed syllable, ultimately produced the situation in Modern French in which the accent is uniformly found on the last syllable of a word. (Ironically, Modern French has a stress accent that is quite weak, with little difference between the pronunciation of stressed and unstressed vowels.)
|FACTAM "done (fem.)"||/fákta/||faite|
|DĪXĪ "I said"||/díksi/||dis|
|FACTVM "done (masc.)"||/fáktu/||fait|
A final schwa also developed when the loss of a final vowel produced a consonant cluster that was then unpronounceable word-finally, usually consisting of a consonant followed by l, r, m or n (VL = Vulgar Latin, OF = Old French):
The final schwa was eventually lost as well but has left its mark in the spelling and in the pronunciation of final consonants, which normally remain pronounced if a schwa followed but are often lost otherwise: fait "done (masc.)" /fɛ/ vs. faite "done (fem.)" /fɛt/.
Intertonic vowels (unstressed vowels in interior syllables) were lost entirely except for a in a syllable preceding the stress, which (originally) became a schwa. The stressed syllable is underlined in the Latin examples:
As noted above, stressed vowels developed quite differently depending on whether they occurred in an open syllable (followed by at most one consonant) or a closed syllable (followed by two or more consonants). In open syllables, the Vulgar Latin mid vowels /ɛ e ɔ o/ all diphthongized, becoming Old French ie oi ue eu respectively (ue and eu later merged), while Vulgar Latin /a/ was raised to Old French e. In closed syllables, all Vulgar Latin vowels originally remained unchanged, but eventually, /e/ merged into /ɛ/, /u/ became the front rounded vowel /y/ and /o/ was raised to /u/. (Th last two changes occurred unconditionally, in both open and closed and in both stressed and unstressed syllables.)
This table shows the outcome of stressed vowels in open syllables:
|Vulgar Latin||Old French||Modern French spelling||Modern French pronunciation||Examples|
|/a/||e||e, è||/e/, /ɛ/||MARE "sea" > mer, TALEM "such" > tel, NĀSVM "nose" > nez, NATVM "born" > né|
|/ɛ/||ie||ie||/je/, /jɛ/||HERI "yesterday" > hier, *MELEM "honey" > miel, PEDEM "foot" > pied|
|/e/||oi||oi||/wa/||PĒRA pear > poire, PILVM "hair" > poil, VIAM "way" > voie|
|/i/||i||i||/i/||FĪLVM "wire" > fil, VĪTA "life" > vie|
|/ɔ/||ue||eu, œu||/ø/, /œ/||*COREM "heart" > OF cuer > cœur, NOVVM "new" > OF nuef > neuf|
|/o/||eu||eu, œu||/ø/, /œ/||HŌRA "hour" > heure, GVLA "throat" > gueule|
|/u/||u||u||/y/||DV̄RVM "hard" > dur|
This table shows the outcome of stressed vowels in closed syllables:
|Vulgar Latin||Old French||Modern French spelling||Modern French pronunciation||Examples|
|/a/||a||a||/a/||PARTEM "part" > part, CARRVM "carriage" > char, VACCAM "cow" > vache|
|/ɛ/||e||e||/ɛ/||TERRAM "land" > terre, SEPTEM "seven" > VL /sɛtte/ > OF set > sept /sɛt/[d]|
|/e/||e||e||/ɛ/||SICCVM dry > sec|
|/i/||i||i||/i/||VĪLLAM "estate" > ville "town"|
|/ɔ/||o||o||/ɔ/, /o/||PORTUM "port" > port, SOTTVM "foolish" > sot|
|/o/||o||ou||/u/||CVRTVM "short" > court, GVTTAM "drop (of liquid)" > OF gote > goutte|
|/u/||u||u||/y/||NV̄LLVM "none" > nul|
Latin N that ended up not followed by a vowel after the loss of vowels in unstressed syllables was ultimately absorbed into the preceding vowel, which produced a series of nasal vowels. The developments are somewhat complex (even more so when a palatal element is also present in the same cluster, as in PUNCTUM "point, dot" > point /pwɛ̃/). There are two separate cases, depending on whether the N originally stood between vowels or next to a consonant (whether a preceding stressed vowel developed in an open syllable or closed syllable context, respectively). See the article on the phonological history of French for full details.
Latin S before a consonant ultimately was absorbed into the preceding vowel, which produced a long vowel (indicated in Modern French spelling with a circumflex accent). For the most part, the long vowels are no longer pronounced distinctively long in Modern French (although long ê is still distinguished in Quebec French). In most cases, the formerly-long vowel is pronounced identically to the formerly short vowel (mur "wall" and mûr "mature" are pronounced the same), but some pairs are distinguished by their quality (o /ɔ/ vs. ô /o/).
Late Vulgar Latin of the French area had a full complement of palatalised consonants, and more developed over time. Most of them, if preceded by a vowel, caused a /j/ sound (a palatal approximant, as in the English words you or yard) to appear before them, which combined with the vowel to produce a diphthong and eventually developed in various complex ways. A /j/ also appeared after them if they were originally followed by certain stressed vowels in open syllables (specifically, /a/ or /e/). If the appearance of the /j/ sound produced a triphthong, the middle vowel was dropped.
Examples show the various sources of palatalized consonants:
In Old French, l before a consonant became u and produced new diphthongs, which eventually resolved into monophthongs: FALSAM "false" > fausse /fos/. See the article on the phonological history of French for details.
The sound changes involving consonants are less striking than those involving vowels. In some ways, French is actually relatively conservative. For example, it preserves initial pl-, fl-, cl-, unlike Spanish, Portuguese and Italian: PLOVĒRE "to rain" > pleuvoir (Spanish llover, Portuguese chover, Italian piovere).
Consonants between vowels were subject to a process called lenition, a type of weakening. That was more extensive in French than in Spanish, Portuguese or Italian. For example, /t/ between vowels went through the following stages in French: /t/ > /d/ > /ð/ > no sound. However, in Spanish only the first two changes happened; in Brazilian Portuguese, only the first change happened, and in Italian, no change happened. Compare VĪTAM "life" > vie with Italian vita, Portuguese vida, Spanish vida [biða]. This table shows the outcomes:
|/t/, /d/||no sound||VĪTAM "life" > vie; CADĒRE "to fall" > OF cheoir > choir|
|/k/, /g/||/j/ or no sound||PACĀRE "to pay" > payer; LOCĀRE "to put, to lease" > louer "to rent"|
|/p/, /b/, /f/, /v/||/v/ or no sound||*SAPĒRE "to be wise" > savoir "to know"; DĒBĒRE "to have to" > devoir; *SAPV̄TVM "known" > OF seü > su|
|/s/||/z/||CAVSAM "cause" > chose "thing"|
|/tsʲ/||/z/||POTIŌNEM "drink" > VL */potsʲone/ > poison "poison"|
As described above, Late Vulgar Latin of the French area had an extensive series of palatalized consonants that developed from numerous sources. The resulting sounds tended to drop a /j/ before and/or after them, which formed diphthongs that later developed in complex ways.
Latin E and I in hiatus position (directly followed by another vowel) developed into /j/ in Vulgar Latin and then combined with the preceding consonant to form a palatalized consonant. All consonants could be palatalized in that fashion. The resulting consonants developed as follows (some developed differently when they became final as a result of the early loss of the following vowel):
|Vulgar Latin||French, non-final||French, final||Examples|
|*/tj/ > */tsʲ/||(i)s||POTIŌNEM "drink" > poison "poison"; PALĀTIVM "palace" > palais|
|*/kj/, */ttj/, */kkj/, */ktj/ > */ttsʲ/||c, ss||OF z > s||*FACIAM "face" > face; BRACCHIVM "arm" > OF braz > bras, *PETTIAM "piece" > pièce, *DĪRECTIĀRE "to set, to erect" > OF drecier > dresser[l]|
|*/dj/, */gj/ > */jj/||i||*GAVDIAM "joy" > joie; MEDIVM "middle" > mi|
|*/sʲ/||(i)s||BASIĀRE "to kiss" > baiser|
|*/ssʲ/||(i)ss||(i)s||BASSIĀRE "to lower" > baisser|
|*/lʲ/||ill||il||PALEAM "straw" > paille; *TRIPĀLIVM "instrument of torture" > travail "work"[m]|
|*/nʲ/||gn||(i)n||*MONTĀNEAM "mountainous" > montagne "mountain"; BALNEVM "bath" > VL */banju/ > bain[n]|
|*/rʲ/||(i)r or (ie)r[o]||ĀREAM "threshing floor, open space" > aire; OPERĀRIVM "worker" > ouvrier|
|/mʲ/||ng /nʒ/||?||VĪNDĒMIA "vintage" > OF vendenge > vendange|
|/pʲ/||ch||?||SAPIAM "I may be wise" > (je) sache "I may know"|
|/bʲ/, /vʲ/, /fʲ/||g /ʒ/||*RABIAM "rage" > rage; RVBEVM "red" > rouge|
C followed by E or I developed into Vulgar Latin */tsʲ/, which was lenited to */dzʲ/ between vowels (later -is-). The pronunciation /ts/ was still present in Old French but was later simplified to /s/:
G before E or I developed originally into Vulgar Latin */j/, which subsequently became /dʒʲ/ when it was not between vowels. The pronunciation /dʒ/ was still present in Old French but was later simplified to /ʒ/. Between vowels, /j/ often disappeared:
C and G before A except after a vowel developed into /tʃʲ/ and /dʒʲ/, respectively. Both /tʃ/ and /dʒ/ persisted the Old French but were later subsequently simplified to /ʃ/ and /ʒ/:
In various consonant combinations involving C or G + another consonant, the C or G developed into /j/, which proceeded to palatalize the following consonant:
In some cases, the loss of an intertonic vowel led to a similar sequence of /j/ or palatalized consonant + another consonant, which was palatalized in turn:
As a result of the pre-French loss of most final vowels, all consonants could appear word-finally except /tʃ/ and /dʒ/, which were always followed by at least a schwa, stemming from either a final /a/ or a prop vowel. In Old French, however, all underlying voiced stops and fricatives were pronounced voiceless word-finally. That was clearly reflected in Old French spelling: the adjectives froit "cold" (feminine froide), vif "lively" (feminine vive), larc "large" (feminine large) and the verbs, je doif "I must" vs. ils doivent "they must", je lef "I may wash" vs. ils levent "they (may) wash". Most of the alternations have since disappeared (partly because of morphological reshaping and partly because of respelling once most final consonants had been lost, as described below), but the adjectival alternation vif vs. vive (and similarly for other adjectives in -f) has remained.
In the Middle French, most final consonants became gradually lost. That proceeded in stages:
The final consonants that are normally subject to loss are /t/, /s/, /p/, sometimes /k/ and /r/, rarely /f/ (in clé < the earlier and still occasional clef). The consonants /l/ and /ʎ/ were normally preserved, but /m/, /n/, /ɲ/ and /ʃ/ did not occur (the voiced obstruents /d z b g v ʒ/ also did not occur). A more recent countervailing tendency, however, is the restoration of some formerly-lost final consonants, as in sens, now pronounced /sɑ̃s/ but formerly /sɑ̃/, as still found in the expressions sens dessus dessous "upside down" and sens devant derrière "back to front". The restored consonant may stem from the liaison pronunciation or the spelling, and it serves to reduce ambiguity. For example, /sɑ̃/ is also the pronunciation of cent "hundred", sang "blood" and sans "without" (among others).
French is noticeably different from most other Romance languages. Some of the changes have been attributed to substrate influence, which is from Gaulish (Celtic), or superstrate influence, which is from Frankish (Germanic). In practice, it is difficult to say with confidence which sound and grammar changes were caused by substrate and superstrate influences, since many of the changes in French have parallels in other Romance languages or are changes that are undergone by many languages in their process of development. However, the following are likely candidates.
In other areas:
Le déclin du Gaulois et sa disparition ne s'expliquent pas seulement par des pratiques culturelles spécifiques: Lorsque les Romains conduits par César envahirent la Gaule, au 1er siecle avant J.-C., celle-ci romanisa de manière progressive et profonde. Pendant près de 500 ans, la fameuse période gallo-romaine, le gaulois et le latin parlé coexistèrent; au VIe siècle encore; le temoignage de Grégoire de Tours atteste la survivance de la langue gauloise.