1902 Encyclopedia > France > French Language - External History: Political; Literary

(Part 23)


External History: Political; Literary

II. External History. - (a) Political. – By the Roman conquests the language of Rome was spread over the greater part of southern and western Europe, and gradually supplanted the native tongues. The language introduced was a first nearly uniform over the whole empire, Latin provincialisms and many more or less general features of the older vulgar language being suppressed by the preponderating influence of the educated speech of the capital. As legions became stationary, as colonies were formed, and as the natives adopted the language of their conquerors, this language split up into local dialects, the distinguishing features of which are due, as far as can be ascertained (except, to some extent, as to the vocabulary), not to speakers of different nationalities misspeaking Latin, each with the peculiarities of his native language, but to the fact that linguistic, changes, which are ever occurring, are not perfectly uniform over a large area, however homogeneous the speakers. As Gaul was not conquered by Caesar till the middle of the first century before our era, its Latin cannot have begun to differ from that of Rome till after that date; but the artificial retention of classical Latin as the literary and official language after the popular spoken language had diverged from it, often renders the chronology of the earlier periods of the Romanic languages obscure. It is, however, certain that the popular Latin of Gaul had become differentiated from that of central Italy before the Teutonic conquest of Gaul, which was not completed till the latter half of the 5th century; the invaders gradually adopted the language of their more civilized subjects, which remained unaffected, except in its vocabulary. Probably by this time it had diverged so widely from the artificially preserved literary language that it could no longer be regarded merely as mispronounced Latin; the Latin documents of the next following centuries contain many clearly popular words and forms, and the literary and popular languages are distinguished as latina and romana. The term gallica, at first denoting the native kCeltic language of Gaul, is found applied to its supplanter before the end of the 9th century, and survives in the Breton gallek, the regular term for "French." After the Franks in Gaul had abandoned their native Teutonic language, the term francisca, by which this was denoted, came to be applied to the Romanic one they adopted, and, under the form francaise, remains its native name to this day; but this name was confined to the Romanic of northern Gaul, which makes it probable that this, at the time of the adoption of the makes it probable that this, at the time of the adoption of the name francisca, had become distinct from the Romanic of southern Gaul. Francsica is the Teutonic adjective frankisk, which occurs in Old English in the form frencisc; this word, with its umlauted e from a with following I, survives under the form French, which, though purely Teutonic in original and form, has long been exclusively applied to the Romantic language and inhabitants of Gual. The German name franzose, with its accent on, and o in, the second syllable, comes from francois, a native French form older than francais, but later than the early Old French franceis. The Scandinavian settlers on the north-west coast of France early in the 10th century quickly lost their native speech, which left no trace except in some contributions to the vocabulary of the language they adopted. The main feature since is the growth of the political supremacy of Paris, carrying with it that of its dialect; in 1539 Francis I. ordered that all public documents should be in French (of Paris), which then became the official language of the whole kingdom, though it is still foreign to nearly half its population.

The conquest of England in 1066 by William, duke of Normandy, introduced into England, as the language of the rulers and (for a time) most of the writers, the dialects spoken in Normandy. Confined in their native country to definite areas, these dialects, following their speakers, became mixed in England, so that their forms were used to some extent indifferently; and the constant communication with Normandy maintained during several reigns introduced also later forms of Continental Norman. As the conquerors learned the language of the conquered; and as the more cultured of the latter learned that of the former, the Norman of England (including that of the English-speaking Lowlands of Scotland) became anglicized; instead of following the changes of the Norman of France, it followed those of English. The accession in 1154 of Henry II. of Anjou disturbed the Norman character of Anglo-French, and the loss of Normandy under John in 1204 gave full play to the literary importance of the French of Paris, many of whole forms afterwards penetrated to England. At the same time English, with a large French addition to its vocabulary, was steadily recovering its supremacy, and is officially employed (for the first time since the Conquest) in the Proclamation of Henry III. 1258. The semi-artificial result of this mixture of French of different dialects and of different periods, more or less anglicized according to the date or education of the speaker or writer, is generally termed "the Anglo-Norman dialect"; very misleadingly for a great part of its existence, because while the French of Normandy was not a single dialect, the later French of England came from other French provinces besides Normandy, and, being to a considerable extent in artificial conditions, was checked in the natural development implied by the term "dialect." The disuse of Anglo-French as a natural language is evidenced by English being substituted for it in legal proceedings in 1362, and in schools in 1387; but law reports were written in it up to 1600, and, converted into modern literary French, it remains in official use for giving the royal assent to bills of parliament.

(b)- Literary. – Doubtless because the popular Latin of northern Gaul changed more rapidly than that of any other part of the empire, French was, of all the Romantic dialects, the first to be recognized as a distinct language, and the first to be used in literature; and though the oldest specimen now extant is probably not the first, it is considerably earlier than any existing documents of the allied languages. In 813 the council of Tours ordered certain homilies to be translated into Rustic Roman or into German; and in 842 Louis the German, Charles the Bald, and their armies confirmed their engagements by taking oaths in both languages at Strasburg. These have been preserved to us by the historians Nithard (who died in 853); and though, in consequence of the only existing manuscript (at Rome) being more than a century later than the time of the author, certain alterations have occurred in the text of the French oaths, they present more archaic forms (probably of North-Eastern French) than any other document. The next memorials are a short poem, probably North-Eastern, on St Eulalia, preserved in a manuscript of the 10th century at Valenciennes, and some autograph fragments (also at Valenxiennes) of a homily on the prophet Jonah, in mixed Latin and Eastern French, of the same period. To the same century belong a poem on Christ’s Passion, apparently in a mixed (not intermediate) language of French and Provencal, and one, probably in South-Eastern French, on St Leger; both are preserved, in different handwritings, in a MS. at Clermonth-Ferrand, whose scribes have introduced many Provencal forms. After the middle of the 11th century literary remains are comparatively numerous; the chief early representatives of the main dialects are the following, some of them preserved in several MSS., the earliest of which, however (the only ones here mentioned), are in several cases a generation or two later than the works themselves. In Western French are a verse life of St Alexius (Alexis), probably Norman, in an Anglo-Norman MS. at Hildersheim; the epic poem of Roland, possibly also Norman, in an A-N. MS at Oxford; a Norman verbal translation of the Psalms, in an A-N. MS. also at Oxford; another later one in an A-N. MS. at Cambridge; a Norman translation of the Four Books of Kings, in a native MS at Paris. The earliest work in the Parisian dialect is probably the Travels of Charlemagne, preserved in a late Anglo-Norman MS. with much-altered forms. In Eastern French, of rather later date, there are translations of the Dialogues of Pope Gregory, in a MS. at Paris, containing also fragments of Gregory’s Moralities, and (still later) of some Sermons of St Bernard, in a MS. also at Paris. From the end of the 12th century literary and official documents, often including local charters, abound in almost every dialect, until the growing influence of Paris caused its language to supersede in writing the other local ones. This influence, occasionally apparent in the 12th century, was overpowering in the 15th, when authors, though often displaying provincialisms, almost all wrote in the dialect of the capital; the last dialect to lose its literary independence was the North-Eastern, which being the Romanic language of Flanders, had a political life of its own, and (modified by Parisian) was used in literature after 1400.

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