why was French a language studied by scholars?

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by science man, Jul 28, 2010.

  1. Why was French studied by scholars in the ancient times back when Latin was still famously studied? I read somewhere on Wikipedia that in the ancient times the scholars studied both Latin and French Latin I understand (I admire that language even though I don't know it) but why French? This leads me to asking if French was Latin's first child (It's children being romantic languages and English somewhat)? I know that phonetically it doesn't sound like that should the case, but think about what I just said. And no, I remember which article I read it in.
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  3. River Ape Valued Senior Member

    Well I feel pretty ancient sometimes these days, sci-man,
    but how far back in time is your idea of "ancient"?

    I would be inclined to say that in ancient times, Gaul was divided in three parts, between the Belgae, the Aquitani and the Celtae. At least, that was the way the author G J Caesar** saw it. None of these three peoples spoke French, and the concept of France had not yet been invented.

    Interestingly, most French citizens did not speak French until the 19th Century.

    **GALLIA est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam qui ipsorum lingua Celtae, nostra Galli appellantur. Hi omnes lingua, institutis, legibus inter se differunt.
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  5. ok but that doesn't answer my question.
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  7. Dywyddyr Penguinaciously duckalicious. Valued Senior Member

    You haven't said what you mean by "ancient times". Or even in which countries French was given "equal time" with Latin.

    If you meant the mediaeval period then it could have been due to the actual influence on France (especially on England), post William and his little cross-channel excursion in 1066.
  8. Pandaemoni Valued Senior Member

    I am not sure what you mean by "ancient" either, but I suspect you may be thinking of Carolingian period, around the time Charlemagne (742-814 AD) united the Holy Roman Empire (or what would become the Holy Roman Empire, depending on how you split histoical hairs). Charlemagne rules a large area in Europe and instituted educational initiatives designed to promote literacy and scholarship, particularly in Latin and French. The latter because Charlemagne was king of the Franks--a Germanic tribe which settled in northern France--and France was one of the core regions of his Carolingian Empire (and the name "France" comes from "Francia" meaning "land of the Franks").

    Latin had always been important in France after the fall of the western Roman Empire, and I know it was still the language of scholars in the Frankish period (see, for example, Gregory of Tours's, History of the Franks), as the region was heavily colonized by Romans prior to that time, and they and the church never abandoned it.

    Charlemagne, who was illterate himself, nonetheless seems to have regarded literacy as very important, given trhe emphasis he placed n it. In his times and location, studying Latin and Frankish ("French") were natural targets.
  9. I don't know what I meant by ancient either but let's go with your time period. If Latin was still very important to the French even after the fall of the Roman Empire than why was their language (French) also important to them? I don't understand the transfer.
  10. Pandaemoni Valued Senior Member

    When western Rome fell, the deposed emperor was the last of a long line of western emperors who was ousted from the office. The successor always came in, swore loyalty to Constantinople, and the "Empire" continued. When the barbarian Odoacaer did the same to the Roman Romulus Augstulus, Odoacer followed suit and pledged loyalty to Emperor Zeno in the East.

    What changed (and what arguably changed before 476 AD) was that the east was rich and the west was poor. The west was so poor that Rome could not afford to defend borders, maintain expensive roads, temples, aqueducts, etc. They still taxed the outlying areas for a while, but places like Gaul were mostly on their own.

    Still, those living in Gaul had been "Roman" in mindset for a very long time, despite the fact that many "barbarian" tribes were given land there. In this "Galloo-Roman" world, most people spoke some variation of “vulgar Latin” that was heavily influenced by whatever tribal language they used before being Romanized. (As the next three centuries wore on after the fall of Rome, these local variations of vulgar Latin became harder and harder to understand to anyone from a different region, and they became the basis of the modern Romance languages). In 457 AD, the Franks moved into northern Gaul (with Rome's blessing). For the most part, according to Gregory of Tours's "History of the Franks" the Franks started to Romanize just like other tribes had. The “Old Frankish” language was largely abandoned for the vulgar Latin in use in northern Gaul, but with a lot of crossover that made the “Frankish” version of vulgar Latin notably distinct (and increasingly distinct over time). The reason for this was the Romans had monumental architecture, wealth, surpluses, and other good things that “society” offers, that the more nomadic ranks wanted. It was easy to adopt their culture, and that included the language.

    In Gaul, the Roman military presence declined early on, before the fall. This allowed for a lot of political drama between barbarian kings living in what was Rome, most of which started to come to a head around 480-490 AD.

    Clovis I started subduing his barbarian neighbors (whose subjects were a mix of barbarians and former Romans) eventually also going after a huge swath of "Roman" land in 487 AD (effectively ruled over by Syagrias, the last of the Roman military governors in Gaul).

    Clovis eventually drove most of the other barbarians out of power, but was left with a kingdom where there were multiple barbarian languages, lots of peasants who spoke some form of vulgar Latin (which at the time would have been more or less comprehensible to the vulgar Latin he knew himself), but the educated classes and administrators all knew formal, early-Medieval Latin, so proper Latin remained vital to his administration

    The original Frankish language was still around in northern Gaul, but increasingly started to merge with vulgar Latin, forming the local tongue that eventually became the nucleus of modern French.

    As time wore on, formal Latin fell more and more out of use (much as French eventually did in running England after the Norman Conquest), but it hung on strongly in court administration and law, diplomatic circles, in scholarship and in the church (with the Catholic Church itself being an important political entity). Even in the age of Charlemagne, circa 800 AD, Frankish emperors still needed to have Medieval Latin-fluent administrators and scribes to efficiently conduct the business of State, and the records of their court were written in Medieval Latin.

    When what is sometimes referred to as the "Carolingian Renaissance" started under Charlemagne, it was very expressly their goal to recreate the lost culture of Rome. By that time, all those regional variations of vulgar Latin were mostly unintelligible to those from other regions, and many dialects of German languages were in use in the other parts he ruled; so communications from one part of his empire to the other were complex.

    So you had a powerful Frankish ruler that spoke a kind of proto-French (which also happened to be a variation of vulgar Latin, but pre-dates what is known as "Old French"), who relied heavily on formal Latin (Medieval Latin) in recording and conducting his own affairs, who went on a kick establishing schools and who encouraged scholarship. He was also plagued by a shortfall in the number of scribes needed to run everything, which put him on a literacy kick. Again, his interest in Frankish and Latin was a natural extension.
  11. River Ape Valued Senior Member

    The languages spoken by the Franks, the Norman invaders of England, or the thirty-odd local languages spoken in medieval France, would all be unintelligible (or nearly so) to speakers of French today. In many cases, they would be further removed from modern French than Chaucerian English is from Modern English.

    The attempt to create a defined French language (based on the dialect spoken in the Paris region) only began around the middle of the 16th Century -- so it is safe to say that it was NOT a language studied by scholars in anything that could be described as "ancient" times. As the language of the Court and Administration under the Bourbon kings of France, it became the language to learn and to know if you wanted to get ahead. So to that degree it was studied by the professional classes and by a cultural elite from the 17th Century onwards. The emergence of France as the greatest European power at the end of the Thirty Years War made it a useful language to learn elsewhere in Europe.

    The majority of the French population continued to speak Occitane, Burgundian, Norman, Gallo, Gascon, Basque, Alsatian, etc. The attempt to reinforce a national identity, plus the spread of the railways, plus the spread of elementary education led to the teaching of French to the masses in the 19th Century -- though the language had moved on from that of the French court three hundred years earlier. Even as late at 1870, the majority of the Breton troops defending Paris from the Prussians were unable to understand the local population.

    Latin is an ancient language; French is a modern language.
  12. Pandaemoni Valued Senior Member

    My understanding is slightly different. There were two major language families in what became France (in the north the so-called "oil" language, and in the south the "oc" languages). Of these some became distinct languages but most remained dialects.

    With all those dialects in play, by the 13th century a set of more common elements was being used as a "interdialectary" language as in French literature, and of all the oil languages that sort of Old French was the most widely used and understood.

    It's that common interdialectary language that is most typically called "Old French" though more than one dialect was close enough to it to be lumped into "ancien francais".

    That interdialectary form was also the most direct ancestor of modern French among the variants in play in the 13th century, but Parisian, Burgundian, Walloon, Old Norman and others were all sufficiently related that they are each recognized as "Old French" dialects (and would have been understood with varying degrees of difficulty by other Old French speakers).

    All of those variations, though were variants that evolved from older Gallo-Latin that was spoken in Gaul at the time the Roman Empire fell in the west (which itself would have been comprehensible to a Roman speaking pure Latin).
  13. Doreen Valued Senior Member

    Is there a language scholars have not studied?
  14. River Ape Valued Senior Member

    No , I wouldn't quibble with your latest post at all, Pandaemoni. I decided not to get into the oïl and the oc -- or any of the further complications. Around the edges of France, of course, there were populations of Basques, Bretons, and at some periods of time Flemings or Alsatians, who spoke languages quite different from French, and whom the Authorities were keen to Frenchify. I can remember in my youth that Bretons were occasionally prosecuted for giving their offspring old Breton names IN CONTRAVENTION OF THE LAW!

    Doreen: Quite right! It had occured to me that the simple and direct answer to sci-man's question was "Because they were scholars, mate!"
  15. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    As others have noted, you're a little weak on the difference between "ancient" and "medieval" times. Remember that before the invention of the printing press, manuscripts were copied by hand, so there wasn't much to read. After the fall of the Roman Empire, European culture declined for several centuries so the majority of what was available to read was the ancient texts in Latin and Greek. Once printing was invented, there was an explosion of new writing in the modern languages. This spurred the trend toward universal literacy (in 1300 you'd have to knock on a lot of doors to find someone who could read) and the democratization of education.

    Remember also that language tends to follow the coin rather than the flag or the holy book, so once France became a major commercial power its language became more important.
    Latin began to break up into dialects in all of the Roman colonies after the fall of the Empire, and by the end of the 1st Millennium those dialects had become mutually unintelligible languages: in France, Iberia, Italy and Romania. It didn't happen any more quickly or any more slowly in France than anywhere else.
    They're called Romance languages. English is a Germanic language. But because England was conquered by the Norman French in 1066, our language assimilated thousands of French words. Both the grammar and the phonetics also underwent tremendous changes, so Modern English doesn't look or sound very much like German, Dutch or Norwegian. But it's still easily recognizable as a Germanic language with a lot of French borrowings. Compare English "I have a big (great) dog (hound)" to German Ich habe einen grosse Hund versus French J'ai un grand chien.
    You can't rely on phonetics as a guide to language relationships. Sounds are the most easily changed aspects of a language. If you listen to someone speak Danish, you wouldn't think it was related to English at all. Yet if you see it printed, the similarities are obvious.

    I would judge that French pronunciation hasn't diverged from Latin to a greater extent than Romanian: Lingua ("language") becomes limba; decem ("ten") becomes zeci; noctem ("night") becomes noapta.

    French has undergone some amazing phonetic changes quite recently. The pronunciation of OI as WA (moi, etoile, pourquoi) only goes back about 200 years.

    Italian has diverged the least from Latin. Children in a Latin class were once asked to write a paragraph in Latin. The teacher reprimanded one of them for writing in Italian instead. He pointed out that the paragraph he wrote was the same in both languages. You could not do that in French, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Occitan, Romansh, Sardinian or Romanian. (Sorry, I read this long before there was an internet so I can't post a link to it. I don't know if it really occurred in a class or if some linguist just made it up, but the paragraph was presented and it was true.)
    Last edited: Aug 1, 2010

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