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June 25, 2022

The Old French Language with Olivier Robichaud

The Old French Language with Olivier Robichaud

Olivier Robichaud returns to talk about how the Old French language came into being.


Hi again, Olivier here to talk to you about Old French. Hunh, what? Didn’t we already cover this? I thought there was already a guest episode about the origins of Old French. Well, yes that’s true. But last time, I was really aiming to answer two questions. First: where did French come from? And second: how does one language turn into another language?

If you remember that episode, the answers were: 1. it came from Latin; and 2. it’s all political. People stopped referring to the language of the former roman citizens in Frankia as «Latin», because the people in power didn’t recognize it as the classical Latin that they learned as a second language for Church and government. So they called it several different names depending on time and place, until eventually they settled on the word «français».

But now that the narrative of the French History Podcast is squarely in the 11thcentury, all the murkiness is gone. No one is wondering whether it’s still Latin anymore. It clearly isn’t and no one is calling it that. Also, the kings speak the same language as everyone else now. And, last but definitely not least, we start to have written records in the vernacular language of France. The cloud that veiled the passage from Latin to French has been lifted, so to speak. So now, I can actually get into the nitty gritty. What did Old French sound like? How did it work? And, to some degree, I’m going to get into the forces that propelled some of the change.

Now before we start, just a word on my sources. Most of what I’m about to say is taken from web pages associated with Laval University and the Free University of Brussels, as well as an online library called Lexilogos. But you have to speak French. If you don’t, the Wikipedia entry for Old French is fairly well documented so you can scan the references for interesting reads.

I also want to take one small step back before I get to the real meat. The last time you heard my voice, I spoke of Latin and French as if there were nothing in between. That’s not quite right. I glossed over a big «in between» part before we actually start calling it French, and that is where a lot of the changes I described occured. So if you want the actual timeline of the passage from Latin to French, it went something like this:

Classical Latin during the Roman Republic. Vulgar Latin from at least the second century onwards, possibly earlier. Gallo-Roman from approximately the sixth century to the ninth century. And finally Old French from the late ninth century onwards.

Vulgar Latin is the term used for the parlance of the common people for most of the time the Empire lasted. It is that form of Latin that was adopted by the Gauls during the late fifth and early 6th centuries. It was still recognizable Latin, but with a simpler grammar. That’s the period when clergymen were telling priests to preach to their flock in a «rustic style».

The Gallo-Roman period is a transitional period. As the 6th, 7th, and 8thcenturies unfurl, we get hints that the language of the common people becomes less and less intelligible to those who were learning Classical Latin. When Charlemagne talks about the «lingua romana rusticam», or «rustic Roman language», as being different from Latin in 814 AD, we are near the end of the Gallo-Roman period.

That brings us to Old French. But before I do that, please allow me to make a small parenthesis to talk about the Serments de Strasbourg, or the Oaths of Strasburg.

The Oaths are the starting point for any discussion about the origins of the French language. Gary told us about it back in episode 58. As a reminder: in 842 AD, the grandsons of Charlemagne were duking it out and two of them formed an alliance against the third. One headed a West-Frankian army composed of the descendants of Roman citizens, the other headed an East-Frankian army composed mostly of Germans. Each had to read an oath in the language of the other guy’s soldiers so that they would all understand what was being pledged.

You may have heard that the oath read by King Ludwig to the followers of Charles the Bald is the oldest known document written in French. Which is true, but it also kind of isn’t. First, because it’s just a little bit too early for that. Linguists classify it in the gallo-roman period. The main caracteristics that will define Old French are not yet determinedly in place at the time of the Oaths of Strasburg. The second reason is that there were lots of different dialects both in the gallo-roman period and in Old French. The dialects in the North of France were very different from the ones in the South, and most scholars agree that the language of the Ludwig’s oath is most likely an early dialect of the South. Those dialects would eventually give us Occitan and Catalan, two entirely different languages, while the ones in the North gave us modern French.

So, I’m going to put aside the Oaths of Strasburg for now. But it is so fundamental to the study of linguistics in France that I will come back to it. I’ve prepared an epilogue where I will read you Ludwig’s Oath in English, then in French, then in my best attempt at some approximation of the original gallo-roman.

So when is the official start of Old French? Most linguists date it to the late ninth century. By then, the north/south divide is clearly visible. The feudal system is also firmly in place, which means French society becomes hyper local. And this fuels further differentiation into many more dialects. But for the purposes of this podcast episode, I will date it to the start of the reign of Hugues Capet as king of France in 987.

Why? First, because it’s easy to remember. When the king doesn’t speak French, it’s not French. When the king does speak French, it is French. But also because I’m doing this from a socio-linguistic point of view. Language and society, and therefore language and politics, are not separate. They influence each other. So the arrival of a French-speaking monarch instead of a Frankish monarch confirms a shift in the dynamics between the different languages and dialects spoken in West Frankia. Germanic dialects are still spoken in some places, but they are no longer in a position of dominance. Whatever influence Frankish had over gallo-roman is a thing of the past. From now on, the history of the French language will, in general, be a history of Paris spreading the speech of its monarch to the rest of the kingdom.

Now I’ve mentioned dialects a few times already. France in the Middle Ages was a patchwork of dialects. Paris had its dialect, known in French linguistics as «Francien», or «Francian». No Parisian ever called it that though, it’s just an academic term.  Around it you had Picard, Artois, Angevin, Normand, Champenois and others. Those terms are all used in real life by the way, they’re not just academic terms. And that’s just in the North. I’m not even going to talk about the South all that much because, although they are culturally important in this period, those dialects don’t evolve into modern French. Keep in mind though that most of the literature of this period comes from the South. This is the era of the Troubadours and the «chanson de geste». Those are specifically southern French phenomena. But in terms of what is eventually going to be modern French, they are secondary. There is also a third group of dialects in the east, but they’re really less of a factor for our purposes. And my mom would really get a kick out of hearing a Monty Pithon reference, so I’m just going to call them the «Sir not-appearing-in-this-film» dialects.

If you’re having difficulty with the concept of dialects, you’re not alone. In fact most linguists don’t use it anymore, but I’m still going to use it because it’s fairly common in every day speech. In a very general sense, it means both that you recognize the difference between your manner of speech and that of another region, but also that you consider both to be part of a greater whole. And the differences are more than just a question of the accents that differ from England to America to Australia. Two different dialects can be so far apart that people can’t communicate anymore.

It’s hard to find an example that anglo-saxon listeners would have come across because modern western states have thoroughly standardized their main national language and pushed regional dialects into obscurity. But have you ever heard a very, very old person from Yorkshire who grew up on a farm? You can find some old clips on from the BBC on the internet, but unfortunately I can’t plug it in the podcast episode because it would cost me 1000 british pounds. But check it out, it’s worth a listen. And make sure you don’t just get someone with a weird accent. Get an old man using words that don’t exist in standard English.

The dialects in the North of France are all part of what is generally referred to as the «langues d’oïl». In the South, linguists refer to the «langues d’oc».

Oïl and oc are two versions of the word «yes». Oïl, as you might guess, gave us the modern French word «oui». That’s the word that was used in the North. The word Oc was used in the South and is still spelled O-C in modern Occitan, though apparently the c is silent. It’s just a simple way of showing that northern dialects shared certain traits amongst each other that were different from the South, and vice-versa.

So why was there a north-south divide? Well, it starts with the Romans. The South of Gaul had been colonized much earlier and was much more thoroughly romanized. It was more like Rome than it was like Paris.

The second reason for that North-South divide is the Franks. They were in the North waaaaaaay longer than they were in the South. In fact, initially, most of what is now Southern France was part of a Wisigothic kindom. The Wisigoths were nowhere near as numerous or as powerful as the Franks and they had very little impact on the language of their romanized subjects.

The Franks, as I said last time, had the largest impact of any Germanic group on a Romance language. They were numerous, powerful, culturally vibrant and they stuck around for hundreds of years. Some of their words and pronunciations trickled down into the language of the people.

And now, finally, we get to the actual substance of the language. What was that Frankish influence? What words and what pronunciations in Old French had been inherited from the Franks? What did that darn language sound like?

Let’s start with the consonants. Late Latin used a silent «h». It’s the only silent letter in Latin. It was pronounced during the classical period, but it simply dropped along the way in spoken Latin, while the spelling stayed the same. There are also «h»s that were never pronounced and are just a marker to show that the word was originally borrowed from Greek. Well, now the Fanks reintroduced the «h» into the language. I mean the real one, the one we use for the [h] sound for words like «horse» and «hello».

By the way, I’m going to be doing a lot of sounds like [h] [tch] [w] for the rest of the episode and I know it sounds silly. But you just can’t get away from sounding silly when explaining linguistics, so bear with me.

So new Frankish words came into the language, including words that mean shame, axe, hate, hoe and helm. Those words, in order, were haunipa, háppia, hatjan, hauwa and helm came into French during the Gallo-Roman period and became haunita, happdja, hatina, hauwa and hélmum. At the time of the narrative, so 11th century, the h was probably still pronounced and those words would have possibly been pronounced something like [honte] [hatche] [haïne] [hue] and [hiaume]. In the last century of Old French, the [h] became silent again. Today, those words are honte, hache, haine, houe and heaume.

This seems like a good time to remind all of you that I’m not a researcher or any kind of expert on Old French phonetics. So if a linguist tells you my pronunciation sucks, listen to him. He’s right.

Frankish words also brought in both forms of the English «th» sound. So the sounds that we hear in the words «this» and «thing». We mentioned Charles and Ludwig a moment ago, so let’s use the name of their brother Lothar to illustrate this. The traditional Latin version of Lothar is «Clotario». It comes from the same original root as Clothar, that Merovingian king from back in the day. So there’s a hard «t» in the middle because Latin doesn’t have a «th» sound. In the German version of the Oaths, Lothar’s name is rendered «Ludheren». So how do you think the gallo-roman version renders it? Under Frankish influence, the name got pulled closer to the german version and it is rendered «Ludher». So now it’s got that voiced «th» sound (the one in the word «this»).

But that sound also affected words that didn’t come from Frankish. The latin «adjutare», which means «to help frequently», became «aiudhare» in the Oaths. Latin «catuna» or «each one» became «cadhuna».

Remember that’s all Gallo-Roman, but the th sounds were still in use at the current point in the narrative. In the 12th and 13th centuries, French would revert back to the regular t and d sounds.

Old French also enhanced a trend that had started late in the Gallo-Roman period: pallatalisation. That’s when you add a bit of friction to a hard consonant. So instead of having a regular «K» sound, you start getting «ts» or «tch». Remember last time when I said that the name of the kingdom was probably pronounced «Frantsya» in Charlemagne’s day? Well fast forward a century or two and there is more of that going on. Some Latin [k] sounds are turning into [tch], the [g] sound is turning into [dj] in some cases, and some [t] sounds are becoming [dz].

By the way, I’m going to be making a lot of sounds like that for the next few minutes, so bear with me. You always sound silly when explaining linguistics, there’s no getting away from it!

So instead of Latin «platea» for a public space, you get «platsë» in Old French. That word is now «place». Latin «gamba» becomes «djam-bë», which today is pronounced «jambe» (in English that’s your leg). The Frankish word «riki», for «rich», became «ritchë» in Old French. That’s «riche» in Modern French. And finally the word for «reason» goes from the Latin «ratio» to Old French «raïdzonn» (now pronounced «raison»).

The last consonant I want to talk about is the «w». That sound, the [w] sound, had been going through some weird changes in the last couple centuries and more change was yet to come. Classical Latin didn’t have a «v» sound. All the «v» you see in Latin texts are all «u». It’s just that doing a curved line on a stone tablet is hard. Now in front of a consonant that «u» had the [u] sound. But in front of a vowel, it had a [w] sound. I’m sure you’ve seen or heard Cesar’s famous phrase «veni, vidi, vici», or «I came, I saw, I conquered»? Well it was actually pronounced more like «weni, widi, wiki».

Vulgar Latin turned most of those [w] sounds into [v] sounds. The only exception, as far as I’m aware, is after a «q». So fast-forward a couple centuries after Cesar, and those words WOULD have been «veni, vidi, vici». But fast-forward again to Gallo-Roman times and for some reason, possibly under the influence of Frankish, those former Romans are sending a lot of those «v» back into «w». But they’re doing it in a weird way. They weren’t used to using that sound anymore without a consonant before it, like the «q». So they added the slightest little hint of a «g» sound. So instead of [w], you got [gw]. Take the word for «wasp». It went from classical Latin «wesparum», to vulgar latin «vespa», to gall-roman «gwespa». And they did the same thing with a whole bunch of words coming in from Frankish. The Frankish word for «war» was «werra». In Frankia, it replaced the Latin word «bellum». But instead of pronouncing it «werra», the former Romans said «gwerra».

Fast-forward one more time to the current point of the narrative, and that slight hint of a «g» becomes a hard, unmistakable [g]. So [gwespa] was now [gwespë]. And [gwerra] became [gwerrë]. Today, those words are pronounced «guêpe» and «guerre».

By the way, that introduction of Frankish words with a W has had an impact on the English language as well. You may or may not know this, but William the Conqueror is known in French as Guillaume le Conquérant. Why do we go from William with a W to Guillaume with a G? Because William was a Norman. Normandie had been settled by Danish Vikings in the early 900s. Those Vikings adopted the French language, but when they did so they had no problem with that [w] sound. There are lots of «w» in Danish, so easy peasy. Which meant that when the Frankish name «Wilhelm» became popular, the French essentially butchered it with that «g» sound and many more alterations until it eventually became «Guillaume». but not the Normans. They kept that «w», and they brought it with them when they conquered England in 1066.

I want to get to the vowels now, but before I do that, please allow me one more digression to talk about the most famous poem written in Old French. And it has to do with the Normans in England. That poem is, of course the Chanson de Rolland, or The Song of Roland. You may have heard of it before, and in fact Gary mentioned it once or twice already. It recounts a battle in the 8th century between one of Charlemagne’s army and some Breton rebels. The oldest copy we have is from the 12th century, so not too far off from the current narrative. Given its age, it is considered to be the closest we can get to the original song. But it wasn’t written in the dialect of Paris, nor in one of the Southern dialects of the Troubadours. It was written in that Anglo-Norman dialect that was now in use in the court of England. If you want to hear what it sounded like, I took a small clip from a reading posted on YouTube.

[Exerpt from the Chanson de Roland: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DO37aUX_PkU ]

There is a further link between the Song of Roland and England. There is some controversy as to the date of its composition. The traditional understanding is that it was first composed late in the 11th century. But depending on who you believe, parts of it may have been written down shortly after the actual battle in 778 and then added to and embellished upon as the years went by. That would make the 12th Century historian William of Malmesbury look a little bit better, because in his History of the Kings of England, he says that The Song of Roland was sung by William the Conqueror’s troops during the Battle of Hastings in 1066. So there you go.

And now, the vowels. I won’t be able to go through all the changes because the French went all out multiple personality disorder with the vowels at the current point in Gary’s narrative. There were no less than 33 different vowel sounds, which is more than the entire alphabet! Just to give you an idea of how nuts that is, modern French has 16 vowel sounds, English has 20 (yes you do, look it up), Latin had only 10, and Spanish has a grand total of 5 vowel sounds. So yeah, 33 is nuts.

How did it get that high? With my favorite word in the whole discipline of linguistics: diphthongs. I’m going to use English to illustrate what a diphthong is because English and Latin actually went through very similar processes when it comes to this.

A diphthong is a vowel that changes into another vowel as you pronounce it. Take the the letter «i» for example. When you say the name of that letter «i», you start out saying [a] and end with [i]. Try it out and exaggerate it, if you don’t mind sounding silly: aaaaaa-iiiii. All those things that you learned in school as being the «long» form of a vowel are diphthongs.

But they didn’t used to be. They used to be the same as the short version, just pronounced longer. But when a vowel is pronounced long, it seems to invite a certain kind of modulation. It can easily fall into a diphthong. That’s what happened in English, and that’s also what happened in Latin, only to a more insane degree. Somehow, they managed to go from 5 long vowels to 16 diphthongs!!!

Those diphthongs disappeared over time, but interestingly some of what I just explained can still be found in the French-speaking parts of Canada. Get a Frenchman from France to tell you the difference between a penny and a stage. He’ll say there’s none, they’re both pronounced «cenne». But French-Canadians like myself beg to differ. A penny is «une cenne», but a stage is «une scene». Can you tell the difference? The second word, «scene», is longer. It has a long vowel. Now if I exaggerate my French-Canadian accent, I might call it «une scene». That’s a diphthong.

But it gets even worse. Old French had triphthongs!!! I’ll let you guess what that word means. That’s right, it means that there are three vowel sounds interwoven into a single vowel. What. The. Heck.

Now this does mean that I get to answer a question that I’m sure has been nagging every single one of you who ever attempted to learn French: how the heck does «e-a-u» make the sound [o]? All logic would dictate that the word «beau», which means «pretty» or «handsome», would be spelled «b-o». But it’s actually spelled «b-e-a-u». Same with «bateau», «château» and other such nonsense that was thrown at you in your Intro to French class.

Well, those [o] sounds used to be triphthongs. I haven’t been able to find exactly how they were pronounced, but the best I can make out is that «beau» used to be something like [beao] or [biao]. Something like the miaow of a cat, but with a «b» instead of an «m».

Now, 33 vowels is a distinct anomaly among European languages. So obviously, it couldn’t stick around too long. Those triphthongs and diphthongs started to disappear in the XIII century, which is even before the end of the Old French period.

In terms of grammar, I covered most of what can easily be explained back in my first guest appearance. That stuff is still relevant here, so I won’t go over it again. The rest is too dense for people who aren’t already well versed in Classical Latin, which I am NOT. Plus, who wants to listen to a podcast about grammar? So I’ll just leave it at that.

Now back to Gary for the last words. And if you stick around a bit longer still, I’ll have that epilogue with the Oaths of Strasburg.

Epilogue: The Oaths of Strasburg

The Oath of King Ludwig the German

For the love of God and Christendom and our joint salvation, from this day onward, to the best of my knowledge and abilities granted by God, I shall protect my brother Charles by any means possible, as one ought to protect one’s brother, insofar as he does the same for me, and I shall never willingly enter into a pact with Lothar against the interests of my brother Charles

Now in modern French, and no I will NOT apologize for my French-Canadian accent:

Pour l’amour de Dieu et pour le salut commun du peuple chrétien et le nôtre, à partir de ce jour, autant que Dieu m’en donne le savoir et le pouvoir, je soutiendrai mon frère Charles de mon aide et en toute chose, comme on doit justement soutenir son frère, à condition qu’il m’en fasse autant, et je ne prendrai jamais aucun arrangement avec Lothaire, qui, à ma volonté, soit au détriment de mon dit frère Charles.

Now in the original gallo-roman:

Pro deo amur et pro christian poblo et nostro commun saluament d’ist di en avant, in quant Deus savir et podir me dunat, si salvarai eo cist meon fradre Karlo, et in aiudha et in cadhuna cosa, si cum om per dreit son fradra salvar dift, in o quid il mi altresi fazet et ab Ludhernulplaid nunquam prindraiqui meon vol cist meon fradre Karle in damno sit.

That’s all for me. But if you can’t get enough of Ludvig’s Oath, Laval University has translated it into all stages of French, from Classical Latin, to Vulgar Latin, Gallo-Roman, Old French, Middle French and Modern French.