About French in France

People often turn to our translation agency to translate documents from French or into French. Our specialists prepared an article about French, where they showed the development and the establishment of this language.

Birth and development of French

French is the language from Romanic group. Grammar of the language and the main part of vocabulary come from oral forms and people's language - Latin, that were used and transformed during the hallo-roman period. Strasbourg oaths, that were sealed in 842 and mean the unity between Charles le Chauve and Louis le Germanique, composed on roman and germanic languages, are considered to be the oldest written documents in French.

In middle ages French was composed of different dialects, that differed a lot from one region to another. Even such a simple word as "yes" was pronounced differently in northern (oïl) and southern region (oc). When Capetians monarch was established and strengthen, the language from northern regions of France, that was also called lagdoil, started to spread and was established in everyday usage.

It is possible to say that in those times France was, as many European countries, a bilingual country: from one side, a lot of people spoke usual language (the local one), and this language was used to write real masterpieces of old literature (The Song of Roland, Roman de la Rose ...) ; from the other side - Latin was the language of church, and that was the common language of communication for people speaking different dialects, that differ from one another more or less.

Despite the perpetual development of French such a coexistence existed till XVII century and even longer in the university and church environment.

French - the language of nation

The spread and usage of French (and even more - French that could be understood by everyone) is proportional, in a great measure, to the spreading of royal governance and justice in the country. And on the contrary, the spreading of French and its wider usage became the key factors in formation of the French nation.

Two articles in Ordonnance de Villers-Cotterêts, signed by Francisco I in August, 1539, created legal grounds for the very process of French development:

Article 110: In order not to have grounds for the doubts in wisdom of the decisions of justice, we want and order, that all the noticed facts and directions should be so clear, that there is no ambiguity or uncertainty and there is no need in interpreting.

Article 111: And as it often happens because of the interpretation of Latin words that are part of the above mentioned decisions, we order, that now all the decisions, alongside with other procedures, carried out in supreme courts, and also in other secondary and lower institutions, and also connected with registrars, investigations, agreements and contracts, announcement verdicts, making up testaments and any other legal acts and documents to be carried out, that is pronounced, registered and delivered, in native French language, and no other language should be used.

Thus, the public life of the country now was inseparable from rigorous usage (to avoid any ambiguity and uncertainty) of "native French language". This fundamental text ought to speed up and to popularize françoyse (1549). Manifest of the group that lately was named Pléiade proclaimed, exactly ten years after Ordonnance de Villers-Cotterêts the advantages and superiority of French in poetics. Here we see the connection of French with needs of political, legal and literary life.

These needs dictated the need to create in 1635 the Académie Française. According to Mark Furmaroli, Richelieu set up an academy "to commit to the unity of kingdom, harmed out by politics, at the account of language and style, that symbolized and united this kingdom". Thus, the article XXIV of the Articles of Association precisely determines, that "the main function of the Academie will be the work with every possible care and diligence in order to create the certain rules of our language and to make it more clear, expressive and to give it an opportunity to be used both in art, and in science".

The notion invented by Richelieu was so ideal, that came through centuries without significant changes: politicians did not have powers to influence the language development without being noticed; the same notion allowed to form the independent community, the status of which was compared to the status of supreme courts, giving an opportunity to register, establish and to control the language. According to the rules of oral speech, incentive, tunings and examples are more efficient comparing to authoritative intervention.

Shine and power of French monarchy, refinement and sophistication of culture, improvements introduced to the language by Academie and grammarians, considerable influence of emigrants from Protestans favoured the quick spreading of French in XVII and XVIII centuries, within the frame of nation. That was the language of aristocracy and of all educated people in the north of Europe, in Germany, in Poland, in Russia... That was also the language of diplomacy. All the huge international agreements and scientific works were composed in French, and previously they had been composed in Latin. The Empire of French was far ahead (and it is constant) the French Empire, both political and economical.

Changes and reforms in spelling

From the moment when the first dictionary was issued by Academie, and that was an unprecedented attemp of standarisation, the spelling itself changed a lot, obeying the natural development, that became possible due to intervention of Academie, lexicographers and grammarians. The reasoning on spelling should be based on different materials, that very often have quite contradictory character, the same as established norms of usage, restrictions of etymology and pronunciation, practical usage in educational institutions, and also in publishing houses and in editions.

The Academie was seeking to, withing the period of all its history, support the balance between different demands, the experience shows that the abstract plan of the reformers trained the precise usage not only in them. Thus, the final result of these attempts was vivid in 1835 in the Sixth edition of the Dictionary, and now in spelling an -ais was used in words, that ended with -ois before that, but in pronunciation it looked as è (le françois, j’étois, etc.), a reform, that was persistently defended by Voltaire in previous century.

In XIX century the development of scientific institutions undoubtedly to some extend favoured the stop of the development of spelling, at the same time creating the huge projects on reformation. The system of education needed the strict ans precise rules, that can be explained to students. When the heated debates finished, two resolutions fixed, in 1900 and in 1900, the simple acceptable rules of spelling and of syntax to carry out the exams and contests at different national educational institutions.

In 1900 the Supreme board of French publish in official magazine the document titled as Les rectifications de l’orthographe. The main changes were the following:

  • junction of certain compounds (portemonnaie, pingpong...) ;
  • concordance of plural of compounds composed of simple nouns (un perce-neige, des perce-neiges, un garde-malade, des garde-malades...) ;
  • possibility to remove circumflex in i and in u (voute, traitre, paraitre, huitre...) ;
  • grave accent in e, when there is another letter with syllable, where there is supposed to be a silent e (évènement, cèleri, sècheresse, règlementaire - comme règlement-, règlementation...)
  • usage of usual spelling rules and concordance in the words of foreign origin ((des imprésarios, un diésel, les médias...).
  • usage of some graphical deviations from the norm (charriot, imbécilité, nénufar, relai...).

Despite the softness and common sense of these offers, the press tokk this topic and transformed it in a rather artificial quarrel. In the Academie the document was unanimously approved, but it was accompanied by the traditional notes, that "listed recommendations should not come into usage by order or in accordance with the circular of Ministry". At the same time they showed the wish that the simplification and unification should be checked by time, but nevertheless the Community took a certain amount of words to the dictionary, and some of them were listed at the end of work.

Linguistic policy today

Basing on the fact that competition with English even in everyday usage, is a real threat for French, and also taking into consideration the fact that English-American borrowings to French vocabulary were rather numerous, the government circles, within thirty years, tried to add to traditional apparatus of language regulation.

Starting from 1972 special special ministry commissions were created to control terminology and neology. They were supposed to indicate and even to create French terms , and they call upon to use them instead of this or that borrowing, or to indicate the new notion or new object, that still do not have a name. This base of new words is immediately used in administration. Now people do not say any more tie-break, instead of it they use jeu décisif, a word baladeur is used indstead of walkman, and word logiciel is used instead of software and etc.

In 1975 the law named Bas-Lauriol decreed the obligatory usage of French in different spheres, such as audio-visual art or commercial activity (advertisement, job posting, bills etc.), French also should be used at work.

Within 1990 a whole series of legislative resolutions was issued, and these resolutions were more flexible and more full. A new paragraph was added on the 25th of June, 1992, article 2 of Constitution: The language of Republic is French.

Basing on this principle the law from 4th of August, 1994 named loi Toubon broadens the main principles of the law from 1975. Decree from 3rd of July, 1996 sets up a new general commission on terminology and neology; it supported the mechanism of enrichment of French, and as French Academie said such a mechanism of vital importance and thus it is recommended to publish terms with their definitions in official magazine. The legal issues from moral point of view due to Academie are also protected by law, creating even more profitable position for instances and bodies, participating in protection of French.

Feminization of nouns for the profession, position and ranks: scientific debates

In 1984 the Prime Minister created the "Commission on terminology on issue of vocabulary for professions of women". The decree proclaimed that "feminization of nouns for professions and ranks is aimed to satisfy the needs in certain lacunae of usage of French in the sphere and is aimed at legitimation of social functions and professions, executed by women".

French Academie, that was not consulted with, used its groundworks from declaration prepared by Georges Dumézil and by Claude Lévi-Strauss. In particular in the declaration a linguistic absurdity of this idea was discussed: it is worth mentioning that the masculine of nouns in French does not imply the sex and that is why such nouns can be used without special obstacles as to identify women so to identify men; but feminine often needs special identification of sex and "such an identification is not necessary. It influences the noted restrictions of the term under condition that other terms do not have these restrictions. Despite nouns where the sex is not indicated, the identification of sex is used in animated nouns to identify the difference between two sexes. " Thus the feminization has a risk of reverse results, that were even not thought of, and it in its turn will lead to discrimination in language of men and women. Eventually Academie also called in question the principles of state interference in usage of language, supporting it by the argument that such actions bear a risk to "create confusion and disorder in thin balance that was born on the basis of language used, and it seems better, when changes are made when they are accepted to the speech".

The Circular of Prime Minister in 1986 recommended to continue of feminization of nouns for professions, positions and ranks in official and administrative texts. But it was not widely used. After 1997 some ministers from government on their own started to use the feminised form of the word minister - la ministre - it provoked a new wave of reaction from the side of academicians. In Circular dated 6th of March, 1998 the Prime Minister noted the insignificant influence of the text from 1986 but recommended to carry out the feminisation "from the moment when it comes to terms of feminine gender and that are used now". He gav a task to the commission on terminology and neology "to work on this issue".

The report from commission was given to Prime Minister in October, 1998. It proclaimed, that interference of government inti usage of language in a short period of time will face up with obstacles of legal and practical character, and, in any case, there are doubts that these actions will have a result. Also there was a strict difference among professions (where feminine forms are used without problems), and also between positions and ranks to identify the personality. Often it is impossible to compare position with gender, and thus usage of forms of feminine gender is not desirable.

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