Why the History of French is Important for Localization

A language with almost 80 million native speakers and more than 150 million non-native speakers, spoken on all continents with numerous variations, regional dialects, accents, and hybrid languages across its massive population of speakers, the global language of culture and diplomacy until the end of the 19th century when English took over: French.

While it takes a backseat to English anymore when it comes to global businesses, education and research, diplomacy, and general multicultural communication, French is still the second most commonly learned language in the world, spoken at the United Nations and among numerous global institutions. But like many languages originating from the Roman Empire, French has a little bit of a mixed history. So when, where, how, and why did French emerge?

Gaulish

More than 2,000 years ago in the region that today is France and Belgium there was an area known as Gaul that a Celtic people occupied and who spoke an ancient Celtic language known as Gaulish. This language has very little resemblence to modern day French, but there are a couple hundred vocabulary words that survived through the centuries and are still used today. These words are largely unnecessary for standard conversation and include themes and ideas relevant to the people who lived in that day.

Around the 1st century B.C., the Roman armies marched up from the south and conquered Gaul, taking over the lands where the Gaulish-speaking people lived and imposing limitations on language. Over time, the Gaulish language became extinct, and a localized variation of Latin became commonplace.

Latin

As is the case with any language spoken over a wide geographic area, Latin assumed a variety of characteristics from the local peoples that the Roman Empire ruled over. These dialects eventually separated and developed separately enough to spawn distinct languages, which are today know as the Romance Languages, or, by their old name, “Vulgar Latin.”

In Gaul, the variation that slowly began to emerge over the centuries became Old French. But it wasn’t until the 9th century that a something distinct enough to be called a language emerged. It was around this time that the first example of French writing emerge with the Strasbourg Oaths, a version of oaths taken by two of Roman Emperor Charlemagne’s grandsons, although whether this is distinctly French has been debated by scholars.

Some of the influences that Latin had on the development of French include losing unstressed syllables, adjusting the system of vowels, changing how prepositions were used, and fusing sounds that connect syllables and words.

Germanic

While the Romans conquered Gaul before the turn of the millennium, Germanic tribes were already exerting their own influence from the northeast of Gaul as early as the 3rd century. The most relevant and linguistically influential were the Franks, who immensely diluted Latin’s influence on the emerging French language.

They did this by altering pronunciation and accents (particularly with vowels), introducing a lot of French’s modern vocabulary (the actual amounts are disputed between 1% and 15%), the actual modern word for French arose in this period, a variety of the suffixes still used today appeared among the Frankish influence, and a the grammar behind asking questions in French developed thanks to the Franks.

Modern French

All the while these outside forces were carving and moulding French, two main dialects emerged that divided the northern part of the region from the southern: langue d’oil and langue d’oc, respectively. These categorizations arose from the word each region’s speakers used for “yes.”

Scandinavian languages were making their mark as well, leaving vocabulary that related to the sea and ocean thanks to Viking settlements throughout modern-day Normandy. In the 1600s, the official French Academy was established to standardize and codify the French language for reasons of purification and preservation.

Colonialism and Globalism

While the period of Modern French has lasted since the 17th century, France’s ecstatic colonialst conquests to all corners of the globe even further expanded the influence and regional dynamics of the language. The French established colonies in North America, Western and Northern Africa, Southeast Asia, and, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, in the Middle East.

Aspects of French culture and domination left behind in these places as the French slowly withdrew from its global colonies remain in these places, and because of this global dominance, French is an official language in some 29 countries around the world and half of all French speakers live in Africa.

This global spread is one of the major reasons why French localization services are so important, and ATA Translation Agency sets the industry standard for quality, speed, and customer satisfaction with French translation and localization services in combinations of more than 300 languages.

The French Academy

Additional Resources on the History of French:

The History of the French Language – Rosetta Stone

The French Language – Encyclopedia Britannica

The Origins of the French Language – One Europe

About the Author:

Daniel is based out of Chicago and works as a writer, editor, and translator.

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