History of French

History of French
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French language

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French is a Romance language (meaning that it is descended primarily from Vulgar Latin) that evolved out of the Gallo-Romance dialects spoken in northern France.

The discussion of the history of a language is typically divided into "external history", describing the ethnic, political, social, technological, and other changes that impacted the languages, and "internal history", describing the phonological and grammatical changes undergone by the language itself.


External history

Roman Gaul (Gallia)

Before the Roman conquest of what is now France by Julius Cæsar (58–52 BC), much of France was inhabited by Celtic-speaking peoples referred to by the Romans as Gauls in addition to some Belgic peoples in coastal northern Gaul. Southern France was also home to a number of other linguistic and ethnic groups including Iberians along the Pyrenees and western Mediterranean coast, Ligures on the eastern Mediterranean coast and Greek colonials in places such as Marseille and Antibes,[1] and Vascons and Aquitanians or Proto-Basques in much of the southwest.[citation needed]

The Celtic population of Gaul spoke Gaulish, which is moderately well attested, with what appears to be wide dialectal variation, and – at the southern fringe of the Alps – also Lepontic. While the French language evolved from Vulgar Latin (i.e. spoken Latin), it was nonetheless influenced by Gaulish, especially in its phonological development. Chief among these are sandhi phenomena (liaison, enchainement, lenition), and the loss of unstressed syllables. Syntactic oddities attributable to Gaulish include the intensive prefix re- (cf. luire "to glimmer" vs. reluire "to shine"; apparently, the Latin verbal prefix re- was used analogously to the Gaulish prefix ro-, related to Irish ro- "very"), emphatic structures, prepositional periphrastic phrases to render verbal aspect, the semantic development of oui "yes" and similar words, and so on.

In French and adjoining folk dialects and closely related languages, some 200 words of Gaulish origin have been retained, most of which pertain to folk life. These include

  • land features (bief "reach, mill race", combe "hollow", grève "sandy shore", lande "heath");
  • plant names (berle "water parsnip", bourdaine "black alder", chêne "oak", bouleau "birch", corme "service berry", gerzeau "corncockle", if "yew", vélar/vellar "hedge mustard");
  • wildlife (alouette "lark", barge "godwit", belette "weasel", loche "loach", pinson 'chaffinch', vanneau "lapwing");
  • rural and farm life, most notably: boue "mud", cervoise "ale", char "dray, wagon", charrue "plough", glaise "loam", gord "kiddle, stake net", jachère "fallow field", javelle "sheaf, bundle, fagot", marne "marl", mouton "sheep", raie "lynchet", sillon "furrow", souche "tree stump, tree base", tarière "auger, gimlet", tonne "barrel"; and
  • some common verbs (braire "to bray", changer "to change", craindre "to fear", jaillir "to surge, gush").[2]

Other Celtic words were not borrowed directly but brought in through Latin, some of which having become commonplace in Latin, as for instance béton "concrete", braies "knee-length pants", chainse "tunic", daim "roe deer", étain "tin", glaive "broad sword", manteau "coat", vassal "serf, knave". Latin quickly took hold among the urban aristocracy for mercantile, official, and educational reasons, but did not prevail in the countryside until some four or five centuries later, since Latin was of little or no social value to the landed gentry and peasantry. The eventual spread of Latin can be attributed to social factors in the Late Empire such as the movement from urban-focused power to villa-centred economies and legal serfdom.

The Franks

From the 3rd century on, Western Europe was invaded by Germanic tribes from the north and east, and some of these groups settled in Gaul. In the history of the French language, the most important of these groups are the Franks in northern France, the Alemanni in the modern German/French border area, the Burgundians in the Rhône valley and the Visigoths in the Aquitaine region and Spain. Their language had a profound influence on the Latin spoken in their respective regions, altering both the pronunciation (especially the vowel system phonemes) and the syntax. They also introduced a number of new words (see List of French words of Germanic origin). Sources disagree on how much of the vocabulary of modern French (excluding French dialects) comes from Germanic words, ranging from just 500 words (1%) [3](—representing loans from ancient Germanic languages: Gothic and Frankish) [4] to 7% of modern vocabulary (—representing all Germanic loans up to modern times: Gothic, Frankish, Old Norse/Scandinavian, Dutch, German and English) [5] to even higher if Germanic words coming from Latin and other Romance languages are taken into account. (Note: according to the Académie française, only 5% of French words come from English)

Changes in lexicon/morphology/syntax:

  • the name of the language itself, français, comes from Old French franceis/francesc (cf M.L. franciscus) from the Germanic frankisc "french, frankish" from Frank ('freeman'). The Franks referred to their land as Franko(n) which became Francia in Latin in the 3rd century (at that time, an area in Gallia Belgica, somewhere in modern-day Belgium or the Netherlands). The name Gaule ("Gaul") was also taken from the Frankish *Walholant ("Land of the Romans/Gauls").
  • several terms and expressions associated with their social structure (baron/baronne, bâtard, bru, chambellan, échevin, félon, féodal, forban, gars/garçon, leude, lige, maçon, maréchal, marquis, meurtrier, sénéchal).
  • military terms (agrès/gréer, attaquer, bière ["stretcher"], dard, étendard, fief, flanc, flèche, gonfalon, guerre, garder, garnison, hangar, heaume, loge, marcher, patrouille, rang, rattraper, targe, trêve, troupe).
  • colors derived from Frankish and other Germanic languages (blanc/blanche, bleu, blond/blonde, brun, fauve, gris, guède).
  • other examples among common words include abandonner, arranger, attacher, auberge, bande, banquet, bâtir, besogne, bille, blesser, bois, bonnet, bord, bouquet, bouter, braise, broderie, brosse, chagrin, choix, chic, cliché, clinquant, coiffe, corroyer, crèche, danser, échaffaud, engage, effroi, épargner, épeler, étal, étayer, étiquette, fauteuil, flan, flatter, flotter, fourbir, frais, frapper, gai, galant, galoper, gant, gâteau, glisser, grappe, gratter, gredin, gripper, guère, guise, hache, haïr, halle, hanche, harasser, héron, heurter, jardin, jauger, joli, laid, lambeau, layette, lécher, lippe, liste, maint, maquignon, masque, massacrer, mauvais, mousse, mousseron, orgueil, parc, patois, pincer, pleige, rat, rater, regarder, remarquer, riche/richesse, rime, robe, rober, saisir, salon, savon, soupe, tampon, tomber, touaille, trépigner, trop, tuyau and many words starting with a hard g (like gagner, garantie, gauche, guérir) or with an aspired h (haine, hargneux, hâte, haut) [6]
  • endings in -ard (from Frankish hard : canard, pochard, richard), -aud (from Frankish wald : crapaud, maraud, nigaud), -ais/-ois (from Frankish -isc : marais, Anglais, berlinois), -an/-and (from old suffix -anc, -enc : paysan, Flamand, tisserand) all very common family name affixes for French names.
  • endings in -ange (Eng. -ing, Grm. -ung; boulange/boulanger, mélange/mélanger, vidange/vidanger), diminutive -on, and many verbs ending in -ir (affranchir, ahurir, choisir, honnir, jaillir, lotir, nantir, rafraîchir, ragaillardir, tarir).
  • endings in -quin (from Low Frankish -kin : casaquin, bouquin, brodequin, mannequin, quinquin [hence the song P'tit quinquin], ramequin, ribaudequin).
  • prefix mé(s)- as in mésentente, mégarde, méfait, mésaventure, mécréant, mépris, méconnaissance, méfiance, médisance
  • prefix for-, four- as in forbannir, forcené, forlonger, (se) fourvoyer, etc. from Frankish fir-, fur- (cf German ver-; English for-). Merged with Old French fuers "outside, beyond" from Latin foris. Latin foris was not used as a prefix in Classical Latin, but shows up as a prefix in Medieval Latin following the Germanic invasions.
  • prefix en-, em- (which reinforced and merged with Latin in- "in, on, into") was extended to fit new formations not previously found in Latin. Influenced or calqued from Frankish *in- and *an-, usually with an intensive or perfective sense: emballer, emblaver, endosser, enhardir, enjoliver, enrichir, envelopper, etc.
  • The syntax shows the systematic presence of a subject pronoun in front of the verb, as in the Germanic languages: je vois, tu vois, il voit, while the subject pronoun is optional – function of the parameter pro-drop – in the other Romance languages (as in veo, ves, ve).
  • The inversion of subject-verb to verb-subject to form the interrogative is characteristic of the Germanic languages but is not found in any of the major Romance languages, except French (cf. Vous avez un crayon. vs. Avez-vous un crayon?: "Do you have a pencil?").
  • The adjective placed in front of the noun is typical of Germanic languages, it is more frequent in French than in the other major Romance languages and occasionally compulsory (belle femme, vieil homme, grande table, petite table); when it is optional, it changes the meaning: grand homme ("great man") and le plus grand homme ("the greatest man") / homme grand ("tall man") and l'homme le plus grand ("the tallest man"), certaine chose / chose certaine. In Walloon the order « adjective + noun » is the general rule, as in Old French.
  • Several words calqued or modelled on corresponding terms in Germanic languages (bienvenue, cauchemar, chagriner, compagnon, entreprendre, manoeuvre, manuscrit, on, pardonner, plupart, sainfoin, tocsin, toujours).

The Normans and terms from the Low Countries

In 1204 AD, the Duchy of Normandy was integrated into the Kingdom of France, and about 100 words of Scandinavian origin were introduced into the French language from Norman. Most of these words have to do with the sea and seafaring: abraquer, alque, bagage, bitte, cingler, équiper (to equip), flotte, fringale, guichet, hauban, houle, hune, mare, marsouin, mouette, quille, ras, siller, touer, traquer, turbot, vague, varangue, varech. Others pertain to farming and daily life: accroupir, amadouer, bidon, bigot, brayer, brette, cottage, coterie, crochet, duvet, embraser, fi, flâner, guichet, haras, harfang, harnais, houspiller, marmonner, mièvre, nabot, nique, quenotte, raccrocher, ricaner, rincer, rogue.

Likewise, words borrowed from Dutch deal mainly with trade, or are nautical in nature, but not always so: affaler, amarrer, anspect, bar (sea-bass), bastringuer, bière (beer), blouse (bump), botte, bouée, bouffer, boulevard, bouquin, cague, cahute, caqueter, choquer, diguer, drôle, dune, frelater, fret, grouiller, hareng, hère, lamaneur, lège, manne, mannequin, maquiller, matelot, méringue, moquer, plaque, sénau, tribord, vacarme, as are words from Low German: bivouac, bouder, homard, vogue, yole, and English of this period: arlequin (from Italian arlecchino < Norman hellequin < OE *Herla cyning), bateau, bébé, bol (sense 2 ≠ bol < Lt. bolus), bouline, bousin, boxer, cambuse, cliver, chiffe/chiffon, drague, drain, est, équiper (to set sail), gourmet, groom, héler, interlope, merlin, nord, ouest, pique-nique, potasse, rade, rhum, sloop, sonde, sud, turf, yacht.

Langue d'oïl

The medieval Italian poet Dante, in his Latin De vulgari eloquentia, classified the Romance languages into three groups by their respective words for "yes": Nam alii oc, alii si, alii vero dicunt oil, "For some say oc, others say si, others say oïl". The oïl languages – from Latin hoc ille, "that is it" – occupied northern France, the oc languages – from Latin hoc, "that" – southern France, and the si languages – from Latin sic, "thus" – the Italian and Iberian peninsulas. Modern linguists typically add a third group within France around Lyon, the "Arpitan" or "Franco-Provençal language", whose modern word for "yes" is ouè.

The area of langues d'oïl

The Gallo-Romance group in the north of France, the langue d'oïl like Picard, Walloon, and Francien, were influenced by the Germanic languages spoken by the Frankish invaders. From the time period of Clovis I on, the Franks extended their rule over northern Gaul. Over time, the French language developed from either the Oïl language found around Paris and Île-de-France (the Francien theory) or from a standard administrative language based on common characteristics found in all Oïl languages (the lingua franca theory).

Langue d'oc, the languages which use oc or òc for "yes", is the language group in the south of France and northern Spain. These languages, such as Gascon and Provençal, have relatively little Frankish influence.

The Middle Ages also saw the influence of other linguistic groups on the dialects of France:

Modern French, principally derived from the langue d'oïl acquired the word si, used to contradict negative statements or respond to negative questions, from cognate forms of "yes" in Spanish and Catalan (), Portuguese (sim), and Italian(). The word remains uncommon in Quebec, whose French-speaking population mainly descends from settlers from northwestern France.

From the 4th to 7th centuries, Brythonic-speaking peoples from Cornwall, Devon, and Wales travelled across the English Channel, both for reasons of trade and of flight from the Anglo-Saxon invasions of England. They established themselves in Armorica. Their language became Breton in more recent centuries, giving French bijou and menhir. However, the exchange was not only one way: e.g., aven, a Breton word that French later incorporated, was itself derived from the French word havre.

Attested since the time of Julius Caesar, a non-Celtic people who spoke a Basque-related language inhabited the Novempopulania (Aquitania Tertia) in southwestern France, while the language gradually lost ground to the expanding Romance during a period spanning most of the Early Middle Ages. This Proto-Basque influenced the emerging Latin-based language spoken in the area between the Garonne and the Pyrenees, eventually resulting in the dialect of Occitan called Gascon. Its influence is seen in words like boulbène and cargaison.

Scandinavian Vikings invaded France from the 9th century onwards and established themselves mostly in what would come to be called Normandy. The Normans took up the langue d'oïl spoken there, although Norman French remained heavily influenced by Old Norse and its dialects. They also contributed many words to French related to sailing (mouette, crique, hauban, hune, etc.) and farming.

After the conquest of England in 1066, the Normans's language developed into Anglo-Norman. Anglo-Norman served as the language of the ruling classes and commerce in England from the time of the conquest until the Hundred Years' War,[7] by which time the use of French-influenced English had spread throughout English society.

Around this time period, many words from the Arabic language entered French, mainly indirectly through Medieval Latin, Italian and Spanish. There are words for luxury goods (élixir, orange), spices (camphre, safran), trade goods (alcool, bougie, coton), sciences (alchimie, hasard), and mathematics (algèbre, algorithme). Only after the development of French colonies in North Africa did French borrow words directly from Arabic (e.g., toubib).

Modern French

For the period up to around 1300, some linguists refer to the oïl languages collectively as Old French (ancien français). The earliest extant text in French is the Oaths of Strasbourg from 842; Old French became a literary language with the chansons de geste that told tales of the paladins of Charlemagne and the heroes of the Crusades.

By the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts in 1539 King Francis I made French the official language of administration and court proceedings in France, ousting the Latin that had been used before then. With the imposition of a standardised chancery dialect and the loss of the declension system, the dialect is referred to as Middle French (moyen français). The first grammatical description of French, the Tretté de la Grammaire française by Louis Maigret, was published in 1550. Many of the 700 words [8] of modern French that originate from Italian were introduced in this period, including several denoting artistic concepts (scenario, piano), luxury items, and food.

Following a period of unification, regulation and purification or latinization, the French of the 17th to the 18th centuries is sometimes referred to as Classical French (français classique), although many linguists simply refer to French language from the 17th century to today as Modern French (français moderne).

The foundation of the Académie française (French Academy) in 1634 by Cardinal Richelieu created an official body whose goal has been the purification and preservation of the French language. This group of 40 members is known as the Immortals, not, as some erroneously believe, because they are chosen to serve for the extent of their lives (which they are), but because of the inscription engraved on the official seal given to them by their founder Richelieu—"À l'immortalité" ("to the Immortality [of the French language]"). The foundation still exists and contributes to the policing of the language and the adaptation of foreign words and expressions. Some recent modifications include the change from software to logiciel, packet-boat to paquebot, and riding-coat to redingote. The word ordinateur for computer was however not created by the Académie, but by a linguist appointed by IBM (see fr:ordinateur).

From the 17th to the 19th centuries, France was the leading power of Europe; thanks to this, together with the influence of the Enlightenment, French was the lingua franca of educated Europe, especially with regards to the arts, literature, and diplomacy; monarchs like Frederick II of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia could both speak and write in French. Many members of the Russian Court under the reign of Catherine the Great only spoke French, regarding Russian as the language of the peasants.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the French language established itself permanently in the Americas. There is an academic debate about how fluent in French were the colonists of New France. While a minority of colonists (mostly women) were from the region of Paris (approximately 15% of all colonists, 25% of women mostly filles du roi and 5% of men), most of them came from northern and western regions of France where French was not the primary language natively spoken by its inhabitants. It is not clearly known, however, how many among those colonists understood French as a second language, and how many among them – who, in overwhelming majority, natively spoke an oïl language – could understand, and be understood by, those who speak French thanks to interlinguistic similarity. In any case, a linguistic unification of all the groups coming from France happened (either in France, on the ships, or in Canada) such that, according to many sources, the then "Canadiens" were all speaking French (King's French) natively by the end of the 17th century, well before the unification was complete in France. Today, French is the language of about 10 million people (not counting French-based creoles, which are also spoken by about 10 million people) in the Americas.

Through the Académie, public education, centuries of official control and the role of media, a unified official French language has been forged, but there remains a great deal of diversity today in terms of regional accents and words. For some critics, the "best" pronunciation of the French language is considered to be the one used in Touraine (around Tours and the Loire valley), but such value judgments are fraught with problems, and with the ever increasing loss of lifelong attachments to a specific region and the growing importance of the national media, the future of specific "regional" accents is often difficult to predict. The French nation-state, which appeared after the 1789 French Revolution and Napoleon's empire, unified the French people in particular through the consolidation of the use of the French language. Hence, according to historian Eric Hobsbawm, "the French language has been essential to the concept of 'France', although in 1789 50% of the French people didn't speak it at all, and only 12 to 13% spoke it 'fairly' – in fact, even in oïl language zones, out of a central region, it wasn't usually spoken except in cities, and, even there, not always in the faubourgs [approximatively translatable to "suburbs"]. In the North as in the South of France, almost nobody spoke French."[9] Hobsbawm highlighted the role of conscription, invented by Napoleon, and of the 1880s public instruction laws, which allowed to mix the various groups of France into a nationalist mold which created the French citizen and his consciousness of membership to a common nation, while the various "patois" were progressively eradicated.

Modern issues

There is some debate in today's France about the preservation of the French language and the influence of English (see Franglais), especially with regard to international business, the sciences, and popular culture. There have been laws (see Toubon law) enacted which require that all print ads and billboards with foreign expressions include a French translation and which require quotas of French-language songs (at least 40%) on the radio. There is also pressure, in differing degrees, from some regions as well as minority political or cultural groups for a measure of recognition and support for their regional languages.

Once the key international language in Europe, being the language of diplomacy from the 17th to mid-20th centuries, French lost most of its international significance to English in the 20th century, especially after World War II, with the rise of the U.S. as a dominant global superpower. A watershed was when the Treaty of Versailles, ending World War I, was written in both French and English. A small but increasing number of large multinational firms headquartered in France are using English as their working language even in their French operations, and to gain international recognition, French scientists must now publish their work in English in journals based outside of France. These trends, understandably, have met some resistance. In March 2006, President Chirac briefly walked out of a EU summit after Ernest-Antoine Seilliere began addressing the summit in English.[10] And in February 2007, Forum Francophone International began organizing protests against the "linguistic hegemony" of English in France and in support of the right of French workers to use French as their working language.[11]

Nevertheless, French is the second most-studied foreign language in the world after English,[citation needed] and is a lingua franca in some regions, notably in Africa. The legacy of French as a living language outside Europe is mixed: it is nearly extinct in some former French colonies (Southeast Asia), while the language has changed to creoles, dialects or pidgins in the French departments in the West Indies and the South Pacific (French Polynesia).[citation needed] On the other hand, many former French colonies have adopted French as an official language, and the total number of French-speakers has increased, especially in Africa.

In the Canadian province of Quebec, the language has thrived and today is spoken by 80% of the province's population.[12] Different laws ensure the preservation of French in administration, business and education since the 1970s. Bill 101, for example, obliges every child whose parents did not attend an English-speaking school to be educated in French, thus preventing English or non-Francophone languages supplanting French in Quebec, as is mostly the case in North America. Efforts are also made, by the Office québécois de la langue française for instance, to make more uniform the variation of French spoken in Quebec as well as to preserve the distinctiveness of Quebec French.

There has been French emigration to the United States of America, Australia and South America, but the descendants of these immigrants have assimilated to the point that few of them still speak French. In the United States of America efforts are ongoing in Louisiana (see CODOFIL) and parts of New England (particularly Maine) to preserve the language.[citation needed]

Internal history


Development of French pronunciation over time
("to sing")
Latin Old French Modern French
spelling pronunciation spelling pronunciation
Infinitive cantāre ⟨chanter⟩ tʃãnˈtæɾ ⟨chanter⟩ ʃɑ̃ˈte
Past Part. cantātum ⟨chanté(ṭ)⟩ tʃãnˈtæ(θ) ⟨chanté⟩ ʃɑ̃ˈte
Gerund cantandō ⟨chantant⟩ tʃãnˈtãnt ⟨chantant⟩ ʃɑ̃ˈtɑ̃
1sg. indic. cantō ⟨chant⟩ ˈtʃãnt ⟨chante⟩ ˈʃɑ̃t
2sg. indic. cantās ⟨chantes⟩ ˈtʃãntǝs ⟨chantes⟩ ˈʃɑ̃t
3sg. indic. cantat ⟨chante(ṭ)⟩ ˈtʃãntǝ(θ) ⟨chante⟩ ˈʃɑ̃t
1pl. indic. cantāmus ⟨chantons⟩ tʃãnˈtũns ⟨chantons⟩ ʃɑ̃ˈtɔ̃
2pl. indic. cantātis ⟨chantez⟩ tʃãnˈtæts ⟨chantez⟩ ʃɑ̃ˈte
3pl. indic. cantant ⟨chantent⟩ ˈtʃãntǝ(n)t ⟨chantent⟩ ˈʃɑ̃t
1sg. subj. cantem ⟨chant⟩ ˈtʃãnt ⟨chante⟩ ˈʃɑ̃t
2sg. subj. cantēs ⟨chanz⟩ ˈtʃãnts ⟨chantes⟩ ˈʃɑ̃t
3sg. subj. cantet ⟨chant⟩ ˈtʃãnt ⟨chante⟩ ˈʃɑ̃t
1pl. subj. cantēmus ⟨chantons⟩ tʃãnˈtũns ⟨chantions⟩ ʃɑ̃ˈtjɔ̃
2pl. subj. cantētis ⟨chantez⟩ tʃãnˈtæts ⟨chantiez⟩ ʃɑ̃ˈtje
3pl. subj. cantent ⟨chantent⟩ ˈtʃãntǝ(n)t ⟨chantent⟩ ˈʃɑ̃t
2sg. impv. cantā ⟨chante⟩ ˈtʃãnt ⟨chante⟩ ˈʃɑ̃t
2pl. impv. cantāte ⟨chantez⟩ tʃãnˈtæts ⟨chantez⟩ ʃɑ̃ˈte

French exhibits perhaps the most thorough phonetic changes from Latin of any of the Romance languages. Similar changes are seen in some of the northern Italian dialects, such as Ligurian. Most other Romance languages are significantly more conservative phonetically, with Spanish and especially Italian showing the most conservatism, and Portuguese, Occitan, Catalan and Romanian showing moderate conservatism.

French also shows enormous phonetic changes between the Old French period and the modern language. Spelling, however, has barely changed, which accounts for the wide differences between current spelling and pronunciation. Some of the most profound changes have been:

  • The loss of almost all final consonants.
  • The subsequent loss of final /ǝ/, which caused the appearance of many newly final consonants.
  • The loss of the formerly strong stress that had characterized the language throughout much of its history and triggered many of the phonetic deformations.
  • Significant transformations in the pronunciation of vowels, especially nasal vowels.

None of these changes are visible in the spelling.

Table of Old French outcomes of Latin vowels
Letter Classical Latin Vulgar Latin Proto Western Romance Early Old French
(through early 12th c.)
Later Old French
(from late 12th c.)
closed open closed open
Short A /a/ /a/ ⟨a⟩ /a/ ⟨e, ie⟩ /æ, iə/ ⟨a⟩ /a/ ⟨e, ie⟩ /ɛ, jɛ/
Long A /aː/
AE /ai/ /ɛ/ ⟨e⟩ /ɛ/ ⟨ie⟩ /iə/ ⟨e⟩ /ɛ/ ⟨ie⟩ /jɛ/
Short E /e/
OE /oi/ /e/ /e/ ⟨e⟩ /e/ ⟨ei⟩ /ei/ ⟨oi⟩ /oi/ > /wɛ/
Long E /eː/
Short I /i/ /ɪ/
Short Y /y/
Long I /iː/ /i/ ⟨i⟩ /i/ ⟨i⟩ /i/ ⟨i⟩ /i/ ⟨i⟩ /i/
Long Y /yː/
Short O /o/ /ɔ/ ⟨o⟩ /ɔ/ ⟨uo⟩ /uə/ ⟨o⟩ /ɔ/ ⟨ue⟩ /wɛ/ > /ø/
Long O /oː/ /o/ /o/ ⟨o⟩ /o/ ⟨ou⟩ /ou/ ⟨o(u)⟩ /u/ ⟨eu⟩ /eu/ > /ø/
Short U /u/ /ʊ/
Long U /uː/ /u/ ⟨u⟩ /y/ ⟨u⟩ /y/ ⟨u⟩ /y/ ⟨u⟩ /y/
AU /aw/ /aw/ ⟨o⟩ /ɔ/ ⟨o⟩ /ɔ/ ⟨o⟩ /ɔ/ ⟨o⟩ /ɔ/

A profound change in very late spoken Latin (i.e., early Common Romance, the forerunner of all the Romance languages) the effects of which are clearly reflected in Old French, was the restructuring of the vowel system of classical Latin. Latin had ten distinct vowels: long and short versions of A, E, I, O, U, and three (or four) diphthongs, AE, OE, AU, and according to some, UI.[13] What happened to Vulgar Latin is set forth in the table. Both the diphthongs AE and OE also fell in with /e/. AU was initially retained, and turned into /o/ after the original /o/ fell victim to further changes.

Thus, the ten vowel system of Classical Latin, which relied on phonemic vowel length was new-modelled into a system in which vowel length distinctions were suppressed and alterations of vowel quality became phonemic. Because of this change, the stress on accented syllables became much more pronounced in Vulgar Latin than in Classical Latin. This tended to cause unaccented syllables to become less distinct, while working further changes on the sounds of the accented syllables.

Old French underwent more thorough alterations of its sound system than did the other Romance languages. Vowel breaking was something that occurred generally in Proto-Western-Romance (here, Proto-Romance), although with different results in each of the daughter languages; Latin focu(m) (originally "hearth") becomes Italian fuoco, Romanian and Catalan foc, Spanish fuego, and French feu (all meaning "fire"). But in Old French the phenomenon went further than in any other Romance language; of the seven vowels inherited from Latin, only /i/ remained essentially unchanged. In stressed syllables:

  • The sound of Latin E (short), turning to /ɛ/ in Proto-Romance, became ie in Old French: Latin mel, "honey" > OF miel
  • The sound of Latin O (short) > Proto-Romance /ɔ/ > OF uo: cor > cuor, "heart"
  • Latin ē > Proto-Romance /e/ > OF ei: habēre > aveir, "to have"; this later becomes /oi/ in many words, as in avoir
  • Latin ō > Proto-Romance /o/ > OF ou: flōre(m) > flour, "flower"
  • Latin open syllable /a/ > OF /e/, probably through an intervening stage of /æ/; mare > mer, "sea" This change also characterizes the Gallo-Italic dialects of Northern Italy (cf. Bolognese [mɛːr]).

Latin AU did not share the fate of /ɔ/ or /o/; Latin aurum > OF or, "gold": not *œur nor *our. Latin AU must have been retained at the time these changes were affecting Proto-Romance.

Changes affecting the consonants were also quite pervasive in Old French. Old French shared with the rest of the Vulgar Latin world the loss of final -M. Since this sound was basic to the Latin noun case system, its loss levelled the distinctions upon which the synthetic Latin syntax relied, and forced the Romance languages to adapt a more analytic syntax based on word order. Old French also dropped many internal consonants when they followed the strongly stressed syllable; Latin petra(m) > Proto-Romance */peðra/ > OF pierre; cf. Spanish piedra ("stone").

During the Old French period, Latin /u/ became /y/, the lip-rounded sound that is written 'u' in Modern French.

In some contexts, /oi/ became /e/, still written oi in Modern French. During the early Old French period this sound was pronounced as the writing suggests, as /oi/ with stress on the front vowel: /ói/. The stress later shifted to the end position, /oí/, before becoming /oé/. This sound developed variously in different varieties of Oïl language – most of the surviving languages maintain a pronunciation as /we/ – but literary French adopted a dialectal phonology /wa/. The doublet of français and François in modern French orthography demonstrates this mix of dialectal features.

At some point during the Old French period, vowels with a following nasal consonant began to be nasalized. While the process of losing the final nasal consonant took place after the Old French period, the nasal vowels that characterise modern French appeared during the period in question.

Table of vowel outcomes

The following table shows the most important modern outcomes of Vulgar Latin vowels, starting from the seven-vowel system of Proto Western Romance stressed syllables: /a/, /ɛ/, /e/, /i/, /ɔ/, /o/, /u/. The vowels developed differently in different contexts, with the most important contexts being:

  • "Open" syllables (followed by at most one consonant), where most of the vowels were diphthongized or otherwise modified.
  • Syllables followed by a palatal consonant. An /i/ usually appeared before the palatal consonant, producing a diphthong, which subsequently evolved in complex ways. There were various palatal sources: Classical Latin /jj/ (e.g. pēior "worse"); any consonant followed by a /j/ coming from Latin short /e/ or /i/ in hiatus (e.g. balneum "bath", palātium "palace"); /k/ or /g/ followed by /e/ or /i/ (e.g. pācem "peace", cōgitō "I think"); /k/ or /g/ followed by /a/ and preceded by /a/, /e/ or /i/ (e.g. plāga "wound"); /k/ or /g/ after a vowel in various sequences, such as /kl/, /kr/, /ks/, /kt/, /gl/, /gn/, /gr/ (e.g. noctem "night", veclum < vetulum "old", nigrum "black").
  • Syllables preceded by a palatal consonant. An /i/ appeared after the palatal consonant, producing a rising diphthong. The palatal consonant could arise in any of the ways just described. In addition, it could stem from an earlier /j/ brought into contact with a following consonant by loss of the intervening vowel: e.g. medietātem > Proto-Romance /mejjeˈtate/ > Gallo-Romance /mejˈtat/ (loss of unstressed vowels) > Proto-French /meiˈtʲat/ (palatalization) > Old French /moiˈtjɛ/ > moitié /mwaˈtje/ "half".
  • Nasal syllables (followed by an /n/ or /m/), where nasal vowels arose. Nasal syllables inhibited many of the changes that otherwise happened in open syllables; instead, vowels tended to be raised. Subsequently, the following /n/ or /m/ was deleted unless a vowel followed, and the nasal vowels were lowered; but when the /n/ or /m/ remained, the nasal quality was lost, with no lowering of the vowel. This produced significant alternations, such as masculine fin /fɛ̃/ vs. feminine fine /fin/.
  • Syllables followed by a closed /s/ (i.e. an /s/ followed by another consonant). By Old French times, this /s/ was "debuccalized" into /h/, which was subsequently lost, with a phonemic long vowel taking its place. These long vowels remained for centuries, and continued to be indicated by an s, and later a circumflex, with alternations such as bette /bɛt/ "chard" vs. bête (formerly /bɛːt/) "beast" (< bēstiam). Sometimes the length difference was accompanied by a difference in vowel quality, e.g. mal /mal/ "bad" vs. mâle (formerly /mɑːl(ǝ)/) "male" (Latin māsculum > */maslǝ/). Phonemic (although not phonetic) length disappeared by the 18th century, but the quality differences mostly remain.
  • Syllables followed by a closed /l/ (i.e. an /l/ followed by another consonant, although the sequence -lla- was not affected). The /l/ vocalized to /u/, producing a diphthong, which then developed in various ways.
  • Syllables where two or more of the above conditions occurred simultaneously, which generally evolved in complex ways. Common examples are syllables followed by both a nasal and a palatal element (e.g. from Latin -neu-, -nea-, -nct-); open syllables preceded by a palatal (e.g. cēram "wax"); syllables both preceded and followed by a palatal (e.g. jacet "it lies"); syllables preceded by a palatal and followed by a nasal (e.g. canem "dog").

Note that the developments in unstressed syllables were both simpler and less predictable. In Proto Western Romance there were only five vowels in unstressed syllables: /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/, as low-mid vowels /ɛ/, /ɔ/ were raised to /e/, /o/. These syllables were not subject to diphthongization and many of the other complex changes that affected stressed syllables. This produced many lexical and grammatical alternations between stressed and unstressed syllables. However, there was a strong tendency (especially beginning in the Middle French period, when the formerly strong stress accent was drastically weakened) to even out these alternations. In certain cases in verbal paradigms unstressed variant was imported into stressed syllables, but mostly it was the other way around, with the result that in Modern French all of the numerous vowels can appear in unstressed syllables.

Table of modern outcomes of Vulgar Latin vowel combinations
Gallo-Romance Context 1 Proto-French Later Old French Modern French Example
Basic vowels
/a/ closed /a/ /a/ /a/ parte > part /paʁ/ "part"
open /æ/ /ɛ/ /ɛ/; /e/+# mare > mer /mɛʁ/ "sea", amātum > /aimɛθ/ > aimé /ɛme/ "loved"
palatal + open /iæ/ /jɛ/ /jɛ/; /je/+# medietātem > /mejtate/ > /meitʲat/ > /moitjɛ/ > moitié /mwatje/ "half"; cārum > Old French chier /tʃjɛr/ > cher /ʃɛʁ/ "dear"
/ɛ/ closed /ɛ/ /ɛ/ /ɛ/ septem > sept /sɛt/ "seven"
open /iɛ/ /jɛ/ /jɛ/; /je/+# heri > hier /jɛʁ/ "yesterday"; pedem > pied /pje/ "foot"
/e/ closed /e/ /ɛ/ /ɛ/ siccum > sec /sɛk/ "dry"
open /ei/ /oi/ > /wɛ/ /wa/ pēram > poire /pwaʁ/; vidēre > early Old French vedeir /vǝðeir/ > Old French vëoir /vǝoir/ > voir /vwaʁ/ "to see"
palatal + open /iei/ /i/ /i/ cēram > cire /siʁ/ "wax"; mercēdem > merci /mɛʁsi/ "mercy, thanks"
/i/ all /i/ /i/ /i/ vītam > vie /vi/ "life"; vīllam > ville > /vil/ "town"
/ɔ/ closed /ɔ/ /ɔ/ /ɔ/; /o/+#,/s,z/ portam > porte /pɔʁt/ "door"; *sottum, *sottam > sot, sotte /so/, /sɔt/ "silly"; grossum, grossam > gros, grosse /ɡʁo/, /ɡʁos/ "fat"
open /uɔ/ /wɛ/ /œ/, /ø/ 2 novum > neuf /nœf/ "new"; cor > *corem > cœur /kœʁ/ "heart"
/o/ closed /o/ /u/ /u/ subtus > /sottos/ > sous /su/ "under"; surdum > sourd /suʁ/ "mute"
open /ou/ /eu/ /œ/, /ø/ 2 nōdum > nœud /nø/ "knot"
/u/ all /y/ /y/ /y/ dūrum > dur /dyʁ/ "hard"; nūllam > nulle /nyl/ "no (fem.); none (fem.)"
/au/ all /au/ /ɔ/ /ɔ/; /o/+/#,s,z/ aurum > or /ɔʁ/ "gold"; causam > chose /ʃoz/ "thing"
Vowels + /n/
/an/ closed /an/ /ã/ /ɑ̃/ annum > an /ɑ̃/ "year"; cantum > chant /ʃɑ̃/ "song"
open /ain/ /ɛ̃n/ /ɛn/ sānam > saine /sɛn/ "healthy (fem.)"; amat > aime /ɛm/ "(he) loves"
late closed /ain/ /ɛ̃/ /ɛ̃/ [æ̃] sānum > sain /sɛ̃/ "healthy (masc.)"; famem > faim /fɛ̃/ "hunger"
palatal + late closed /iain/ > /iɛn/ /jɛ̃/ /jɛ̃/ [jæ̃] canem > chien /ʃjɛ̃/ "dog"
/ɛn/ closed /en/ /ã/ /ɑ̃/ dentem > dent /dɑ̃/ "teeth"
open /ien/ /jɛ̃n/ /jɛn/ tenent > tiennent /tjɛn/ "(they) hold"
late closed /ien/ /jɛ̃/ /jɛ̃/ bene > bien /bjɛ̃/ "well"; tenet > tient /tjɛ̃/ "(he) holds"
/en/ closed /en/ /ã/ /ɑ̃/ centum > cent /sɑ̃/ "hundred"
open /ein/ /ẽn/ /ɛn/ pēnam > peine /pɛn/ "sorrow, trouble"
late closed /ein/ /ẽ/ /ɛ̃/ [æ̃] plēnum > plein /plɛ̃/ "full"; sinum > sein /sɛ̃/ "breast"
palatal + late closed /iein/ > /in/ /ĩ/ /ɛ̃/ [æ̃] racēmum > raisin /rɛzɛ̃/ "grape"
/in/ closed, late closed /in/ /ĩ/ /ɛ̃/ [æ̃] quīnque > *cīnque > cinq /sɛ̃k/ "five"; fīnum > fin /fɛ̃/ "end; fine, thin"
open /in/ /ĩn/ /in/ fīnam > fine /fin/ "fine, thin (fem.)"
/ɔn/ closed /on/ /ũ/ /ɔ̃/ pontem > pont /pɔ̃/ "bridge"
open /on/ /ũn/ /ɔn/ bonam > bonne /bɔn/ "good (fem.)"
late closed /on/ /ũ/ /ɔ̃/ bonum > bon /bɔ̃/ "good (masc.)"
/on/ closed /on/ /ũ/ /ɔ̃/
open /on/ /ũn/ /ɔn/ dōnat > donne /dɔn/ "(he) gives"
late closed /on/ /ũ/ /ɔ̃/ dōnum > don /dɔ̃/ "gift"
/un/ closed, late closed /yn/ /ỹ/ /œ̃/ > /ɛ̃/ [æ̃] ūnum > un /œ̃/ > /ɛ̃/ "one"; perfūmum > parfum /paʁfœ̃/ > /paʁfɛ̃/ "perfume"
open /yn/ /ỹn/ /yn/ ūnam > une /yn/ "one (fem.)"; plūmam > plume /plym/ "pen"
Vowels + /s/ (followed by a consonant)
/as/ closed /ah/ /ɑː/ /ɑ/ bassum > bas /bɑ/ "low"
/ɛs/ closed /ɛh/ /ɛː/ /ɛ/ festam > fête /fɛt/ "party"
/es/ closed /eh/ /ɛː/ /ɛ/
/is/ closed /ih/ /iː/ /i/
/ɔs/ closed /ɔh/ /oː/ /o/ costam > côte /kot/ "coast"
/os/ closed /oh/ /uː/ /u/ cōnstat > *cōstat > coûte /kut/ "(it) costs"
/us/ closed /yh/ /yː/ /y/
Vowels + /l/ (followed by a consonant, but not /l/+/a/)
/al/ closed /al/ /au/ /o/ falsum > faux /fo/ "false"; palmam > paume /pom/ "palm"
/ɛl/ closed /ɛl/ /ɛau/ /o/ bellum > beau /bo/ (but bellam > belle /bɛl/) "beautiful"
late closed /jɛl/ /jɛu/ /jœ/, /jø/ 2 melius > /miɛʎts/ > /mjɛus/ > mieux /mjø/ "better"
/el/ closed /el/ /ɛu/ /œ/, /ø/ 2 capillum > cheveu /ʃǝvø/ "hair"; *filtir > feutre /føtʁ/ "felt"
/il/ closed, late closed /il/ /i/ /i/ gentīlem > gentil /ʒɑ̃ti/ "nice"
/ɔl/ closed /ɔl/ /ou/ /u/ follem > fou (but *follam > folle /fɔl/) "crazy"; colaphum > *colpum > coup /ku/ "blow, stroke"
late closed /wɔl/ /wɛu/ /œ/, /ø/ 2 volet > OF vueut > veut "(he) wants"
/ol/ closed /ol/ /ou/ /u/ pulsat > pousse /pus/ "(he) pushes"
/ul/ closed, late closed /yl/ y y
Vowels + /i/ (from a Gallo-Romance palatal element)
/ai/ all /ai/ /ɛ/ /ɛ/ factum > /fait/ > fait /fɛ/ "deed"; palātium > palais /palɛ/ "palace"; plāgam > plaie /plɛ/ "wound, sore"; placet > /plaist/ > plaît /plɛ/ "(he) pleases"; paria > paire /pɛʁ/ "pair"
palatal + /iai/ > /i/ /i/ /i/ jacet > gît /ʒi/ "(he) lies (on the ground)"; cacat > chie /ʃi/ "(he) shits"
/ɛi/ all /iɛi/ /i/ /i/ lectum > /lɛit/ > lit /li/ "bed"; sex > six /sis/ "six"; pējor > pire /piʁ/ "worse"
/ei/ all /ei/ /oi/ /wa/ tēctum > /teit/ > toit /twa/ "roof"; rēgem > /rei/ > roi /ʁwa/ "king"; nigrum > /neir/ > noir /nwaʁ/ "black"; fēriam > /feira/ > foire /fwaʁ/ "fair, show"
/ɔi/ all /uɔi/ /yi/ /ɥi/ noctem > /nɔit/ > nuit /nɥi/ "night"; hodie > /ɔje/ > hui /ɥi/ "today"; coxam > /kɔisǝ/ > cuisse /kɥis/ "thigh"
/oi/ all /oi/ /oi/ /wa/ buxitam > /boista/ > boîte /bwat/ "box"; crucem > croix /kʁwa/ "cross"
/ui/ all /yi/ /yi/ /ɥi/ frūctum > /fruit/ > fruit /fʁɥi/ [fʁyi] "fruit"
/aui/ all /ɔi/ /oi/ /wa/ gaudiam > /dʒɔiǝ/ > joie /ʒwa/ "joy"
Vowels plus /ɲ/ (from /n/ + a Gallo-Romance palatal element)
/aɲ/ closed, late closed /aiɲ/ > /ain/ /ɛ̃/ /ɛ̃/ [æ̃] ba(l)neum > /baɲ/ > /bain/ > bain /bɛ̃/ "bath"; sanctum > /saɲt/ > /saint/ > saint /sɛ̃/ "holy"
open /aɲ/ /ãɲ/ /aɲ/ montāneam > /montaɲ/ > montagne /mɔ̃taɲ/ "mountain"
/ɛɲ/ closed, late closed /ieiɲ/ > /iɲ/ > /in/ /ĩ/ /ɛ̃/ [æ̃]
/eɲ/ closed, late closed /eiɲ/ > /ein/ /ẽ/ /ɛ̃/ [æ̃] pinctum > /peɲt/ > /peint/ > peint /pɛ̃/ "painted"
open /eiɲ/ /ẽɲ/ /ɛɲ/ insigniam > enseigne /ɑ̃sɛɲ/ "sign"
/iɲ/ closed, late closed /iɲ/ > /in/ /ĩ/ /ɛ̃/ [æ̃]
open /iɲ/ /ĩɲ/ /iɲ/ līneam > ligne /liɲ/ "line"
/oɲ/ closed, late closed /oiɲ/ > /oin/ /wɛ̃/ /wɛ̃/ [wæ̃] punctum > /poɲt/ > /point/ > point /pwɛ̃/ "point"; cuneum > /koɲ/ > /koin/ > coin /kwɛ̃/ "corner"
open /oɲ/ /ũɲ/ /ɔɲ/ verecundiam > vergogne /vɛʁɡɔɲ/ "shame"
/uɲ/ closed, late closed /yiɲ/ > /yin/ /ɥĩ/ /ɥɛ̃/ [ɥæ̃] jūnium > /dʒyɲ/ > /dʒyin/ > juin /ʒɥɛ̃/ "June"

^1 The contexts are as follows:

  • An "open" context is a stressed syllable followed by at most a single consonant.
  • A "closed" context is any other syllable type (unstressed, or followed by two or more consonants).
  • A "late closed" context is a context that is open at the Vulgar Latin (Proto-Romance) stage but later closed due to loss an unstressed vowel (usually /e/ or /o/ in a final syllable).
  • A "palatal" context is a stressed syllable where the preceding consonant has a palatal quality, causing a yod /j/ to be generated after the preceding consonant, before the stressed vowel.

^2 Both /œ/ and /ø/ occur in modern French, and there are a small number of minimal pairs, e.g. jeune /ʒœn/ "young" vs. jeûne /ʒøn/ [ʒøːn] "fast (abstain from food)". In general, however, only /ø/ occurs word-finally, before /z/, and usually before /t/, while /œ/ occurs elsewhere.

From Vulgar Latin through to Proto-Western-Romance

  • Introduction of prosthetic short /i/ before words beginning with /s/ + consonant, becoming closed /e/ with the Romance vowel change (e.g. Spanish 'espina', Fr. 'épine' "thorn, spine" < spīna).
  • Reduction of ten-vowel system of Vulgar Latin to seven vowels; diphthongs 'ae' and 'oe' reduced to /ɛ/ and /e/; maintenance of /au/ diphthong.
  • Loss of final /-m/ (except in monosyllables, e.g. modern rien < rem).
  • Loss of /h/.
  • /ns/ > /s/.
  • /rs/ > /ss/ in some words (e.g. dorsum > Modern French dos), but not others (e.g. ursus > Modern French ours).
  • Final /-er/ > /-re/, /-or/ > /-ro/ (cf. Spanish cuatro, sobre < quattuor, super).
  • Vulgar Latin unstressed vowel loss: Loss of intertonic (i.e. unstressed and in an interior syllable) vowels between /k/, /ɡ/ and /r/, /l/.
  • Reduction of /e/ and /i/ in hiatus to /j/, followed by palatalization. Palatalization of /k/ and /ɡ/ before front vowels.
    • /kj/ is apparently doubled to /kkj/ prior to palatalization.
    • /dʲ/ and /ɡʲ/ (from /dj/, /ɡj/, and /ɡ/ before a front vowel) become /j/.

To Proto-Gallo-Ibero-Romance

  • /kʲ/ and /tʲ/ merge, becoming /tsʲ/ (still treated as a single sound).
  • /kt/ > /jt/.
  • /ks/ > /js/.
  • First diphthongization (only in some dialects): diphthongization of /ɛ/, /ɔ/ to /ie/, /uo/ (later, /uo/ > /ue/) in stressed, open syllables. This also happens in closed syllables before a palatal, often later absorbed: peior >> /pejro/ > /piejro/ >> 'pire' "worst"; nocte > /nojte/ > /nuojte/ >> /nujt/ 'nuit'; but tertiu > /tertsˈo/ >> 'tierz'.
  • First lenition (did not happen in a small area around the Pyrenees): chain shift involving intervocalic consonants: voiced stops and unvoiced fricatives become voiced fricatives (/ð/, /v/, /j/); unvoiced stops become voiced stops. NOTE: /tsʲ/ (from /k(eˌi)/, /tj/) is pronounced as a single sound and voiced to /dzʲ/, but /ttsʲ/ (from /kk(eˌi)/, /kj/) is geminate and thus not voiced. Consonants before /r/ are lenited, also, and /pl/ > /bl/. Final /t/ and /d/ when following a vowel are lenited.
  • /jn/, /nj/, /jl/, /ɡl/ (from Vulgar Latin /ɡn/, /nɡʲ/, /ɡl/, /kl/, respectively) become /ɲ/ and /ʎ/, respectively.
  • First unstressed vowel loss: Loss of intertonic (i.e. unstressed and in an interior syllable) vowels, except /a/ when pretonic. (Note: This occurred at the same time as the first lenition, and individual words inconsistently show one change before the other. Hence manica > 'manche' but granica > 'grange'. carricare becomes either 'charchier' or 'chargier' in OF.)

To Early Old French

In approximate order:

  • Spread and dissolution of palatalization:
    • A protected /j/ (not preceded by a vowel), stemming from an initial /j/ or from a /dj/, /ɡj/, or /ɡ(eˌi)/ when preceded by a consonant, becomes /dʒ/.
    • A /j/ followed by another consonant tends to palatalize that consonant; these consonants may have been brought together by intertonic loss. (E.g. medietate > /mejetate/ > /mejtʲate/ > 'moitié'. peior > /pejro/ > /piejrʲe/ > 'pire', but impeiorare > /empejrare/ > /empejrʲare/ > /empejriɛr/ > OF 'empoirier' "to worsen".)
    • Palatalized sounds lose their palatal quality and eject a /j/ into the end of the preceding syllable, when open; also into the beginning of the following syllable when it is stressed, open, and front (i.e. /a/ or /e/). Hence *cugitare > /kujetare/ > /kujdare/ > /kujdʲare/ >> /kujdiɛr/ OF 'cuidier' "to think". mansionata > /mazʲonada/ > /mazʲnada/ > /majzʲnjɛðə/ > OF 'maisniée' "household".
      • /tʃ/ and /dʒ/ (including those from later sources, see below) eject a following /j/ normally, but do not eject any preceding /j/.
      • Double /ssʲ/ < /ssj/ and from various other combinations also ejects a preceding /j/.
      • Single /dz/ ejects such a /j/, but not double /tts/, evidently since it is a double sound and causes the previous syllable to close; see comment above, under lenition.
      • Actual palatal /lʲ/ and /nʲ/ (as opposed to the merely patalized varieties of the other sounds) retain their palatal nature and don't emit preceding /j/. Or rather, palatal /lʲ/ does not eject a preceding /j/ (or else, it is always absorbed, even when depalatalized); palatal /nʲ/ emits a preceding /j/ when depalatalized, even if the preceding syllable is closed, e.g. jungit > *yōnyet > /dʒoɲt/ > /dʒojnt/ 'joint'.
      • Palatal /rʲ/ ejects a preceding /j/ as normal, but the /j/ metathesizes when a /a/ precedes, hence operariu > /obrarʲo/ > /obrjaro/ (not */obrajro/) >> 'ouvrier' "worker".
  • Second diphthongization: diphthongization of /e/, /o/, /a/ to /ei/, /ou/, /ae/ in stressed, open syllables, not followed by a palatal sound (not in all Gallo-Romance). (Later on, /ei/ > /oi/, /ou/ > /eu/, /ae/ > /e/; see below.)
  • Second unstressed vowel loss: Loss of all vowels except /a/ in unstressed, final syllables; addition of a final, supporting /e/ when necessary, to avoid words with impermissible final clusters.
  • Second lenition: Same changes as in first lenition, applied again (not in all Gallo-Romance). NOTE: Losses of unstressed vowels may have blocked this change from happening.
  • Palatalization of /ka/ > /tʃa/, /ɡa/ > /dʒa/.
  • Further vocalic changes (part 1):
  • /ae/ > /ɛ/ (but > /jɛ/ after a palatal, and > /aj/ before nasals when not after a palatal).
  • /au/ > /ɔ/.
  • Further consonant changes:
    • Geminate stops become single stops.
    • Final stops and fricatives become devoiced.
    • /dz/ > /z/, when not final.
    • A /t/ is inserted between palatal /ɲ/, /ʎ/ and following /s/ (doles > 'duels' "you hurt" but colligis > *colyes > 'cuelz, cueuz' "you gather"; jungis > *yōnyes > 'joinz' "you join"; filius > 'filz' "son").
    • Palatal /ɲ/, /ʎ/ are depalatalized to /n/, /l/ when final or following a consonant.
      • In first-person verb forms, they may remain palatal when final due to the influence of the palatalized subjunctives.
      • /ɲ/ > /jn/ when depalatalizing, but /ʎ/ > /l/, without a yod. (*veclus > /vɛlʲo/ > /viɛlʲo/ > 'viel' "old" but cuneum > /konʲo/ > 'coin'. balneum > /banjo/ > 'bain' but montanea > /montanja/ > 'montagne'.)
  • Further vocalic changes (part 2):
  • /jej/ > /i/, /woj/ > /uj/. (placere > /plajdzjejr/ > 'plaisir'; nocte > /nuojt/ > 'nuit'.)
  • Diphthongs are consistently rendered as falling diphthongs, i.e. the major stress is on the first element, including for /ie/, /ue/, /ui/, etc. in contrast with the normal Spanish pronunciation.

Through to Old French, c. 1100 AD

  • /f/, /p/, /k/ lost before final /s/, /t/. (debet > Strasbourg Oaths 'dift' /deift/ > OF 'doit'.)
  • /ei/ > /oi/ (blocked by nasalization; see below).
  • /wo/ > /we/ (blocked by nasalization; see below).
  • /a/ develops allophone [ɑ] before /s/. Later, this develops into a separate phoneme; see below.
  • Loss of /θ/ and /ð/. When this results in a hiatus of /a/ with a following vowel, the /a/ becomes a schwa /ə/.
  • Loss of /s/ before voiced consonant (passing first through /h/), with lengthening of preceding vowel. Produces a new set of long vowel phonemes. Described more completely in the following section.
  • /u/ > /y/.

To Late Old French, c. 1250–1300 AD

NOTE: Changes here affect oral and nasal vowels alike, unless otherwise indicated.

  • /o/ > /u/.
  • /l/ before consonant becomes /w/.
  • /ue/ and /eu/ > /œ/.
  • Rising diphthongs develop when first element of diphthong is /u/, /y/ or /i/, causing the stress to shift to the second element in these cases (hence /yi/ [yj] > [ɥi]).
  • /oi/ > /we/. This in turn develops to /ɛ/ in some words, e.g. français; note doublet François. Much later, perhaps in the 17th century, remaining /we/ sounds > /wa/ except in "court" pronunciation. (The /wa/ pronunciation was then stigmatized as "vulgar" until the French Revolution but remaining more or less in use in Quebec.) However, nasalized /wẽ/ was unaffected; hence ModF 'coin' "corner" /kwɛ̃/ not **/kwɑ̃/.
  • /ai/ merges into /ɛ/; after this, 'ai' is a common spelling of /ɛ/, regardless of origin. ('è' is a later development.)
  • /e/ merges into /ɛ/ in closed syllables.
  • /ts/ > /s/, /tʃ/ > /ʃ/, /dʒ/ > /ʒ/.
  • Loss of /s/ before any consonant, with lengthening of preceding vowel. This may have begun as early as 900 AD or so, when /s/ before a consonant became /h/. Later on the /h/ vanished with compensatory lengthening of the preceding vowel. From borrowings into English, it appeared that this latter stage had already occurred in Old French when the following consonant was voiced but not when it was unvoiced. By the end of Old French, the latter stage was complete and a whole new set of phonemically lengthened vowels developed. These were still marked in writing with an 's', but starting around 1700 were marked instead with circumflex over the vowel (perhaps because actual pronounced /s/ had been reintroduced into that position in certain words, e.g. due to borrowing of learned words from Latin.)
  • Development of two low vowels /a/ and /ɑ/. The latter was initially an allophone of /a/ that occurred before /s/ and /z/, and become phonemic when /ts/ merged with /s/. (e.g. Mod. Fr. 'chasse' /ʃas/ "(he) hunts" < */cattsa/ < captiat vs. 'châsse' /ʃɑs/ "reliquary, (eyeglass) frame" < */cassa/ < capsa "strong box".) Later losses of /s/ produced further minimal pairs, e.g. 'pâte' /pɑt/ "paste" < VL *pasta vs. 'patte' /pat/ "paw" < VL *patta; or 'bas' /bɑ/ "low" < /bas/ < bassum vs. 'bat' /ba/ "(he) beats" < /bat/ < VL *battet < battuet.)

To Middle French, c. 1500 AD

NOTE: Changes here affect oral and nasal vowels alike, unless otherwise indicated.

  • /au/ > /o/.
  • /ei/ > /ɛ/.
  • Loss of final consonants before a word beginning with a consonant. This produces a three-way pronunciation for many words (alone, followed by a vowel, followed by a consonant), which is maintained to this day in the words 'six' "six" and 'dix' "ten" (and until recently 'neuf' "nine"), e.g. 'dix' /dis/ "ten" but 'dix amis' /diz ami/ "ten friends" and 'dix femmes' /di fam/ "ten women".
  • (Around this time, subject pronouns become mandatory.)

(fill in further)

To Early Modern French, c. 1700 AD

  • Loss of most phonemically lengthened vowels.
  • Loss of final consonants in a word standing alone. This produces a two-way pronunciation for many words (in close connection with a following word that begins with a vowel vs. in all other cases), often maintained to the present day, e.g. 'nous voyons' /nu vwajɔ̃/ "we see" vs. 'nous avons' /nuz avɔ̃/ "we have". This phenomenon is known as liaison.
  • 'oi' /we/ > /wa/ (See above – Through late Old French) or /ɛ/ (e.g. étoit > était – 19th c.).

(fill in further)

To Modern French, c. 2000 AD

  • /r/ becomes uvular sound: trill /ʀ/ or fricative /ʁ/, (replacing the rolled 'r' formerly often used by the clergy).
  • Loss of final /ə/. Loss of /ə/ elsewhere unless a sequence of three consonants would be produced (such constraints operate over multiword sequences of words that are syntactically connected).
  • Gradual loss of liaison
  • Gradual loss of the "ne" in negations, "je n'ai pas" becomes "j'ai pas".

(fill in further)


Progressive nasalization of vowels before /n/ or /m/ occurred over several hundred years, beginning with the low vowels, possibly as early as c. 900 AD, and finished with the high vowels, possibly as late as c. 1300 AD. Numerous changes occurred afterwards, continuing up through the present day.

The following steps occurred during the Old French period:

  • Nasalization of /a/, /e/, /o/ before /n/ or /m/ (originally, in all circumstances, including when a vowel followed).
  • Nasalization occurs before, and blocks, the changes /ei/ > /oi/ and /ou/ > /eu/. However, the sequence /ɔ̃i/ occurs because /oi/ has more than one origin, e.g. 'coin' "corner" < cŭneum. The sequences /iẽn/ or /iẽm/, and /uẽn/ or /uẽm/, also occur, but the last two occur in only one word each, in each case alternating with a non-diphthongized variant: 'om' or 'uem' (ModF 'on'), and 'bon' or 'buen' (ModF 'bon'). The version without the diphthong apparently arose in unstressed environments and is the only one that survived.
  • Lowering of /ẽ/ and /ɛ̃/ to /ã/; but unaffected in the sequences /jẽ/ and /ẽj/ (e.g. 'bien', 'plein'). The merging of /ẽ/ and /ã/ probably occurred during the 11th or early 12th century, and did not affect Old Norman or Anglo-Norman.
  • Nasalization of /i/, /u/, /y/ before /n/ or /m/.

The following steps occurred during the Middle French period:

  • Lowering of /ũ/ > /õ/ > /ɔ̃/. (Note that most /ũ/ come from original /õ/, as original /u/ became /y/.)
  • Denasalization of vowels before /n/ or /m/ followed by a vowel or semi-vowel. (Note that examples like 'femme' /fam/ "woman" < OF /fãmə/ < fēmina and 'donne' /dɔn/ "(he) gives" < OF /dũnə/ < dōnat, with lowering and lack of diphthongization before a nasal even when a vowel followed, prove that nasalization originally operated in all environments.)
  • Deletion of /n/ or /m/ after remaining nasal vowels (i.e. when not protected by a following vowel or semi-vowel). Hence 'dent' /dɑ̃/ "tooth" < */dãt/ < OFr 'dent' /dãnt/ < EOFr */dɛ̃nt/ < dĕntem.

The following steps occurred during the Modern French period:

  • /ĩ/ > /ẽ/ > /ɛ̃/ > [æ̃]. This also affects diphthongs such as /ĩẽ/ > /jẽ/ > /jɛ̃/, e.g. 'bien' /bjɛ̃/ "well" < bĕne; /ỹĩ/ > /ɥĩ/ > /ɥɛ̃/, e.g. 'juin' /ʒɥɛ̃/ "June" < jūnium; /õĩ/ > /wẽ/ > /wɛ̃/, e.g. 'coin' /kwɛ̃/ "corner" < cŭneum. Note also /ãĩ/ > /ɛ̃/, e.g. 'pain' /pɛ̃/ "bread" < panem; /ẽĩ/ > /ɛ̃/, e.g. 'plein' /plɛ̃/ "full (m.s.)" < plēnum.
  • /ã/ > /ɑ̃/.
  • /ỹ/ > /œ̃/. In the 20th century, this sound has low functional load and has tended to merge with /ɛ̃/.

This leaves only four nasal vowels /ɛ̃/, /ɑ̃/, /ɔ̃/, and /œ̃/, and increasingly only the three /ɛ̃/, /ɑ̃/, /ɔ̃/.

Impact of substrate and superstrate languages

French is noticeably different from most other Romance languages. Some of the changes have been attributed to substrate influence—i.e. to carry-over effects from Gaulish (Celtic) or superstrate—influence from Frankish (Germanic). In practice, it is difficult to say with confidence which sound and grammar changes were due to substrate and superstrate influences, since many of the changes in French have parallels in other Romance languages, or are changes commonly undergone by many languages in the process of development. However, the following are likely candidates.

In phonology:

  • The reintroduction of the consonant /h/ at the beginning of a word is due to Frankish influence, and mostly occurs in words borrowed from Germanic. This sound no longer exists in Standard Modern French (—it survives dialectally, particularly in the regions of Normandy, Picardy and Wallonia); however a Germanic h usually disallows liaison: les halles /lɛ.al/, les haies /lɛ.ɛ/, les haltes /lɛ.alt/, whereas a Latin h allows liaison: les herbes /lɛzɛrb/, les hôtels /lɛzotɛl/.
  • The reintroduction of /w/ in Northern Norman, Picard, Walloon, Champenois, Bourguignon and Bas-Lorrain[14] is due to Germanic influence. All Romance languages have borrowed Germanic words containing /w/, but all languages south of the isogloss —including the ancestor of Modern French ("Central French")—converted this to /ɡw/ (which remains in some words like e.g. linguistique), which usually developed subsequently into /ɡ/. English borrowed words both from Norman French (1066 – c. 1200 AD) and Standard French (c. 1200–1400 AD), which sometimes results in doublets such as warranty and guarantee.
  • The occurrence of an extremely strong stress accent, leading to loss of unstressed vowels and extensive modification of stressed vowels (diphthongisation), is likely to be due to Frankish influence, and possibly to Celtic influence, as both languages had a strong initial stress. (e.g. tela -> TEla -> toile)[15] This feature also no longer exists in Modern French. However, its influence remains in the uniform final word stress in Modern French—due to the strong stress, all vowels following the stress were ultimately lost.
  • Nasalisation resulting from compensatory vowel lengthening in stressed syllables due to Germanic stress accent
  • The development of front-rounded vowels /y/, /ø/, and /œ/ may be due to Germanic influence, as few Romance languages outside of French have such vowels.
  • The lenition of intervocalic consonants (see above) may be due to Celtic influence: A similar change happened in Celtic languages at about the same time, and the demarcation between Romance dialects with and without this change (the La Spezia-Rimini Line) corresponds closely to the limit of Celtic settlement in ancient Rome. The lenition also affected later words borrowed from Germanic (e.g. haïr < hadir < *hatjan; flan < *fladon; (cor)royer < *(ga)rēdan; etc.), suggesting that the tendency persisted for some time after it was introduced.
  • The devoicing of word final voiced consonants in Old French is due to Germanic influence (e.g. grant/grande, blont/blonde, bastart/bastarde).

In other areas:

  • The development of verb-second syntax in Old French (where the verb must come in second position in a sentence, regardless of whether the subject precedes or follows) is probably due to Germanic influence.
  • The first person plural ending -ons (Old French -omes, -umes) is likely derived from the Frankish termination -ōmês, -umês (vs. Latin -āmus, -ēmus, -imus, and -īmus; cf. OHG -ōmēs, -umēs).[16]
  • The use of the letter k in Old French, which was replaced by c and qu during the Renaissance, was due to Germanic influence. Typically, k was not used in written Latin and other Romance languages. Similarly, use of w and y was also diminished.
  • The impersonal pronoun on "one, you, they" – (from Old French (h)om, a reduced form of homme "man") is a calque of the Germanic impersonal pronoun man "one, you, they", reduced form of mann "man" (cf Old English man "one, you, they", from mann "man"; German man "one, you, they" vs. Mann "man").
  • The expanded use of avoir "to have" over the more customary use of tenir "to have, hold" seen in other Romance languages is likely to be due to influence from the Germanic word for "have", which has a similar form (cf. Frankish *habēn, Gothic haban, Old Norse hafa, English have).
  • The increased use of auxiliary verbal tenses, especially passé composé, is probably due to Germanic influence. Unknown in Classical Latin, the passé composé begins to appear in Old French in the early 13th century after the Germanic and the Viking invasions. Its construction is identical to the one seen in all other Germanic languages at that time and before: « verb "be" (être) + past participle » when there is movement, indication of state, or change of condition; and « "have" (avoir) + past participle » for all other verbs. Passé composé is not universal to the Romance language family—only Romance languages known to have Germanic superstrata display this type of construction, and in varying degrees (those nearest to Germanic areas show constructions most similar to those seen in Germanic). Italian, Spanish and Catalan are other Romance languages employing this type of compound verbal tense.
  • The heightened frequency of si ("so") in Old French correlates to Old High German so and thanne
  • The tendency in Old French to use adverbs to complete the meaning of a verb, as in lever sus ("raise up"), monter amont ("mount up"), aler avec ("go along/go with"), traire avant ("draw forward"), etc. is likely to be of Germanic origin
  • The lack of a future tense in conditional clauses is likely due to Germanic influence.
  • The reintroduction of a vigesimal system of counting by increments of 20 (e.g. soixante-dix "70" lit. "sixty-ten"; quatre-vingts "80" lit. "four-twenties"; quatre-vingt-dix "90" lit. "four-twenty-ten") is due to North Germanic influence, first appearing in Normandy, in northern France. From there, it spread south after the formation of the French Republic, replacing the typical Romance forms still used today in Belgian and Swiss French. The current vigesimal system was introduced by the Vikings and adopted by the Normans who popularised its use (cf Danish tresindstyve, literally 2 times 30, or 60; English four score and seven for 87)[citation needed]. Pre-Roman Celtic languages in Gaul also made use of a vigesimal system, but this system largely vanished early in French linguistic history or became severely marginalised in its range. The Nordic vigesimal system may possibly derive ultimately from the Celtic. Old French also had treis vingts, cinq vingts. (cf. Welsh ugain "20", deugain "40", pedwar ugain "80" lit. "four-twenties").

See also

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  1. ^ Vincent Herschel Malmström, Geography of Europe: A Regional Analysis
  2. ^ "Mots francais d'origine gauloise". Mots d'origine gauloise. http://users.skynet.be/sky37816/Mots_gaulois.html. Retrieved 2006-10-22. 
  3. ^ Henriette Walter, Gérard Walter, Dictionnaire des mots d’origine étrangère, Paris, 1998
  4. ^ "The History of the French Language". Catholic Central French. Archived from the original on 2006-08-16. http://web.archive.org/web/20060816083841/http://www.catholiccentral.net/academics/french/history.html. Retrieved 2006-03-22. 
  5. ^ Walter & Walter 1998.
  6. ^ Le trésor de la langue française informatisé
  7. ^ Baugh, Cable, "A History of the English Language, 104."
  8. ^ Henriette Walter, L'aventure des mots français venus d'ailleurs, Robert Laffont, 1998.
  9. ^ Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780 : programme, myth, reality (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990; ISBN 0-521-43961-2) chapter II "The popular protonationalism", pp.80–81 French edition (Gallimard, 1992). According to Hobsbawm, the main source for this subject is Ferdinand Brunot (ed.), Histoire de la langue française, Paris, 1927–1943, 13 volumes, in particular volume IX. He also refers to Michel de Certeau, Dominique Julia, Judith Revel, Une politique de la langue: la Révolution française et les patois: l'enquête de l'abbé Grégoire, Paris, 1975. For the problem of the transformation of a minority official language into a widespread national language during and after the French Revolution, see Renée Balibar, L'Institution du français: essai sur le co-linguisme des Carolingiens à la République, Paris, 1985 (also Le co-linguisme, PUF, Que sais-je?, 1994, but out of print) ("The Institution of the French language: essay on colinguism from the Carolingian to the Republic. Finally, Hobsbawm refers to Renée Balibar and Dominique Laporte, Le Français national: politique et pratique de la langue nationale sous la Révolution, Paris, 1974.
  10. ^ Anonymous, "Chirac upset by English address," BBC News, 24 March 2006.
  11. ^ Anonymous, "French fury over English language," BBC News, 8 February 2007.
  12. ^ Statistics Canada: 2006 Census
  13. ^ In this article:
    • capital letters indicate Latin or Vulgar Latin words;
    • Italics indicate Old French and other Romance language words;
    • An *asterisk marks a conjectured or hypothetical form;
    • Phonetic transcriptions appear /between slashes/, in the International Phonetic Alphabet.
  14. ^ Jacques Allières, La formation du Français, P.U.F.
  15. ^ Cerquiglini, Bernard. Une langue orpheline, Éd. de Minuit, 2007.
  16. ^ Pope, From Latin to modern French, with especial consideration of Anglo-Norman, p16.

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