Old French

From Academic Kids

Old French is a term sometimes used to refer to the langue d'oïl, the continuum of varieties of Romance language spoken in territories corresponding roughly to the northern half of modern France and parts of Belgium and Switzerland during the period roughly from 1000 to 1300 A.D.

It was known at the time as the langue d'oïl to distinguish it from the langue d'oc, (also then called Provenal) which bordered these areas to the south.

This Ol language is the ancestor of several languages spoken today, including:

 pledges his  to ; from a manuscript of a .
Roland pledges his fealty to Charlemagne; from a manuscript of a chanson de geste.

Grammar and phonology

Historical influences

In one sense, Old French began when the Roman Empire conquered the territory it called Gaul during the conquests of Julius Caesar, which were substantially completed by 51 BC. The Romans introduced the Latin language into southern France starting in around 120 BC, when they occupied southern Gaul during the Punic Wars.

Starting during the period when Plautus was writing, the common Latin of the Roman world, the phonological structure of classical Latin began to change, yielding the vulgar Latin that was the common spoken language of the western Roman world. This vulgar Latin began to vary strongly from the classical language in its phonology; of course, spoken Latin, rather than the somewhat artificial literary language of classical Latin, was the ancestor of the Romance languages including Old French.


The Gaulish language, a Celtic language, slowly became extinct during the long centuries of Roman domination. A handful of Gaulish words survive in contemporary French: words like chêne, "oak tree", and charrue, "plough", mon, "my", are Gaulish survivals, but fewer than two hundred words of modern French have a Gaulish etymology. Latin was the common language of the western Roman world, and opened up a wider world to its speakers than Gaulish did, so it grew at the expense of Gaulish.


The Frankish language had a much larger impact on the vocabulary of Old French as a result of the Frankish conquest of much of the territory of modern France by the Franks during the time of the Volkerwanderung of the Germanic tribes. The current and older names of the language, français, derives from the name of the Franks. A number of other Germanic peoples, including the Burgundians, were active in the territory at that time; the Germanic languages spoken by the Franks, Burgundians, and others were not written languages, and at this remove it is often difficult to identify from which specific Germanic source a given Germanic word in French is derived. Philologists estimate that perhaps fifteen percent of the vocabulary of modern French derives from Germanic sources; this vocabulary includes a large number of common words like haïr, "to hate"; bateau, "boat", and hache, "axe", all derive from Germanic sources. It has been suggested that the pass compos and other compound verbs used in French conjugation are also the result of Germanic influences.

Earliest written Old French

The earliest documents said to be in French are the Oaths of Strasbourg, which are treaties and charters entered by king Charles the Bald in 842. These documents are written in a mixture of vulgar Latin and early Romance, and it is hard to determine from the text we have how they were pronounced:

Pro Deo amur et pro christian poblo et nostro commun salvament, 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. . .
(For the love of God and for the christian people, and our common salvation, from this day forward, as God will give me the knowledge and the power, I will defend my brother Charles with my help in everything. . .)

Beginning with the Capetian dynasty, which was begun by Hugh Capet in 987, the culture of northern France began to develop, and its political ascendency over the southern areas of Aquitaine and Toulouse was slowly but firmly asserted. The current French language, however, did not begin to become the common speech of the entire nation of France until after the French revolution.

From Vulgar Latin to Old French

One profound change that affected French, and every other Romance language, reordered 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.1 What happened to Vulgar Latin is set forth in the table.

Letter Cl. pronun. Vul. pronun.
Short A /a/ /a/
Long A /a:/ /a/
Short E /e/ /ɛ/
Long E /e:/ /e/
Short I /i/ /ɪ/
Long I /i:/ /i/
Short O /o/ /ɔ/
Long O /o:/ /o/
Short U /u/ /ʊ/
Long U /u:/ /u/
Short Y /y/ /ɪ/
Long Y /y:/ /i/
AE /ae/ /ɛ/
OE /oe/ /e/
AU /aw/ /o/
(see International Phonetic Alphabet for an explanation of the symbols used);

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, Spanish fuego, 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 remained essentially unchanged. In stressed syllables:

  • The sound of Latin E (short), turning to in Proto-Romance, became ie in Old French: Latin MEL, "honey" > OF miel
  • The sound of Latin O (short) > Proto-Romance > OF uo: COR > cuor, "heart"
  • Latin Ê > Proto-Romance > OF ei: HABÊRE > aveir, "to have"; this later becomes /oi/ in many words, as in avoir
  • Latin Ô > Proto-Romance > OF ou: FLÔRE(M) > flour, "flower"
  • Latin > OF , probably through an intervening stage of ; MARE > mer, "sea" This change is found in no other Romance language.

Note that Latin AU did not share the fate of or ; Latin AURUM > OF or, "gold": not *oeur 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 * > OF pierre; cf. Spanish piedra ("stone").

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

In some contexts, became , still written oi in Modern French. During the early Old French period this sound was pronounced as the writing suggests, as . This sound developed variously in different varieties of Ol 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.

Old French, along with Portuguese, exhibits the most thorough phonetic changes from Latin, as opposed to relatively conservative Romance languages like Spanish or Italian. As the example of pierre from PETRA(M) shows, many interior consonants were lost, swallowed up in the strong word stress accent.

Noun case survivals in Old French

Curiously, Old French was later to discard the Latin final -S that marked the nominative case of many nouns than the rest of Proto-Romance. During the earlier part of the Old French period, many nouns distinguished two cases: a nominative case and an oblique case. Case distinctions, at least in the masculine gender, were marked on both the definite article and on the noun itself. Thus, the masculine noun li voisins, "the neighbour" (Latin VICÍNU(S) /wi'ki:nus/ > Proto-Romance */vetsinu(s)/ > OF voisins /voizins/) was declined as follows:


Nominative: li voisins   (Latin ille vicinus)
Oblique:    le voisin    (Latin illum vicinum)


Nominative: li voisin    (Latin illi vicini)
Oblique:    les voisins  (Latin illos vicinos) 

In later Old French, these distinctions became moribund. When the distinctions were marked enough, sometimes both forms survived, with a lexical difference: both li sire (nominative, Latin SENIOR) and le seigneur (oblique, Latin SENIORE(M)) survive in the vocabulary of later French as different ways to refer to a feudal lord. As in most other Romance language, it was the oblique case form that usually survived to become the modern French form: l'enfant (the child) represents the old accusative; the OF nominative was li enfes. But some modern French nouns perpetuate the old nominative; modern French coeur represents the Latin nominative COR; the old oblique stem CORDE- does not survive, as it does in Italian.

As in Spanish and Italian, the loss of Latin final -M and -S removed most of the distinctions between the masculine and neuter genders, which fell together to form the new "masculine" gender. Some Latin neuter plurals were re-analysed as feminine singulars, though; for example, Latin GAUDIU(M) was more widely used in the plural form GAUDIA, which was taken for a singular in Vulgar Latin, and ultimately led to modern French la joie, "joy" (feminine singular).

Verbs in Old French

The verb in Old French was somewhat less distinct from the rest of Proto-Romance than the noun was. It shared in the loss of the Latin passive voice, and the reduction of the Latin futures of the AMABO type (I will love) to Proto-Romance *amare habeo (lit. "I have to love"), which became amerai in Old French.

In Latin, certain verbs shifted the accented syllable based on the Latin accentual system, which depended on vowel length. Thus, the Latin verb ÁMO, "I love," stressed on the first syllable, changed to AMÁMUS, "we love." Because the Latin stressed syllable affected Old French vowels, this syllable shift created a new class of irregular verbs in Old French. ÁMO yielded j'aime, while AMÁMUS, moving the stress away from the first syllable, yielded nous amons. In Modern French most of these verbs have been levelled, with one form or the other generalized. Not all of them; for example, Modern French je meurs : nous mourons ("I die : we die") preserves the effect of the stressed syllable shift in Vulgar Latin.

Varieties of language

Since Old French did not consist of a single standard, competing administrative varieties were propagated by the provincial courts and chanceries.

The French of Paris was one of a number of standards, including:

Old French literature

The use of Old French as a literary language was somewhat slower to get started than the use of Provençal; the troubadours who wrote lyric poetry in Provençal are generally regarded more highly than the trouvères who wrote in Old French. But Old French came into its own as a literary language for epic poetry of war.

The chief theme of the earliest French epics was the court of Charlemagne and Charles Martel, and their wars against the Moors and Saracens who invaded the Iberian peninsula. The tales of Charlemagne and his paladins became the vehicle for fantasy that became almost as rich as the fantasies surrounding King Arthur; collectively, this body of mythology was known as the Matter of France, and the genre is generally called chanson de geste, "songs of (heroic) deeds." Important works of this type include the anonymous Chanson de Roland, which tells of the death of the paladin Roland. Other epics in this vein tell of actions on the Crusades.

Arthurian romance was written in Old French before it was written in Middle English, though it naturally tended to become at least as popular in England as it was in France. The Matter of Britain was originally written in French. Authors such as Marie de France, Chrétien de Troyes, and Wace wrote of these heroic subjects in varieties of Ol language. The origins of Arthurian romance may perhaps be traced through the career of Marie de France, who in addition to the heroic Arthurian subjects also wrote what she called Breton lais, ballads of Brittany, many of which have Celtic themes and origins. But by the time the Old French poets were through with it, Arthurian romance had become a complex and sophisticated body of legend through which many themes had been woven: the heroic legend of the doomed utopia of Camelot; the Christian mythology of the Holy Grail; and courtly love material such as the story of Tristan and Isolde. This richness gave the Arthurian romance a staying power that let them outlast the tales of Charlemagne or the Crusades.

A large body of fables survive in Old French; these include a large body of mostly anonymous literature dealing with the recurring trickster character of Reynard the Fox. Marie de France was also active in this genre, producing the Ysopet (Little Aesop) series of fables in verse. Related to the fable was the more bawdy fabliau, which covered topics such as cuckolding and corrupt clergy. Satire was also written during this period; the Roman de la Rose, an elaborate allegory gently making fun of courtly love, deserves mention here, as does the Roman de Fauvel, which mocks the sins of humanity by making the Seven Deadly Sins appear in the personification of a horse.

Some of the earliest medieval music has lyrics composed in Old French by the earliest composers known by name. Guillaume de Machaut is the first well known composer of secular music, and he composed his own lyrics in late Old French.

Fewer prose compositions in Old French survive. A number of histories of the Crusades were written, but the chronicles of Jean Froissart lie beyond the historical period that is usually considered as belonging to the Old French period.

See also: Languages of France, Anglo-Norman literature

1In 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 , in the International Phonetic Alphabet.

External link

fr:Ancien franais ru:Старофранцузский язык


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