Old French (franceis, françois, romanz; Modern French: ancien français) was the language spoken in Northern France from the 8th century to the 14th century. In the 14th century, these dialects came to be collectively known as the langue d'oïl, contrasting with the langue d'oc or Occitan language in the south of France. The mid-14th century is taken as the transitional period to Middle French, the language of the French Renaissance, specifically based on the dialect of the Île-de-France region.
The place and area where Old French was spoken natively roughly extended to the northern half of the Kingdom of France and its vassals (including parts of the Angevin Empire, which during the 12th century remained under Anglo-Norman rule), and the duchies of Upper and Lower Lorraine to the east (corresponding to modern north-eastern France and Belgian Wallonia), but the influence of Old French was much wider, as it was carried to England and the Crusader states as the language of a feudal elite and commerce.
The possessions of the French king are in light blue, vassals to the French king in green, Angevin possessions in red. Shown in white is the Holy Roman Empire to the east, the western fringes of which, including Upper Burgundy and Lorraine, were also part of the Old French areal.]]
The areal of Old French in contemporary terms corresponded to the northern parts of the Kingdom of France (including Anjou and Normandy, which in the 12th century were ruled by the Plantagenet kings of England), Upper Burgundy and the duchy of Lorraine. The Norman dialect was also spread to England and Ireland, and during the crusades, Old French was also spoken in the Kingdom of Sicily, and in the Principality of Antioch and the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the Levant.
As part of the emerging Gallo-Romance dialect continuum, the langues d'oïl were contrasted with the langue d'oc (the emerging Occitano-Romance group, at the time also called Provençal), adjacent to the Old French area in the south-west, and with the Gallo-Italic group to the south-east. The Franco-Provençal group developed in Upper Burgundy, sharing features with both French and Provençal; it may have begun to diverge from the langue d'oïl as early as the 9th century and is attested as a distinct Gallo-Romance variety by the 12th century.
Some modern languages are derived from Old French dialects other than Classical French, which is based on the Île-de-France dialect. They include Angevin, Berrichon, Bourguignon-Morvandiau, Champenois, Franc-Comtois, Gallo, Lorrain, Norman, Picard, Poitevin, Saintongeais and Walloon.
Beginning with Plautus' time (254–184 b.c.), one can see phonological changes between Classical Latin and what is called Vulgar Latin, the common spoken language of the Western Roman Empire. Vulgar Latin differed from Classical Latin in phonology and morphology as well as exhibiting lexical differences; however, they were mutually intelligible until the 7th century when Classical Latin 'died' as a daily spoken language, and had to be learned as a second language (though it was long thought of as the formal version of the spoken language). Vulgar Latin was the ancestor of the Romance languages, including Old French.
Some Gaulish words influenced Vulgar Latin and, through this, other Romance languages. For example, classical Latin equus was uniformly replaced in Vulgar Latin by caballus 'nag, work horse', derived from Gaulish caballos (cf. Welsh ceffyl, Breton kefel), giving Modern French cheval, Occitan caval (chaval), Catalan cavall, Spanish caballo, Portuguese cavalo, Italian cavallo, Romanian cal, and, by extension, English cavalry. An estimated 200 words of Gaulish etymology survive in modern French, for example chêne 'oak tree' and charrue 'plough'.
Within historical phonology and studies of language contact, various phonological changes have been posited as caused by a Gaulish substrate, although there is some debate. One of these is considered certain, because this fact is clearly attested in the Gaulish-language epigraphy on the pottery found at la Graufesenque (A.D. 1st century). There, the Greek word paropsid-es (written in Latin) appears as paraxsid-i. The consonant clusters /ps/ and /pt/ shifted to /xs/ and /xt/, e.g. Latin capsa > *kaxsa > caisse (≠ Italian cassa) or captīvus > *kaxtivus > OF chaitif (mod. chétif; cf. Irish cacht 'servant'; ≠ Italian cattiv-ità, Portuguese cativo, Spanish cautivo). This phonetic evolution is parallel to the shift of the Latin cluster /kt/ in Old French (Latin factum > fait, ≠ Italian fatto, Portuguese feito, Spanish hecho; or lactem* > lait, ≠ Italian latte, Portuguese leite, Spanish leche).
The Celtic Gaulish language is thought to have survived into the 6th century in France, despite considerable cultural Romanization. Coexisting with Latin, Gaulish helped shape the Vulgar Latin dialects that developed into French, with effects including loanwords and calques (including oui, the word for "yes"), sound changes shaped by Gaulish influence, and influences in conjugation and word order. Recent computational studies suggest that early gender shifts may have been motivated by the gender of the corresponding word in Gaulish.
The pronunciation, vocabulary, and syntax of the Vulgar Latin spoken in Roman Gaul in Late Antiquity was modified by the Old Frankish language, spoken by the Franks who settled in Gaul from the 5th century and conquered the entire Old French-speaking area by the 530s. The name français itself is derived from the name the Franks.
The Old Frankish language had a definitive influence on the development of Old French, which partly explains why the earliest attested Old French documents are older than the earliest attestations in other Romance languages (e.g. Strasbourg Oaths, Sequence of Saint Eulalia). It is the result of an earlier gap created between Classical Latin and its evolved forms, which slowly reduced and eventually severed the intercomprehensibility between the two. The Old Low Franconian influence is also believed to be responsible for the differences between the langue d'oïl and the langue d'oc (Occitan), being that various parts of Northern France remained bilingual between Latin and Germanic for some time, and these areas correspond precisely to where the first documents in Old French were written.
This Germanic language shaped the popular Latin spoken here and gave it a very distinctive identity compared to the other future Romance languages. The very first noticeable influence is the substitution of the Latin melodic accent by a Germanic stress and its result was diphthongization, differentiation between long and short vowels, the fall of the unaccented syllable and of the final vowels:
Additionally, two phonemes that had long since died out in Vulgar Latin were reintroduced: [h] and [w] (> OF g(u)-, ONF w- cf. Picard w-):
In contrast, the Italian, Portuguese and Spanish words of Germanic origin borrowed from French or directly from Germanic retain /gw/ ~ /g/, e.g. It, Sp. guerra 'war', alongside /g/ in French guerre). These examples show a clear consequence of bilingualism, that sometimes even changed the first syllable of the Latin words. One example of a Latin word influencing an Old Low Franconian loan is framboise 'raspberry', from OF frambeise, from OLF *brāmbesi 'blackberry' (cf. Dutch braambes, braambezie; akin to German Brombeere, English dial. bramberry) blended with LL fraga or OF fraie 'strawberry', which explains the replacement [b] > [f] and in turn the final -se of framboise added to OF fraie to make freise, modern fraise (≠ Wallon frève, Occitan fraga, Romanian fragă, Italian fragola, fravola 'strawberry').
Pope (1934) estimated that perhaps still 15% of the vocabulary of modern French derives from Germanic sources (while the proportion was larger in Old French, because the French language borrowed heavily from Latin and Italian).
At the Third Council of Tours in 813, priests were ordered to preach in the vernacular language (either Romance or Germanic), since the common people could no longer understand formal Latin.
The earliest documents said to be written in the Gallo-Romance that prefigures French – after the Reichenau and Kassel glosses (8th and 9th centuries) – are the Oaths of Strasbourg (treaties and charters into which King Charles the Bald entered in 842):
(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 ...)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 ...
The second-oldest document in Old French is the Eulalia sequence, which is important for linguistic reconstruction of Old French pronunciation due to its consistent spelling.
The royal House of Capet, founded by Hugh Capet in 987, inaugurated the development of northern French culture in and around Île-de-France, which slowly but firmly asserted its ascendency over the more southerly areas of Aquitaine and Tolosa (Toulouse); however, The Capetians' langue d'oïl, the forerunner of modern standard French, did not begin to become the common speech of all of France until after the French Revolution.
In the Late Middle Ages, the Old French dialects diverged into a number of distinct langues d'oïl, among which Middle French proper was the dialect of the Île-de-France region. During the Early Modern period, French was established as the official language of the Kingdom of France throughout the realm, including the langue d'oc-speaking territories in the south. It was only in the 17th to 18th centuries – with the development especially of popular literature of the Bibliothèque bleue – that a standardized Classical French spread throughout France alongside the regional dialects.
The material and cultural conditions in France and associated territories around the year 1100 triggered what Charles Homer Haskins termed the "Renaissance of the 12th century", resulting in a profusion of creative works in a variety of genres. Old French gave way to Middle French in the mid-14th century, paving the way for early French Renaissance literature of the 15th century.
The earliest extant French literary texts date from the ninth century, but very few texts before the 11th century have survived. The first literary works written in Old French were saints' lives. The Canticle of Saint Eulalie, written in the second half of the 9th century, is generally accepted as the first such text.
At the beginning of the 13th century, Jean Bodel, in his Chanson de Saisnes, divided medieval French narrative literature into three subject areas: the Matter of France or Matter of Charlemagne; the Matter of Rome (romances in an ancient setting); and the Matter of Britain (Arthurian romances and Breton lais). The first of these is the subject area of the chansons de geste ("songs of exploits" or "songs of (heroic) deeds"), epic poems typically composed in ten-syllable assonanced (occasionally rhymed) laisses. More than one hundred chansons de geste have survived in around three hundred manuscripts. The oldest and most celebrated of the chansons de geste is The Song of Roland (earliest version composed in the late 11th century).
Bertrand de Bar-sur-Aube in his Girart de Vienne set out a grouping of the chansons de geste into three cycles: the Geste du roi centering on Charlemagne, the Geste de Garin de Monglane (whose central character was William of Orange), and the Geste de Doon de Mayence or the "rebel vassal cycle", the most famous characters of which were Renaud de Montauban and Girart de Roussillon.
Jean Bodel's other two categories—the "Matter of Rome" and the "Matter of Britain"—concern the French romance or roman. Around a hundred verse romances survive from the period 1150–1220. From around 1200 on, the tendency was increasingly to write the romances in prose (many of the earlier verse romances were adapted into prose versions), although new verse romances continued to be written to the end of the 14th century.
The most important romance of the 13th century is the Romance of the Rose, which breaks considerably from the conventions of the chivalric adventure story.
Medieval French lyric poetry was indebted to the poetic and cultural traditions in Southern France and Provence—including Toulouse, Poitiers, and the Aquitaine region—where langue d'oc was spoken (Occitan language); in their turn, the Provençal poets were greatly influenced by poetic traditions from the Hispano-Arab world.
By the late 13th century, the poetic tradition in France had begun to develop in ways that differed significantly from the troubadour poets, both in content and in the use of certain fixed forms. The new poetic (as well as musical: some of the earliest medieval music has lyrics composed in Old French by the earliest composers known by name) tendencies are apparent in the Roman de Fauvel in 1310 and 1314, a satire on abuses in the medieval church, filled with medieval motets, lais, rondeaux and other new secular forms of poetry and music (mostly anonymous, but with several pieces by Philippe de Vitry, who would coin the expression ars nova to distinguish the new musical practice from the music of the immediately preceding age). The best-known poet and composer of ars nova secular music and chansons of the incipient Middle French period was Guillaume de Machaut.
Discussions about the origins of non-religious theater (théâtre profane) – both drama and farce—in the Middle Ages remain controversial, but the idea of a continuous popular tradition stemming from Latin comedy and tragedy to the 9th century seems unlikely.
Most historians place the origin of medieval drama in the church's liturgical dialogues and "tropes". Mystery plays were eventually transferred from the monastery church to the chapter house or refectory hall and finally to the open air, and the vernacular was substituted for Latin. In the 12th century one finds the earliest extant passages in French appearing as refrains inserted into liturgical dramas in Latin, such as a Saint Nicholas (patron saint of the student clercs) play and a Saint Stephen play. An early French dramatic play is Le Jeu d'Adam (c. 1150) written in octosyllabic rhymed couplets with Latin stage directions (implying that it was written by Latin-speaking clerics for a lay public).
A large body of fables survive in Old French; these include (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. These fabliaux would be an important source for Chaucer and for the Renaissance short story (conte or nouvelle).
Old French was constantly changing and evolving; however, the form in the late 12th century, as attested in a great deal of mostly poetic writings, can be considered standard. The writing system at this time was more phonetic than that used in most subsequent centuries. In particular, all written consonants (including final ones) were pronounced, except for s preceding non-stop consonants and t in et, and final e was pronounced [ə]. The phonological system can be summarised as follows:
In Old French, the nasal vowels were not separate phonemes but only allophones of the oral vowels before a nasal consonant. The nasal consonant was fully pronounced; bon was pronounced [bõn] (Modern French [bɔ̃]). Nasal vowels were present even in open syllables before nasals where Modern French has oral vowels, as in bone [bõnə] (Modern French bonne [bɔn]).
In addition to diphthongs, Old French had many instances of hiatus between adjacent vowels because of the loss of an intervening consonant. Manuscripts generally do not distinguish hiatus from true diphthongs, but modern scholarly transcription indicates it with a diaeresis, as in Modern French:
Old French maintained a two-case system, with a nominative case and an oblique case, for longer than some other Romance languages like Spanish and Italian did. Case distinctions, at least in the masculine gender, were marked on both the definite article and the noun itself. Thus, the masculine noun li veisins "the neighbour" (Latin vicīnus /wɪˈkiːnʊs/ > Proto-Western-Romance *vecínos /veˈt͡sinos/ > OF veisins /vejˈzĩns/; Modern French le voisin /vwazɛ̃/) was declined as follows:
In later Old French, the distinctions had become moribund. As in most other Romance languages, it was the oblique case form that usually survived to become the Modern French form: l'enfant "the child" represents the old oblique (Latin accusative īnfāntem); the Old French nominative was li enfes (Latin īnfāns). There are some cases with significant differences between nominative and oblique forms (derived from Latin nouns with a stress shift between the nominative and other cases) in which either it is the nominative form that survives or both forms survive with different meanings:
In a few cases in which the only distinction between forms was the nominative -s ending, the -s was preserved in spelling to distinguish otherwise-homonymous words. An example is fils "son" (< Latin nominative fīlius), spelled to distinguish it from fil "wire". In this case, a later spelling pronunciation has resulted in the modern pronunciation /fis/ (earlier /fi/).
As in Spanish and Italian, the neuter gender was eliminated, and most old neuter nouns became masculine. Some Latin neuter plurals were reanalysed as feminine singulars: Latin gaudium 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).
Class I is derived from the Latin first declension. Class Ia mostly comes from Latin feminine nouns in the third declension. Class II is derived from the Latin second declension. Class IIa generally stems from second-declension nouns ending in -er and from third-declension masculine nouns; in both cases, the Latin nominative singular did not end in -s, which is preserved in Old French.
The classes show various analogical developments: -es from the accusative instead of -∅ (-e after a consonant cluster) in Class I nominative plural (Latin -ae), li pere instead of *li peres (Latin illi patres) in Class IIa nominative plural, modelled on Class II, etc.
Class III nouns show a separate form in the nominative singular that does not occur in any of the other forms. IIIa nouns ended in -ātor, -ātōrem in Latin and preserve the stress shift; IIIb nouns also had a stress shift, from -ō to -ōnem. IIIc nouns are an Old French creation and have no clear Latin antecedent. IIId nouns represent various other types of third-declension Latin nouns with stress shift or a change of consonant (soror, sorōrem; īnfāns, īnfāntem; presbyter, presbyterem; seiior, seiiōrem; comes, comitem).
Regular feminine forms of masculine nouns are formed by adding an -e to the masculine stem unless the masculine stem already ends in -e. For example, bergier (shepherd) becomes bergiere (Modern French berger and bergère).
Adjectives agree in terms of number, gender and case with the noun that they are qualifying. Thus, a feminine plural noun in the nominative case requires any qualifying adjectives to be feminine, plural and nominative. For example, in femes riches, riche has to be in the feminine plural form.
Class I adjectives have a feminine singular form (nominative and oblique) ending in -e. They can be further subdivided into two subclasses, based on the masculine nominative singular form. Class Ia adjectives have a masculine nominative singular ending in -s:
For Class Ib adjectives, the masculine nominative singular ends in -e, like the feminine. There are descendants of Latin second- and third-declension adjectives ending in -er in the nominative singular:
For Class II adjectives, the feminine singular is not marked by the ending -e:
An important subgroup of Class II adjectives is the present participial forms in -ant.
Class III adjectives have a stem alternation, resulting from stress shift in the Latin third declension and a distinct neuter form:
In later Old French, Classes II and III tended to be moved across to Class I, which was complete by Middle French. Modern French thus has only a single adjective declension, unlike most other Romance languages, which have two or more.
Verbs in Old French show the same extreme phonological deformations as other Old French words; however, morphologically, Old French verbs are extremely conservative in preserving intact most of the Latin alternations and irregularities that had been inherited in Proto-Romance. Old French has much less analogical reformation than Modern French has and significantly less than the oldest stages of other languages (such as Old Spanish) despite the fact that the various phonological developments in Gallo-Romance and Proto-French led to complex alternations in the majority of commonly-used verbs.
For example, the Old French verb laver "to wash" (Latin lavāre) is conjugated je lef, tu leves, il leve in the present indicative and je lef, tu les, il let in the present subjunctive, in both cases regular phonological developments from Latin indicative lavō, lavās, lavat and subjunctive lavem, lavēs, lavet. The following paradigm is typical in showing the phonologically regular but morphologically irregular alternations of most paradigms:
Modern French, on the other hand, has je lave, tu laves, il lave in both indicative and subjunctive, reflecting significant analogical developments: analogical borrowing of unstressed vowel /a/, analogical -e in the first singular (from verbs like j'entre, with a regular -e ) and wholesale replacement of the subjunctive with forms modelled on -ir/-oir/-re verbs. All serve to eliminate the various alternations in the Old French verb paradigm. Even modern "irregular" verbs are not immune from analogy: For example, Old French je vif, tu vis, il vit (vivre "to live") has yielded to modern je vis, tu vis, il vit, eliminating the unpredictable -f in the first-person singular.
The simple past also shows extensive analogical reformation and simplification in Modern French, as compared with Old French.
The Latin pluperfect was preserved in very early Old French as a past tense with a value similar to a preterite or imperfect. For example, the Sequence of Saint Eulalia (878 AD) has past-tense forms such as avret (< Latin habuerat), voldret (< Latin voluerat), alternating with past-tense forms from the Latin perfect (continued as the modern "simple past"). Old Occitan also preserved this tense, with a conditional value; Spanish still preserves this tense (the -ra imperfect subjunctive), as does Portuguese (in its original value as a pluperfect indicative).
In Latin, stress was determined automatically by the number of syllables in a word and the weight (length) of the syllables. That resulted in certain automatic stress shifts between related forms in a paradigm, depending on the nature of the suffixes added. For example, in pensō "I think", the first syllable was stressed, but in pensāmus "we think", the second syllable was stressed. In many Romance languages, vowels diphthongized in stressed syllables under certain circumstances but not in unstressed syllables, resulting in alternations in verb paradigms: Spanish pienso "I think" vs. pensamos "we think" (pensar "to think"), or cuento "I tell" vs. contamos "we tell" (contar "to tell").
In the development of French, at least five vowels diphthongized in stressed, open syllables. Combined with other stress-dependent developments, that yielded 15 or so types of alternations in so-called strong verbs in Old French. For example, /a/ diphthongized to /ai/ before nasal stops in stressed, open syllables but not in unstressed syllables, yielding aim "I love" (Latin amō) but amons "we love" (Latin amāmus).
In Modern French, the verbs in the -er class have been systematically levelled. Generally, the "weak" (unstressed) form predominates, but there are some exceptions (such as modern aimer/nous aimons). The only remaining alternations are in verbs like acheter/j'achète and jeter/je jette, with unstressed /ə/ alternating with stressed /ɛ/ and in (largely-learned) verbs like adhérer/j'adhère, with unstressed /e/ alternating with stressed /ɛ/. Many of the non-er verbs have become obsolete, and many of the remaining verbs have been levelled; however, a few alternations remain in what are now known as irregular verbs, such as je tiens, nous tenons; je dois, nous devons and je meurs, nous mourons.
Some verbs had a more irregular alternation between different-length stems, with a longer, stressed stem alternating with a shorter, unstressed stem. That was a regular development stemming from the loss of unstressed intertonic vowels, which remained when they were stressed:
The alternation of je desjun, disner is particularly complicated; it appears that disiēiūnāre > Western Romance /desjejuˈnare > /desjejˈnare/ (preliminary intertonic loss) > /desiˈnare/ (triphthong reduction) > /disiˈnare/ (metaphony) > /disˈner/ (further intertonic loss and other proto-French developments). Both stems have become full verbs in Modern French: déjeuner "to have lunch" and dîner "to dine". Furthermore, déjeuner does not derive directly from je desjun (< *disi(ēi)ūnō, with total loss of unstressed -ēi-). Instead, it comes from Old French desjeüner, based on the alternative form je desjeün (< *disiē(i)ūnō, with loss of only -i-, likely influenced by jeûner "to fast" < Old French jeüner < je jeün /d͡ʒe.ˈyn/ "I fast" < iē(i)ūnō: iē- is an initial rather than intertonic so the vowel -ē- does not disappear).