Old French Online

Series Introduction

Brigitte L.M. Bauer and Jonathan Slocum

Like the other Romance languages, French is a daughter-language of Latin. Its standard variety traces back to one of the dialects of Old French, that is, the dialect spoken in the Ile de France, which has been for centuries the geographical and political center of what is France today.

Old French is one of the earliest attested Romance languages and offers a fascinating field for research in historical linguistics: not only are many of its changes attested in texts, but its linguistic ancestor, Latin, is richly documented as well.

1. Emergence of a New Language

When Rome expanded under Caesar and the Roman emperors, Latin became the dominant language in much of the Roman Empire. In many of the occupied territories Latin eventually ousted the vernacular languages, but ultimately split up in what are the Romance languages today. The Romance languages include Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Occitan, French, Sardinian, Rhaeto-Romance, Rumanian, and Romance Creoles.

Among these, (Old) French is the result of language contact between several languages representing different language groups: Celtic (Gaulish), Italic (Latin), and Germanic (e.g. Frankish, the language of the Franks).

Julius Caesar conquered Gaul between 58 and 51 B.C., but the southern parts of the country had already been occupied by the Romans since 121 B.C. and therefore had already been colonized and Romanized. After Caesar's conquest, the Gauls -- speaking a variety of Gaulish dialects -- came in touch with Latin through contact with colonists, the military, tradesmen, and administrators. Even before the Roman conquest, Gaul had towns and a well-developed road system; its Romanization resulted in Latin becoming the predominant language -- a process that took several centuries.

Without going too much into detail, we mention here two aspects of the process of Romanization that were very important for the spread of Latin: education, and administration. State officials were sent to Gaul to take care of various administrative tasks, among them the tax system. At first these state officials came from Rome and therefore spoke Latin: Latin became the official language of administration. Soon however it became possible for the indigenous population to make a career in Roman administration as well, provided they spoke Latin. Latin therefore became an important means to achieve socio-economic success. In addition, because of the Roman school system, young generations of Gauls acquired a systematic knowledge of Latin. Moreover Latin had its own writing system, a rich written tradition, and represented a civilization that was politically, militarily, culturally, admininstratively, and economically the most advanced of its time. The socio-economic advantages Latin offered to those who knew it, and the fundamental willingness of the Gauls to accept it, explain why not only the Romanization but also the Latinization of Gaul was a success.

As noted, Latin gradually ousted Gaulish, which in fact left relatively few traces in the new language, mainly lexical: approximately seventy or so Gaulish words survive in French today, among them lieue 'mile', chemin 'road', charrue 'plow', mouton 'sheep', and others. Most of these words refer to agriculture and everyday life.

The invasion of the Germanic tribes in the 5th century A.D. marks the end of the Roman Empire in Western Europe and the beginning of the Frankish rule in the northern part of Gaul (up to the Loire). Although the Franks were in power, their language did not oust Gallo-Romance. The Franks did, however, leave a few traces in French, such as words starting with h-aspiré, as in haricot 'bean', which traces back to a Germanic word. Compare the h-muet in homme 'man'. Homme goes back to Latin hominem, which lost its initial h sound before the Frankish tribes occupied Gaul. Another Germanic feature is the existence and predominance of place names in northern regions France of the type Neuville, Neufchateau, Francheville, and others. In these formations the adjective precedes the noun, as they do in Germanic today. These structures are not attested in the south, where place names are found with the reverse order, noun + adjective: Villeneuve, Chateauneuf, Villefranche, and others.

The Frankish kings made important contributions to the development of France: with the conversion of Clovis to the Church of Rome (ca. 496 A.D.), the Church became important. The countryside was christianized; monasteries were founded, and soon became centers of activity and education. In the 8th century, Charlemagne wanted to re-create the Roman Empire, but in a Christian version. His reign marks a Renaissance: the civilization of Antiquity and its language were ideals one set out to realize. It is in the early 9th century that two events mark an important linguistic phenomenon. In 813 it was decided at the Concily of Tours that sermons would no longer be delivered in Latin, but rather in the vernacular language. Then in 842 two of Charlemagne's grandsons, Louis le Germanique and Charles le Chauve, took an oath in French and German, respectively, in front of their troops in Strassbourg; this proclamation of mutual support resulted in a written agreement, Les Serments de Strassbourg. These two events reflect the awareness of the speakers of the day that (1) the Gallo-Romance they spoke was a language separate and different from Latin, and (2) Gallo-Romance was a language different from German. The earliest text in French, therefore, is the Serments de Strassbourg; it marks, in fact, the political disintegration of centralized power that started at Charlemagne's death.

During the early Middle Ages, contacts among people were rather local in nature and therefore "vertical": most people lived and died in the region where they were born, and communicated with others living in the same region independently of their social background. The seigneur, for example, would communicate with his farmers and soldiers, and so forth. This phenomenon contributed greatly to the emergence of dialects.

Only later -- starting in the 12th century -- when pilgrimages, crusades, and universities came up and towns became more important, did contacts become "horizontal," cutting through geographical boundaries rather than social classes. Gradually the king once again became a central power. At that point one sees that the dialect of the Ile de France, where the kings established a fixed court, became increasingly important and in fact started the journey that eventually would lead to its standardisation. The historical background accounts for the fact that Old French had many local dialects.

2. Dialects

Although this course in Old French is too short to make dialect variation a topic of special interest, students should know that "Old French" in fact refers to a collection of dialects. Since some of these dialects share more characteristics than others, it is possible to divide them in two groups: the dialects spoken in the northern parts of France, to which one refers as language d'oïl and those spoken in the Southern parts, referred to as langue d'oc. Oc and oïl were markers of affirmation ('yes') in the respective dialect groups.

La language d'oïl includes the following dialects: the dialects of Picardie (le Picard), Normandy (le Normand), Ile de France (le Francien), Lorraine (le Lorrain), Anjou (l'Angevin), Poitou (le Poitevin), Bourgundy (le Bourguignon), and Berry (le Berrichon).

La langue d'oc includes the dialects of the following regions: Provence (le provenc/al), Auvergne (l'auvergnat), Gascony (le gascon), and Languedoc (le languedocien).

The differences between the dialects are primarily phonological. Lexical differences are also found, some of which may have grammatical effects. In Old French, negation is expressed with the negating particle ne, which may be reinforced by an element of nominal origin. The modern French ne ... pas negation traces back to this situation. Yet in Old French there were many other elements used as reinforcer in this context, for example mie 'crumb', point 'dot', goutte 'drop', and many others. In some regions pas predominated, in others e.g. mie. Eventually pas supplanted all other varieties and became the unique non-emphatic negating marker.

3. Grammatical Characteristics of Old French

Linguistically, Old French represents an intermediate stage between Latin and the modern language. A case in point is the case system: whereas Latin had a full-fledged case system with six cases, and modern French has none (except on pronouns), Old French had two cases, a subject and an oblique case.

Similarly, in the history of word order, an important change occurred in the transition from Latin to French: Latin was a verb-final language (Subject-Object-Verb, henceforth SOV); in French the verb from the earliest documents precedes the object (SVO). Old French therefore is an SVO language but its subordinate clauses are often still verb-final. In addition, word order in Old French allows for more variation and it is only later that sequences such as Complement + Verb + Subject disappear. The word order patterns observed in Old French remind us of those in today's German or Dutch. These languages, as well, are shifting from an earlier SOV to an SVO system.

As noted, Old French had a system of two cases: a subject case (nominative), and an object case (oblique). Yet the case distinction in nouns is formally marked in masculine nouns only. Case is more manifest in pronouns where, for the third person singular for example, there is a distinction between the direct object le/la and the indirect object li.

With a few exceptions, all nouns have number marking (singular vs. plural); and they are either masculine or feminine.

Case, number, and gender are also manifest in adjectival elements, such as adjectives and participles. The adjective, for example, agrees with the noun in case, number, and gender.

Another important characteristic of Old French, and an innovation with respect to Latin, is the use of definite articles. Old French definite articles trace back to Latin demonstratives, which in the history of Latin became more and more frequent and gradually lost their demonstrative value. The definite article in Old French primarily had a defining function. In contrast to modern uses, the definite article in Old French is not automatic. Like other nominal elements, definite articles are marked for gender, case, and number.

When the demonstratives lost their demonstrative value, new demonstratives developed: an element ecce 'behold' was added to the old demonstrative forms, iste and ille. As a result, Old French had two demonstratives (instead of three in Latin):

    cist   < ecce + iste   'this'
    cil   < ecce + ille   'that'

Most morphological processes are attested in the verb, which is marked for person, tense, mood, voice, and aspect:

Person:   1st sg.   2nd sg.   3rd sg.    
    1st pl.   2nd pl.   3rd pl.    
Tense:   Present            
    Preterite   Imperfect        
Mood:   Indicative   Subjunctive   Imperative   Conditional
Voice:   Active   Passive        
Aspect:   Imperfective   Perfective        

Some of the forms mentioned in this table are analytic (including an auxiliary and a main verb), while others are "synthetic." In synthetic forms, one verb form embodies the lexical element and all grammatical categories; cf.:

Analytic:   ai chanté   'I have sung'
Synthetic:   chantai   'I sang'

An important difference between Old French and later varieties is that the subject pronoun is not yet compulsory. In fact, it is rather infrequent.

In syntax, word order is predominantly SVO. Other sequences are motivated: SOV, for example, is typically attested in subordinate clauses; in commands, the imperative verb comes first.

Subject inversion is very common in Old French: it is triggered when a complement (direct, indirect, adverbial) is in clause-initial position, creating sequences such as Complement + Verb + Subject or Complement + Verb + Subject + Object.

In line with the predominance of SVO, other elements follow specific patterns as well: the genitive, for example, typically follows the head noun, with or without preposition, cf. e.g.

    l'ost des Franceis
    'the army of the French'
    la fille le roi
    'the daughter of the king'

Negation in Old French was characterized by one negating element ne, which precedes the verb. In addition there are many attestations of so-called "double" negation, as in:

    autrement ne m'amerat il mie
    'otherwise he will not love me'

In this example, negation includes an element ne and an element mie. In this construction the part ne + verb has been inherited from Latin. Adding a second element (mie) was a later development and not yet compulsory in Old French.

Compared to the modern language, nominal forms of the Old French verb played an important role: infinitive, participles, and gerunds. Yet, compared to Latin, these elements just play a minor role. In Old French, absolute constructions -- widespread in Latin -- are limited to specific verbs and typically specify the circumstances in which the action of the main verb is carried out, cf.:

    juntes ses mains est alet a sa fin
    'his hands joined he went to his death'

The infinitive in Old French may be nominalized, in which case a definite article generally is added; it may function as subject or complement, for example cf.:

    li porters dou rainsel
    'the fact of carrying the small branch'
    tens est del hebergier
    'it is time to encamp'

The use of an infinitive as complement of a finite verb is less strongly developed than in the modern language. In modern French the infinitive is automatically used when the subject of the finite verb and the infinitive are identical. In Old French this is not yet the case. Often a subjunctive, for example, is used instead, cf.:

    Modern French:
    je ne sais quoi faire
    'I do not know what to do'
    Old French:
    ne sai que face [very common]
    'I do not know what to do' (with subjunctive)
    ne sai que faire [very rare]
    'I do not know what to do'
4. Documents

A rich literature in Old French, along with many other documents, provide a wealth of texts covering the period from the 9th century until the end of the 13th century. From the end of the 13th century on, the case system disappears and the dialect of the Ile de France becomes increasingly important. That is why one no longer speaks of Old French, but rather of Middle French. Consequently the language of the 14th and 15th centuries is typically referred to as Middle French.

The texts selected for this course represent the various genres: the Chansons de geste, relating the exploits of Charlemagne and his nephew Roland; a hagiography, presenting the life of St. Alexis; a hymn written to praise the virtues of St. Eulalie; two examples of (early) littérature courtoise, Tristan and Yvain; an historical account of the Fourth Crusade; two texts representing the littérature bourgeoise, a fable and part of a play; and finally a translation of the well-known Latin text about St. Brendan, who set out to discover what may have been North America.

A striking characteristic of Old French texts is their international, European character. Some texts are based on foreign or international traditions or are translations or revisions of foreign texts. Moreover, the veneration of some saints is an international phenomenon, and the component of Irish culture, for example, is strong.

5. Abbreviations

In the Grammar points, several abbreviations have been used; these refer to the following grammatical concepts:

    abl. = ablative   acc. = accusative   adj. = adjective   art. = article
    comp. = comparative   dir. = direct   fem. = feminine   gen. = genitive
    impf. = imperfective   indef. = indefinite   indir. = indirect   inf. = infinitive
    masc. = masculine   nom. = nominative   obj. = object   obl. = oblique
    part. = participle   pers. = person   pf. = perfective   pl. = plural
    pres. = present   pret. = preterite   sg. = singular   subj. = subject
    subju. = subjunctive   La(t). = Latin   OF = Old French    

Related Language Courses at UT

Most but not all language courses taught at The University of Texas concern modern languages; sometimes courses are offered in ancient languages, though more often at the graduate level. French language courses are taught in the Department of French & Italian (link opens in a new browser window). Other online language courses for college credit are offered through University Extension (new window).

Italic Resources Elsewhere

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