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Like most of western Europe, the area now known as France was a part of the Roman Empire. Then known as Gaul, the land was home to a Celtic people related to the Celts of Britain and Ireland linguistically, and probably ethnically. The Roman subjugation of Gaul began in 67 B.C. and was complete by 79 A.D. One of the Roman generals who made a name for himself in Gaul was Julius Caesar. It was during his Gaulish campaigns that Caesar led the first forays into Britain, with limited success. Rome’s recall of the legions to defend itself against the Goths in the fifth century left Gaul open to the invasion and migration of the Germanic peoples.

Although several different groups of Northmen came to Gaul at this time, the most successful and influential were the Salian Franks. Gaul was also partially invaded by Attila the Hun, but the Scourge of God, as he styled himself, made it no farther than Orleans and was pushed back in 451 by an army composed of Goths, Franks, Burgundians and Gauls. The Franks, under Clovis, served as a military elite as much as a governing class. One area the Franks made little attempt to subdue was Armorica, also called Brittany, which was a Celtic stronghold that had gained many ÈmigrÈs when the British Celts fled the Saxon invasions. Even today, the Celtic langauge Breton is spoken there, alongside the national language, French.

Though the Franks were the conquerors, they slowly became Romanized by the Gauls, even adopting the language of the people they ruled. Although the areas of France and Germany were ruled by a common king for close to 500 years (from the Merovingian Dynasty in the fifth century through the Carolingian Dynasty, which ended in the late tenth century, Germany and France were united under a common ruler, if not in fact in one imperial state), remarkably, for the most part, the languages remained distinct. Even the shifting political borders between 20th century France and Germany seem to have had little effect on linguistic borders. Among the inhabitants of the much disputed Alsace-Lorraine area, traditional German speakers continue to speak German and French speakers continue to speak French, regardless of which nation officially claims sovereignty. The Frankish influence in the Middle Ages and, to some degree, the more recent effects of shifting political borders, have ultimately contributed approximately 400 Germanic words to the French language.

It is natural that a geographical area the size of France would give rise to a number of prominent dialects. In the early Middle Age, the dialect of the Ile-de-France became prominent. During the Crusades, French was influenced by Arabic; some Arabic borrowings also entered though the interest of French academics in the scientific advances of the Arab people. The French language made its way into England in 1066 with the Norman Conquest. The Normans had been Germanic speakers, of Viking or Norse descent, who became fully Gaulicised French speakers, and carried their French dialect with them when they ruled England. By the time the English language reasserted itself, it had assimilated a large portion of French, particulary words associated with cuisine, courtly life, or bureaucracy.

Today in France there is a movement dedicated to restoring the "purity" of the French language by removing foreign words from the vocabulary, such as microchip and hamburger. The French language is also spoken in the Canadian province of Quebec, French Guiana, Madagascar, Haiti, Indochina, N.W. Africa and parts of Belgium and Switzerland, and is a popular second language choice in the United States, after Spanish.

 

Click here to visit a UTSA site with extensive information about France and French.
Click here for additional information about French history.