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French

The French language did not begin to have any form until towards the tenth century; it was born from the ruins of Latin and Celtic, mixed with a few Germanic words. This language was first of all the romanum rusticum, rustic Roman, and the Germanic language was the court language up to the time of Charles the Bald; Germanic remained the sole language of Germany after the great epoch of the partition of 843. Rustic Roman, the Romance language, prevailed in Western France; the people of the country of Vaud, of the Valais, of the Engadine valley, and of a few other cantons, still retain to-day manifest vestiges of this idiom.

At the end of the tenth century French was formed; people wrote in French at the beginning of the eleventh; but this French still retained more of Rustic Roman than the French of to-day. The romance of Philomena, written in the tenth century in rustic Roman, is not in a tongue very different from that of the Norman laws. One still remarks Celtic, Latin and German derivations. The words signifying the parts of the human body, or things of daily use, and which have nothing in common with Latin or German, are in old Gaulish or Celtic, such as tête, jambe, sabre, pointe, aller, parler, écouter, regarder, aboyer, crier, coutume, ensemble, and many others of this kind. Most of the terms of war were Frank or German: Marche, halte, maréchal, bivouac, reitre, lansquenet. All the rest is Latin; and all the Latin words were abridged, according to the custom and genius of the nations of the north; thus from palatium, palais; from lupus, loup; from Auguste, août; from Junius, juin; from unctus, oint; from purpura, pourpre; from pretium, prix, etc. Hardly were there left any vestiges of the Greek tongue, which had been so long spoken at Marseilles.

In the twelfth century there began to be introduced into the language some of the terms of Aristotle's philosophy; and towards the sixteenth century one expressed by Greek terms all the parts of the human body, their diseases, their remedies; whence the words cardiaque, céphalique, podagre, apoplectique, asthmatique, iliaque, empyème, and so many others. Although the language then enriched itself from the Greek, and although since Charles VIII. it had drawn much aid from Italian already perfected, the French language had not yet taken regular consistence. François Ier abolished the ancient custom of pleading, judging, contracting in Latin; custom which bore witness to the barbarism of a language which one did not dare use in public documents, a pernicious custom for citizens whose lot was regulated in a language they did not understand. One was obliged then to cultivate French; but the language was neither noble nor regular. The syntax was left to caprice. The genius for conversation being turned to pleasantries, the language became very fertile in burlesque and naïve expressions, and very sterile in noble and harmonious terms: from this it comes that in rhyming dictionaries one finds twenty terms suitable for comic poetry, for one for more exalted use; and it is, further, a reason why Marot never succeeded in a serious style, and why Amyot could render Plutarch's elegance only with naïveté.

French acquired vigour beneath the pen of Montaigne; but it still had neither nobility nor harmony. Ronsard spoiled the language by bringing into French poetry the Greek compounds which the doctors and philosophers used. Malherbe repaired Ronsard's mischief somewhat. The language became more noble and more harmonious with the establishment of the Académie Française, and acquired finally, in the reign of Louis XIV., the perfection whereby it might be carried into all forms of composition.

The genius of this language is order and clarity; for each language has its genius, and this genius consists in the facility which the language gives for expressing oneself more or less happily, for using or rejecting the familiar twists of other languages. French having no declensions, and being always subject to the article, cannot adopt Greek and Latin inversions; it obliges words to arrange themselves in the natural order of ideas. Only in one way can one say "Plancus a pris soin des affaires de César." That is the only arrangement one can give to these words. Express this phrase in Latin--Res Cæsaris Plancus diligenter curavit: one can arrange these words in a hundred and twenty ways, without injuring the sense and without troubling the language. The auxiliary verbs which eke out and enervate the phrases in modern languages, still render the French tongue little suited to the concise lapidary style. The auxiliary verbs, its pronouns, its articles, its lack of declinable participles, and finally its uniform gait, are injurious to the great enthusiasm of poetry, in which it has less resources than Italian and English; but this constraint and this bondage render it more suitable for tragedy and comedy than any language in Europe. The natural order in which one is obliged to express one's thoughts and construct one's phrases, diffuses in this language a sweetness and easiness that is pleasing to all peoples; and the genius of the nation mingling with the genius of the language has produced more agreeably written books than can be seen among any other people.

The pleasure and liberty of society having been long known only in France, the language has received therefrom a delicacy of expression and a finesse full of simplicity barely to be found elsewhere. This finesse has sometimes been exaggerated, but people of taste have always known how to reduce it within just limits.

Many persons have thought that the French language has become impoverished since the time of Amyot and Montaigne: one does indeed find in many authors expressions which are no longer admissible; but they are for the most part familiar expressions for which equivalents have been substituted. The language has been enriched with a quantity of noble and energetic expressions; and without speaking here of the eloquence of things, it has acquired the eloquence of words. It is in the reign of Louis XIV., as has been said, that this eloquence had its greatest splendour, and that the language was fixed. Whatever changes time and caprice prepare for it, the good authors of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries will always serve as models.


Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire