In 1880 in France…

It was said among Army recruits that only 20% could speak the actual French language. The French language itself was codified around 1800 based on the Parisien dialect, spoken around Paris. So modern French is just Parisien the same way that modern German is just Upper Saxon and modern Italian is simply Florentine Tuscan.

What were the rest of the soldiers speaking? Many of them may have been speaking patois. Patois are generally other langues d’oil, related to Parisien. There are many of them, but they are dying out. In general, patois are not intelligible with Standard French.

Many also spoke Occitan, a language between Spanish and French spoken in the south of France. Further, some Occitan dialects are hardly even understandable to other Occitan speakers. French speakers are quite lost when listening to an Occitan speaker.

130 years ago, there were probably many speakers of Breton in Brittany. Breton is related to Welsh, and a French speaker can’t understand a word of it.

Surely, there were many speakers of Basque in the southwest of France. Basque is incomprehensible to a French speaker.

In far northeast France, Flemish is still spoken, and it was much more spoken 130 years ago.

In the part of France near Luxembourg, varieties of German are spoken, Moselle Franconian, Lorraine Franconian and Luxembourgian. These are actually three separate languages. They were much more commonly spoken 130 years ago.

To the south, Alsatian was spoken in the Alsace Lorraine. A traveler to this region wrote that in some areas people speak German, in others they speak French, and in others they speak some language that is neither German nor French. Alsatian is a German dialect that is declining. But it was very widely spoken 130 years ago.

In the far southeast of France, Nissart, Monegasque, Montenasque, and Intermelian are spoken. The last two are dialects of Ligurian, a language spoken in Italy. The first two are Occitan dialects with a heavy Ligurian mixture. All of these were spoken much more 130 years ago.

In Corsica, Corse is spoken. Corse is related to Standard Italian. It is declining, but was widely spoken 130 years ago.

In the area near Switzerland, a language called Arpitan or Franco-Provencal is still spoken. It was much more widely spoken 130 years ago.

In the far southwest of France in Rousillon, Catalan is spoken. It is dying out, but was probably widely spoken 130 years ago.

As you can see, the notion that only Standard French is spoken in France is quite mistaken. It was even less true 130 years ago, when only 20% of the population spoke the standard language.

Please follow and like us:
error3
fb-share-icon20
Tweet 20
fb-share-icon20

0 thoughts on “In 1880 in France…”

  1. Hi Robert,
    I would like to bring some precisions to your post.
    At first, “maternal french” was imposed in adminsitration acts instead of latin by François 1er in 1539.
    Then, Richelieu founded “Academie Française” in 1635 in order to write a french dictionnary and to settle grammatical rules of french.
    There are many famous french writers before 1800 : Molière, Racine, Voltaire …
    I can confirm you that dialects and regional languages are not completely dead. Many people still understand them and use them at home or with friends. It is even possible to learn them in some schools. As far as I am concerned I can understand and speak “chti” a variant of Picard dialect spoken in Lille aera. I think it is a duty to preserve our dialects and regional languages.
    Today French comes from mainly from “Ile de France dialect”.
    Kind regards

    1. Thanks for all of this. I am so glad that you can speak Picard! Can all of the Picard variants understand each other?

      I do not think Picard is a dialect; I think it is a separate language altogether.

  2. Dear Robert
    I think that you are off by a century. Maybe in 1780, only 20% of the recruits could speak standard French, but in 1880 this percentage must have been higher. I just read a book called Le français, quelle histoire! by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow. On page 131, they write that the Revolutionary government appointed Henri Grégoire to investigate the language situation in France.

    Grégoire submitted a report to the Assembly. “La France des années 1790 était un pot-pourri de différentes langues. Sur une population de 28 million, seulement 3 million parlait un français dit “pur” et encore moins l’écrivait. 6 milions ne pouvait pas soutenir une conversation en français et encore 6 millions n’y entendait rien. ”

    Well, that leaves 16 million who knew French to some degree, which is more than half of the population, and that was in 1790.
    When a country has an official language and many dialects, then a situation can arise in which the majority of the population is bilingual. They speak a dialect at home and with their neighbors, but they speak the official language in a broader context, and they only read the official language.
    Don’t forget either that about 2/3 of patois-speakers in France spoke a langue d’oile, so to go from patois to official French was only a small step.
    M suspicion is that of the French army recruits in 1880 only 20% had spoken nothing but French since birth but that a clear majority of the other 80% were conversant with French at least to some extent. It isn’t either or, either you speak French or patois. You can do both, but not necessarily in te same context, and you can only read French.
    As to the non-Latin languages in France, even in 1790 their speakers must have been well below 10% of the French population.

    Regards. James

  3. Make sure it is Koranic Arabic. A graceful language where prose sounds like poetry. An example:

    Run down by fate’s spite
    my body hangs, a mantle on a broom;

    with wealth enough to ease all pain
    I turn at night from back to belly
    side after side after side

    Who put pebbles on my couch when my sons died?
    I tried but could not shield
    them well enough from fate
    whose talon-grip
    turns amulet to toy.

    poem from around 600 AD by a guy who lost his sons to a plague

    1. Maybe that’s why the Arabs and Muslims can’t get enough of the Quran read aloud, in spite of the fact that–considered as content–it is one of the stupidest, most morally repugnant books ever written.

  4. J Schipper wrot “Grégoire submitted a report to the Assembly. “La France des années 1790 était un pot-pourri de différentes langues. Sur une population de 28 million, seulement 3 million parlait un français dit “pur” et encore moins l’écrivait. 6 milions ne pouvait pas soutenir une conversation en français et encore 6 millions n’y entendait rien. ”
    Henri Gregoire. Catholic left-winger. He pushed for restraint during the revolution, I would’ve supported everything that was done, except I would’ve kept the kids off the barges.
    His take on the various dialects…

    “In his hardly reliable classification, notable mistakes and prejudices included Corsican and Alsatian being described as “highly degenerate” (très-dégénérés) forms of Italian and German while Occitan was decomposed into a variety of syntactically loose local remnants of the language of troubadours with no intelligibility among them, and had to be abandoned in favor of the language of the capital. This, coupled with Jules Ferry’s policy less than a century later, led to the weakening of most unofficial languages in France, all of them being subsequently banned from public documents, administration and school.”

    I think you translated and paraphrased that French passage on your own, it doesn’t appear to be the way a Frenchman would write it. But when I went to school in Aix en Provence, there was “proper” French and “street French”, and there sure is an accent between the south and the north, and there’s a Parisian accent too. And a Marseilles. For example the Parisian will say “way” for oui, the others “Wee”.
    Yes, the Spanish and Italian influence can be heard down by the Pyranees, and the German up by the north. But it’s French, you can always understand it. And Spanish and Italian is close to French, being Latin-based.
    Many French used to cling to the old monetary slang. They’d say “mille franc” (1000)when they meant 10. And some even today will substitute francs for Euros in their language, maybe out of nostalgia.

    1. He is wrong about Alsatian and Corsican. Corsican is about as pure as Italian gets. It comes from old Tuscan. Florentine Tuscan was chosen as the dialect on which to standardize Italian in 1860. If you speak Standard Italian, it is said that you can understand Corsican without any problems.

      Alsatian is just a Low Alemmanic form of German. It’s similar to Swabian, Swiss German, etc.

      I think his take on Occitan is probably correct. Back then the dialects were probably not very mutually intelligible, but I think the situation is better now.

      There are dialects of French, which are intelligible to the French speaker, and there are langues d’oil, which are actually separate languages. These are called patois. I understand that in general patois is quite impenetrable to someone who knows only French. Patois are still spoken, mostly by older people in the rural areas. These patois broke away from langue d’oil up to 800 years ago, say in 1200 or so.

      Sure, Spanish and Italian are close to French, but that doesn’t mean that I can understand them! I can understand Spanish pretty well, but I am lost listening to French and Italian speakers, and I can’t read those languages very well either. And I’ve studied French and Italian for a bit.

  5. “Sure, Spanish and Italian are close to French, but that doesn’t mean that I can understand them! I can understand Spanish pretty well, but I am lost listening to French and Italian speakers, and I can’t read those languages very well either. And I’ve studied French and Italian for a bit.”

    That’s understandable if you don’t know casual latin first. Word origins fascinate me, so I applied myself to latin. Word origins clue you in on the evolution of particular languages. It’s something I’m sure you’d find fun & interesting, and you already show an interest and knowlege of the pursuit.

    When I was in HS I wanted to know the origins of English,so I looked back at the way the language evolved over the centuries. When you go way back, the English language shows French influences, but even further back it starts morphing into what amazingly looks like Dutch.

  6. When I went to France a year or so ago, I spent several months going through one of the better sets of instructional CDs. It made me functional in Paris, but more than two hours out, forget it. It wasn’t even a matter of making myself understood. I couldn’t understand a thing anyone said. Maybe they were indeed speaking a different language, or at least a pretty far removed dialect of the same language.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.