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Middle French ( ) is an historical division of the French language which covers the period from (roughly) 1340 to 1611 . It is a period of transition during which:
  • the French language becomes clearly distinguished from the other competing Oïl languages which are sometimes subsumed within the concept of Old French ("l'ancien français");
  • the French language is imposed as the official language of the kingdom of France in place of Latin and other Oïl and Occitan languages;
  • the literary development of French prepares the vocabulary and grammar for the Classical French ("le français classique") spoken in the 17th and 18th centuries.


The most important change found in Middle French is the complete disappearance of the noun declension system (already under way for centuries). There is no longer a distinction between nominative and oblique forms of nouns, and plurals are indicated simply with an s. This transformation necessitates an increased reliance on the order of words in the sentence, which becomes more or less the syntax of modern French (although there is a continued reliance on the verb in the second position of a sentence, or "verb-second structure", until the 16th century).

Among the elites, Latin was still the language of education, administration and bureaucracy; this changed in 1539, with the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts in which François I made French alone the language for legal and juridical acts. Regional differences were still extremely pronounced throughout France: in the south of France, Occitan languages dominated; in east central France, Franco-Provençal languages were predominant; while in the north of France, Oïl languages other than Francien continued to be spoken. The administrative language imposed in 1539 is generally thought by modern linguists to represent a generalised langue d'oïl shorn of distinctive dialectal features, rather than the triumph of one dialect (Francien) over the others.

The fascination with classical texts led to numerous borrowings from Latin and Greek, sometimes to the detriment of the rich Old French vocabulary. There were numerous neologisms based on Latin roots and some scholars modified the spelling of French words to bring them into conformity with their Latin roots (unfortunately, this produced a radical difference between a word's spelling and the way it was pronounced).

The French wars in Italymarker and the presence of Italians in the French court brought the French into contact with Italian humanism. Many words dealing with military (alarme, cavalier, espion, infanterie, camp, canon, soldat) and artistic (especially architectural: arcade, architrave, balcon, corridor; also literary: sonnet) practices were borrowed from the Italian. These tendencies would continue through Classical French.

There were also some borrowings from Spanish (casque) and German (reître) and from the Americas (cacao, hamac, maïs).

The influence of the Anglo-Norman language on English had left words of Norman origin in England. Some words of Romance origin now found their way back into French as doublets through war and trading contacts.

Finally, the meaning and usage of many words from Old French were transformed.

Spelling and punctuation in this period are extremely erratic. The introduction of printing in 1470 eventually provoked the need for reform in spelling. One proposed reform came from Jacques Peletier du Mans who developed a phonetic-based spelling system and introduced new typographic signs (1550), but this spelling reform was not followed.

This period saw the first publication of French grammar books and the important publication, by Robert Estienne, of a French-Latin dictionary (1539).

At the beginning of the 17th century, French would see the continued unification of French, the suppression of certain forms, and the prescription of rules, leading to Classical French.


Middle French is the language found in the writings of Villon, Marot, Rabelais, Montaigne, Ronsard and the poets of the Pléiade.

The affirmation and glorification of French finds its greatest manifestation in the "Defense and Illustration of the French Language" (1549) by the poet Joachim du Bellay, which maintained that French (like the Tuscan of Petrarch and Dante) was a worthy language for literary expression and which promulgated a program of linguistic production and purification (including the imitation of Latin genres).


  • Larousse dictionnaire du moyen français. Paris: Larousse, 1992.
  • H. Bonnard. Notions de style, de versificiation et d'histoire de la langue française. Paris: SUDEL, 1953.
  • W. von Wartburg. Évolution et structure de la langue française. Berne (Switzerland): Francke A.G., 1946.


  1. Larousse dictionnaire, v.
  2. Larousse dictionnaire, xxvi.
  3. Larousse dictionnaire, vi, xiii-xiv, xvii. Bonnard, 113-114.
  4. Wartburg, 160. Bonnard, 114.
  5. Bonnard, 114.

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