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Old French was the Romance dialect continuum spoken in territories which span roughly the northern half of modern Francemarker and parts of modern Belgiummarker and Switzerlandmarker from around 900 to 1300. It was then known as the langue d'oïl (oïl language) to distinguish it from the langue d'oc (Occitan language, also then called Provençal), whose territory bordered that of Old French to the south.

Grammar and phonology

Historical influences


Gaulish, one of the survivors of the continental Celtic languages in Roman times, slowly became extinct during the long centuries of Roman dominion. Only a handful (approx.200) of Gaulish words survive in modern French, for example chêne, ‘oak tree’ and charrue ‘plough'. Fewer than two hundred words in modern French have Gaulish etymology; Delamarre (2003, pp.389-90) lists 167. Due to the expansion of the Roman Empire, Latin began to be spoken more often, explaining the limited influence and longevity of Gaulish.


In one sense, Old French began when the Roman Empire conquered Gaul during the campaigns of Julius Caesar, which were almost complete by 51 BC. The Romans introduced Latin to southern France by 120 BC (during the Punic Wars) when it came under Roman occupation.

Beginning with Plautus's time, the phonological structure of classical Latin underwent change, which would eventually yield vulgar Latin, the common spoken language of the western Roman empire. This latter form differed strongly from its classical counterpart in phonology; and was the ancestor of the Romance languages, including Old French. Some Gaulish words influenced Vulgar Latin and, through this, other Romance languages. For example, classical Latin equus was replaced in common parlance by vulgar Latin caballus, derived from Gaulish caballos (Delamare 2003 p.96), giving Modern French cheval, Catalan cavall, Occitan caval (chaval), Italian cavallo, Portuguese cavalo, Spanish caballo, Romanian cal, and (borrowed from Anglo-Norman) English cavalry and chivalry.


The Old Frankish language had a large influence on the vocabulary and the pronunciation of Old French after the conquest, by the Germanic tribe of the Franks, of the portions of Roman Gaul that are now Francemarker and Belgiummarker during the Migration Period. The name Français is derived from the name of this tribe. A number of other Germanic peoples, including the Burgundians and the Visigoths, were active in the territory at that time; the Germanic languages spoken by the Franks, Burgundians, and others were not written languages, and at this remove it is often difficult to identify from which specific Germanic source a given Germanic word in French is derived. Philologists such as Pope (1934) estimate that perhaps fifteen percent of the vocabulary of modern French derives from Germanic sources, including a large number of common words like haïr ‘to hate’, bateau ‘boat’, and hache ‘axe’. It has been suggested that the passé composé and other compound verbs used in French conjugation are also the result of Germanic influences.

Other Germanic words in Old French appeared as a result of Norman settlements in Normandy during the 10th century. The settlers spoke Old Norse; and their settlement was legitimised and made permanent in 911 under Rollo of Normandy. A few seafaring terms, notably the four points of the compass, were also borrowed via the Normans from Old English.

Earliest written Old French

While the earliest documents said to be written in French after the Reichenau and Kassel glosses (8th and 9th centuries) are the Oaths of Strasbourg (treaties and charters into which King Charles the Bald entered in 842), it is probable that the text represents an older Langue d'oïl or Gallo-Romance, a transitional stage between Vulgar Latin and early Romance:

The Royal House of Capet, founded by Hugh Capet in 987, inaugurated the development of northern French culture, which slowly but firmly asserted its ascendency over the more southerly areas of Aquitainemarker and Tolosa (Toulousemarker). The Capetians' Langue d'oïl, the forerunner of modern standard French, did not begin to become the common speech of the entire nation of France, however, until after the French Revolution.

Another example of an early Langue d'oïl or Gallo-Romance text is the Eulalia sequence, which is probably much closer to the spoken language of the time than the Oaths of Strasbourg (based upon language differences). It is difficult to determine precisely how these extant Old French texts were pronounced.

Phonological summary

Old French was constantly changing and evolving. However, it's sometimes useful to consider a "standard" form of the language in the state it was in around the late twelfth century (as attested in a great deal of mostly poetic writings). The phonological system can be summarised as follows:


IPA chart Old French consonants
Bilabial Labio-
Velar Glottal
Fricative ( )


  1. /h/ was found only in Germanic loanwords.


IPA chart Old French vowels
  Front Central Back
Close oral  
Close-mid oral  
Open oral    


  1. /o/ had formerly existed, but closed to /u/; it would later appear again when closed in certain positions.

Diphthongs and triphthongs

These have all disappeared in modern French.

IPA chart Old French diphthongs / triphthongs
  IPA Example Meaning
  f a l l i n g
Oral chevaus horse
toit roof
neveu nephew
Nasal plein full
  r i s i n g
Oral pié foot
fruit fruit
cuer heart
Nasal bien well
  t r i p h t h o n g s
stress always falls on middle vowel
Oral beaus beautiful

  • Note that nasal vowels were not pure, i.e. the following nasal consonant was still pronounced. (Eg bien = .)


Old French maintained a two-case system, with a nominative case and an oblique case, longer than some other Romance languages (e.g. Spanish and Italian). Case distinctions, at least in the masculine gender, were marked on both the definite article and on the noun itself. Thus, the masculine noun li voisins, "the neighbour" (Latin VICÍNU(S) /wi'ki:nus/ > Proto-Romance */vetsinu(s)/ > OF voisins /voizins/; Modern French le voisin) was declined as follows:


Nominative: li voisins   (Latin ille vicinus)
Oblique:    le voisin    (Latin illum vicinum)


Nominative: li voisin    (Latin illi vicini)
Oblique:    les voisins  (Latin illos vicinos)

In later Old French, these distinctions became moribund. When the distinctions were marked enough, sometimes both forms survived, with a lexical difference: both li sire (nominative, Latin SENIOR) and le seigneur (oblique, Latin SENIORE(M)) survive in the vocabulary of later French as different ways to refer to a feudal lord. As in most other Romance languages, it was the oblique case form that usually survived to become the modern French form: l'enfant (the child) represents the old accusative; the OF nominative was li enfes. But some modern French nouns perpetuate the old nominative; modern French soeur (OF suer) represents the Latin nominative SÓROR; the OF oblique form seror, from Latin accusative SORÓREM, no longer survives. Many personal names preserve the old nominative as well, as indicated by their final -s, such as Charles, Georges, Gilles, Jacques, and Jules.

As in Spanish and Italian, the neuter gender was eliminated, and old neuter nouns became masculine. Some Latin neuter plurals were re-analysed as feminine singulars, though; for example, Latin GAUDIU(M) was more widely used in the plural form GAUDIA, which was taken for a singular in Vulgar Latin, and ultimately led to modern French la joie, "joy" (feminine singular).

Nouns were declined in the following declensions:
  • Class I (feminine, no case marking): la fame, la fame, les fames, les fames "woman"
  • Class II (masculine): li voisins, le voisin, li voisin, les voisins "neighbor"; li sergenz, le sergent, li sergent, les sergenz "servant"
  • Class Ia (feminine hybrid): la riens, la rien, les riens, les riens "thing"; la citéz, la cité, les citéz, les citéz "city"
  • Class IIa (masculine hybrid): li pere, le pere, li pere, les peres "father"
  • Class IIIa (masculine): li chantere, le chanteor, li chanteor, les chanteors "singer"
  • Class IIIb (masculine): li ber, le baron, li baron, les barons "baron"
  • Class IIIc (feminine): la none, la nonain, les nonains, les nonains "nun"
  • Class IIId (isolated, irregular forms): la suer, la seror, les serors, les serors "sister"; li enfes, l'enfant, li enfant, les enfanz "child"; li prestre, le prevoire, li prevoire, les prevoires "priest"; li sire, le seigneur, li seigneur, les seigneurs "lord"; li cuens, le conte, li conte, les contes "count"

Class I is derived from the Latin first declension. Class II is derived from the Latin second declension. Class Ia mostly comes from feminine third-declension nouns in Latin. Class IIa generally stems from second-declension nouns ending in -er and from third-declension masculine nouns; note that in both cases, the Latin nominative singular did not end in -s, and this is preserved in Old French.

Class III nouns show a separate form in the nominative singular that does not occur in any of the other forms. IIIa nouns ended in -ÁTOR, -ATÓREM in Latin, and preserve the stress shift; IIIb nouns likewise had a stress shift from -O to -ÓNEM. IIIc nouns are an Old French creation and have no clear Latin antecedent. IIId nouns represent various other types of third-declension Latin nouns with stress shift or irregular masculine singular (SÓROR, SORÓREM; ÍNFANS, INFÁNTEM; PRÉSBYTER, PRESBÝTEREM; SÉNIOR, SENIÓREM; CÓMES, CÓMITEM).


The verb in Old French was somewhat less distinct from the rest of Proto-Romance than the noun was. It shared in the loss of the Latin passive voice, and the reduction of the Latin futures of the AMABO type (I will love) to Proto-Romance *amare habeo (lit. "I have to love"), which became amerai in Old French.

In Latin, certain verbs shifted the accented syllable based on the Latin accentual system, which depended on vowel length. Thus, the Latin verb ÁMO, "I love," stressed on the first syllable, changed to AMÁMUS, "we love". Because the Latin stressed syllable affected Old French vowels, this syllable shift created a large number of strong verbs in Old French. ÁMO yielded j'aim, while AMÁMUS, moving the stress away from the first syllable, yielded nous amons. There were at least 11 types of alternations; examples of these various types are j'aim, nous amons; j'achat, nous achetons; j'adois, nous adesons; je mein, nouns menons; j'achief, nous achevons; je conchi, nous concheons; je pris, nous proisons; je demeur, nous demourons; je muer, nous mourons; j'aprui, nous aproions. In Modern French almost all of these verbs have been leveled, generally with the "weak" (unstressed) form predominating (but modern aimer/nous aimons is an exception). A few alternations remain, however, in what are now known as irregular verbs, such as je tiens, nous tenons or je meurs, nous mourons.

In general, Old French verbs show much less analogical reformation than in Modern French. The Old French first singular aim, for example, comes directly from Latin AMO, while modern aime has an analogical -e added. The subjunctive forms j'aim, tu ains, il aint are direct preservations of Latin AMEM, AMES, AMET, while the modern forms j'aime, tu aimes, il aime have been completely reformed on the basis of verbs in the other conjugations. The simple past also shows extensive analogical reformation and simplification in Modern French as compared with Old French.

The Latin pluperfect was preserved in very early Old French as a past tense with a value similar to a preterite or imperfect. E.g. (Cantilène de sainte Eulalie, 878 AD) 'avret' HABUERAT, 'voldret' VOLUERAT (Old Occitan also preserved this tense, with a conditional value).

Example of regular -er verb

Indicative Subjunctive Conditional Imperative
Present Simple Past Imperfect Future Present Imperfect Present

je dur durai duroie durerai dur durasse dureroie
tu dures duras durois dureras durs durasses durerois dure
il dure dura duroit durera durt durast dureroit
nous durons durames duriiens/-ïons durerons durons durissons/-issiens dureriions/-ïons durons
vous durez durastes duriiez dureroiz/-ez durez durissoiz/-issez/-issiez dureriiez/-ïez durez
ils durent durerent duroient dureront durent durassent dureroient

Non-finite forms:
  • Infinitive: durer
  • Present participle: durant
  • Past Participle: duré

Auxiliary verb: avoir

Example of regular -ir verb

Indicative Subjunctive Conditional Imperative
Present Simple Past Imperfect Future Present Imperfect Present

je fenis feni fenissoie fenirai fenisse fenisse feniroie
tu fenis fenis fenissoies feniras fenisses fenisses fenirois fenis
il fenist feni(t) fenissoit fenira fenisse(t) fenist feniroit
nous fenissons fenimes fenissiiens fenirons fenissons feniss-ons/-iens feniriiens fenissons
vous fenissez fenistes fenissiiez fenir-oiz/-ez fenissez feniss-oiz/-ez/-iez feniriiez fenissez
ils fenissent fenirent fenissoient feniront fenissent fenissent feniroient

Non-finite forms:
  • Infinitive: fenir
  • Present participle: fenissant
  • Past Participle: feni(t)

Auxiliary verb: avoir

Example of regular -re verb

Indicative Subjunctive Conditional Imperative
Present Simple Past Imperfect Future Present Imperfect Present

je cor corui coroie corrai core corusse corroie
tu cors corus coroies corras cores corusses corroies cor
il cort coru(t) coroit corra core(t) corust corroit
nous corons corumes coriiens corrons corons coruss-ons/-iens corriiens corons
vous corez corustes coriiez corr-oiz/-ez corez coruss-oiz/-ez/-iez corriiez corez
ils corent corurent coroient corront corent corussent corroient

Non-finite forms:
  • Infinitive: corre
  • Present participle: corant
  • Past Participle: coru(t)

Auxiliary verb: estre

Examples of the auxiliary verbs

avoir (to have)

Indicative Subjunctive Conditional Imperative
Present Simple Past Imperfect Future Present Imperfect Present

je ai eus avoie aurai ai eusse auroie
tu ais (later as) eus avois auras ais eusses aurois ave
il ai (later a) eut avoit aura ai eusst auroit
nous avons eumes aviens/-ïons aurons aions eussons/-issiens auravons/-ïons avons
vous avez eustes aviez auroiz/-ez aiez eussoiz/-issez/-issiez auravez/-ïez avez
ils ont eurent avoient auront ont eussent auroient

Non-finite forms:
  • Infinitive: avoir (earlier aveir)
  • Present participle: aiant
  • Past Participle: eut

Auxiliary verb: avoir

estre (to be)

Indicative Subjunctive Conditional Imperative
Present Simple Past Imperfect Future Present Imperfect Present

je suis fui (i)ere ; esteie > estoie (i)er; serai; estrai seie > soie fusse soi sereie > seroie; estreie > estroie
tu es, ies fus (i)eres ; esteies > estoies (i)ers; seras; estras seies > soies fusses sereies > seroies; estreies > estroies seies > soies
il est fu(t) (i)ere(t), (i)ert ; esteit > estoit (i)ert; sera(t); estra(t) seit > soit fust sereit > seroit; estreit > estroit
nous somes, esmes fumes eriiens, erions ; estiiens, estions (i)ermes; serons; estrons seiiens, seions > soiiens, soions fuss-ons/-iens seriiens, serions; estriiens, estrions seiiens > soiiens, seions > soions
vous estes fustes eriiez ; estiiez --; sere(i)z; estre(i)z seiiez > soiiez fuss-eiz/-ez/-iez seriiez; estriiez seiiez > soiiez
ils sont furent (i)erent ; esteient > estoient (i)erent; seront; estront seient > soient fussent sereient > seroient; estreient > estroient

Non-finite forms:
  • Infinitive: estre
  • Present participle: estant
  • Past Participle: esté(t)

auxiliary verb: avoir (?)


Since Old French did not consist of a single standard, competing administrative varieties were propagated by the provincial courts and chanceries.

The French of Paris was one of a number of standards, including:

Derived languages

This Oïl language is the ancestor of several languages spoken today, including:


Main Article at Medieval French literature

See also


  1. The chart is based on phonologies given in Laborderie, Noëlle, Précis de Phonétique Historique, Nathan 1994; and in Rickard, Peter, A History of the French Language, 2nd edition, Routledge 1989, pp. 47-8.


  • de la Chaussée, François. (1977). Initiation à la morphologie historique de l'ancien français. Paris: Klincksieck. ISBN 2-252-10922-0
  • Delamarre, X. & Lambert, P. -Y. (2003). Dictionnaire de la langue gauloise : Une approche linguistique du vieux-celtique continental (2nd ed.). Paris: Errance. ISBN 2877722376
  • Kibler, William (1984). An Introduction to Old French. New York: Modern Language Association of America.
  • Lanly, André. (2002). Morphologie historique des verbes français. Paris: Champion. ISBN 2-7453-0822-X
  • Pope, M.K. (1934). From Latin to Modern French with Especial Consideration of Anglo-Norman Phonology and Morphology. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

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