Episode 44: The Romance of Old French

The modern French language evolved from a Latin dialect spoken in Gaul during the period of the late Roman Empire. That language ultimately became mixed with Old English after the Norman Conquest of 1066. Approximately half of the words in conversational English come from French.  So in this episode, we explore the ultimate origins of the early Romance dialect known as ‘Old French.’  We also examine the impact which the early French language had on English. And along the way, we look at the evolution of the Frankish kingdom from Clovis to Charlemagne.


27 thoughts on “Episode 44: The Romance of Old French

  1. I know I’m a long way behind but I just listened to this episode on a plane today. It was one of my favourite episodes because I study Romance languages and I’m really interested in this time period. I wish I had more time to catch up, but in any case I continue to be super impressed with this podcast. I found the herb debate fascinating because my wife is an ‘erb’ pronouncer, while I am a ‘herb’ guy (she says that when she hears me say ‘herbs’, it makes her think of a group of men, all named Herb).

    One small correction: the Spanish verb for ‘to speak’ is hablar, not habler.

  2. Okay I’m even farther behind but this episode raises a question for me and maybe you can answer it.

    I speak Portuguese and Spanish. I had always learned that Portuguese is a descendent of Spanish, not from Latin directly. As such I assumed that the Portuguese verb “falar” for “to speak”, come from the Spanish “hablar”. (There are a few words in Portuguese that have an “f” where spanish has an “h”- such as fazenda and hacienda).

    But now I’m wondering if the “falar” is actually more related to the other “parabola”.

    Tl;dr – Is the portuguese word for “to speak” cognate with the Spanish “hablar” or with the French “parlay”? And, secondarily, is Portuguese really a derivative of Spanish?

    • I am not an expert on Portuguese, but I don’t think it is accurate to say that Portuguese descended from Spanish. It evolved from a distinct Vulgar Latin dialect spoken in the western portion of the Iberian Peninsula.

      According to my sources, Portuguese “falar” is derived from Latin “fabula” meaning a story or speech. The Latin root is also the source of the word “fable” in English. It’s also another one of those Latin words with the “fa” root related to the mouth (see “fame,” “profess,” “profane,” etc.).

      Modern Spanish “habler” is indeed derived from this same Latin root word. However, it does not appear to be related to “parler” in French.

      • A minor correction: the Spanish verb “hablar” is an -ar verb, not an -er verb.

        Love the podcast. I’ve been on a steady diet for a few months, so at this rate maybe I’ll be caught up by the end of 2024 or thereabouts.

  3. I think I might be *even further* behind on the podcast, being very ‘Johnny come lately’, starting in January 2017, but I am nonetheless very enthusiastic and have already converted my wife and a friend to it! Thank you Kevin for such a brilliantly researched, elegantly constructed and incredibly informative podcast.

  4. Hi. I’m even further behind than the people above, but I’m loving this podcast. The detail about the different ways the sound changes happened and the “time capsule” element of differences in Latin dialects were particularly fascinating.

    A couple of details. Charlemagne actually left his kingdom intact to his son Louis the Pious, and it was Louis’s death that triggered the break-up. And the actual partition treaty was the Partition of Verdun – the Oaths of Strasbourg represented a treaty between two of the brothers against the other.

  5. I enjoyed your explanation of the “ch” spellings. It made me want to go back to your podcast where you covered the evolution of the pronunciation of the “gh” spellings that went from the gutteral consonant (like modern German “ch”) to silent, w or f, but I cannot remembers which podcast that was. Do you recall?

  6. We all have less common words we tends to use (Think “Agreeable” and Jane Austen). I love the fact, you seem to use “giddy” also a favourite of mine, but I’d had no idea the meaning had shifted so much!

  7. I would say that there are other Germanic languages that has the ” j ” – sound, like in ” jungle ” or ” German ”
    Older forms of Swedish had several words with that sound. Nowadays it is preserved in the Swedish dialect spoken in parts of Finland.
    For example: ” djungle” or “djävlar “.
    Meaning: jungle and devils.
    In Sweden today it is mostly pronounced with a
    ” y ” sound but among Swedish speaking people in Finland it is a ” j ” and marked by the ” dj ” spelling.

  8. I am fascinated by your podcast. As I speak tourist level French and German, I find language development amazing. My question is: ‘liver’ is from Latin, hepatic, that we physicians use is from the Greek, where did the French word ‘foie’ come from? Is it even an older word for liver?

    • Thanks for the feedback regarding the podcast. With respect to the French word ‘foie’, it appears to be derived from a Latin root word. Here is what the etymonline.com entry for “foie-gras” says about the word:

      “French ‘foie’ (liver) is cognate with Italian ‘fegato’, from Latin ‘*ficatum’.”

      The presence of the asterisk (*) before the Latin word ‘ficatum’ indicates that it is a theoretical Latin word that has been reconstructed using apparent cognates in other Romance languages, but it is not attested in any surviving Latin documents. So in short, ‘foie’ is apparently derived from a Latin root word based on apparent cognates in other languages, but very little is known about the word beyond that.

  9. I have been enjoying this outstanding podcast tremendously, but feel I must point out an error. Possibly it was in this episode that you mentioned that Charlemagne spoke Old French. If he did, it was as a second language.

    Charlemagne spoke a Germanic language although experts differ on the exact one, with some advocating for the little known Old Frankish, others for Old Franconian–essentially Old Dutch, and a small minority proposing something akin to Old High German.

    In later medieval times French artists did a good job of retroconning Charlemagne into the most French of French rulers ever, decorating his portraits with fleurs-de-lis and similar accoutrements, and so on, but that’s just revisionism.

  10. What an outstanding podcast!. I am a spanish speaking person from Argentina. I am very far behind, but I am enjoing it very much. Regarding the origin of romance languages, it Is interesting to note that there are some linguists that believe that they may come from a source other than latín. See Carme Jiménez Huertas’s book: “No venimos del latín”. There is an english language version available in Amazon. Thanks a lot. Rolando Silva Nigri.

  11. I am quite new to this amazing podcast but I just want to make one observation: you stated something like “There used to be an ‘old’ Jersey…” before New Jersey was created. I’d just like to point out that ‘Old Jersey’ is still very much in existence – indeed, I am writing this message from my house in [Old] Jersey! Also, you might be interested to know [if you don’t know already!] that ‘Old French’, from the time of the Norman Conquest of England, is still spoken here by a minority of the population (about 20% of the population of 100,000 people). It is known here as ‘Jersey Norman French’ or ‘Jerriaise’.

    • Thanks. I don’t remember the specific comment you referenced, but if I said that, it was probably for the benefit of American listeners who might not realize that there is another Jersey.

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