Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

FRENCH LANGUAGE.

The French language did not begin to assume a regular form until the tenth century; it sprang from the remains of the Latin and the Celtic, mixed with a few Teutonic words. This language was, in the first instance, the provincial Roman, and the Teutonic was the language of the courts, until the time of Charles the Bald. The Teutonic remained the only language in Germany, after the grand epoch of the division in 433. The rustic Roman prevailed in Western France; the inhabitants of the Pays de Vaud, of the Valois, of the valley of Engadine, and some other cantons, still preserve some manifest vestiges of this idiom.

At the commencement of the eleventh century, French began to be written; but this French retained more of Romance or rustic Roman than of the language of the present day. The romance of Philomena, written in the tenth century, is not very different in language from that of the laws of the Normans. We cannot yet trace the original Celtic, Latin, and German. The words which signify the members of the human body, or things in daily use, which have no relation to the Latin or German, are of ancient Gallic or Celtic, as tête, jambe, sabre, point, aller, parler, écouter, regarder, crier, cotume, ensemble, and many more of the same kind. The greater number of the warlike phrases were French or German, as marche, halte, maréchal, bivouac, lansquenet. Almost all the rest are Latin, and the Latin words have been all abridged, according to the usage and genius of the nations of the north.

In the twelfth century, some terms were borrowed from the philosophy of Aristotle; and toward the sixteenth century, Greek names were found for the parts of the human body, and for its maladies and their remedies. Although the language was then enriched with Greek, and aided from the time of Charles VIII. with considerable accessions from the Italian, already arrived at perfection, it did not acquire a regular form. Francis I. abolished the custom of pleading and of judging in Latin, which proved the barbarism of a language which could not be used in public proceedings — a pernicious custom to the natives, whose fortunes were regulated in a language which they could not understand. It then became necessary to cultivate the French, but the language was neither noble nor regular, and its syntax was altogether capricious. The genius of its conversation being turned towards pleasantry, the language became fertile in smart and lively expressions, but exceedingly barren in dignified and harmonious phrases; whence it arises that in the dictionaries of rhymes, twenty suitable words are found for comic poetry for one of poetry of a more elevated nature. This was the cause that Marot never succeeded in the serious style, and that Amyot was unable to give a version of the elegant simplicity of Plutarch.

The French tongue acquired strength from the pen of Montaigne, but still wanted elevation and harmony. Ronsard injured the language by introducing into French poetry the Greek compounds, derivable from the physicians. Malherbe partly repaired the fault of Ronsard. It became more lofty and harmonious by the establishment of the French Academy, and finally in the age of Louis XIV. acquired the perfection by which it is now distinguished.

The genius of the French language — for every language has its genius — is clearness and order. This genius consists in the facility which a language possesses of expressing itself more or less happily, and of employing or rejecting the familiar terms of other languages. The French tongue having no declensions, and being aided by articles, cannot adopt the inversions of the Greek and the Latin; the words are necessarily arranged agreeably to the course of the ideas. We can only say in one way, “Plancus a pris soin des affaires de Cæsar”; but this phrase in Latin, “Res Cæsaris, Plancus diligenter curavit,” may be arranged in a hundred and twenty different forms without injuring the sense or rules of the language. The auxiliary verbs, which lengthen and weaken phrases in the modern tongues, render that of France still less adapted to the lapidary style. Its auxiliary verbs, its pronouns, its articles, its deficiency of declinable participles, and, lastly, its uniformity of position, preclude the exhibition of much enthusiasm in poetry; it possesses fewer capabilities of this nature than the Italian and the English; but this constraint and slavery render it more proper for tragedy and comedy than any language in Europe. The natural order in which the French people are obliged to express their thoughts and construct their phrases, infuses into their speech a facility and amenity which please everybody; and the genius of the nation suiting with the genius of the language, has produced a greater number of books agreeably written than are to be found among any other people.

Social freedom and politeness having been for a long time established in France, the language has acquired a delicacy of expression, and a natural refinement which are seldom to be found out of it. This refinement has occasionally been carried too far; but men of taste have always known how to reduce it within due bounds.

Many persons have maintained that the French language has been impoverished since the days of Montaigne and Amyot, because expressions abound in these authors which are no longer employed; but these are for the most part terms for which equivalents have been found. It has been enriched with a number of noble and energetic expressions, and, without adverting to the eloquence of matter, has certainly that of speech. It was during the reign of Louis XIV., as already observed, that the language was fixed. Whatever changes time and caprice may have in store, the good authors of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries will always serve for models.

Circumstances created no right to expect that France would be distinguished in philosophy. A Gothic government extinguished all kind of illumination during more than twelve centuries; and professors of error, paid for brutalizing human nature, more increased the darkness. Nevertheless, there is more philosophy in Paris than in any town on earth, and possibly than in all the towns put together, excepting London. The spirit of reason has even penetrated into the provinces. In a word, the French genius is probably at present equal to that of England in philosophy; while for the last four-score years France has been superior to all other nations in literature; and has undeniably taken the lead in the courtesies of society, and in that easy and natural politeness, which is improperly termed urbanity.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25