Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 September 2012
To study the history of the French language, we must first revert to the questions we asked in the Introduction, concerning the definition of ‘French’. Today we think we know what the French language is: the lexicon, morphology, syntax, and phonology of the ‘educated native speaker’, sometimes supplemented by the geographical designation ‘Parisian’. That definition expresses a number of presuppositions: (1) the French language is the language of a particular social class in France; (2) some speakers are native and others are not, and the native speakers have special claims on authority; (3) speaking is more important than other language skills (hearing, writing, reading); (4) if ‘Parisian’ is included, that ‘standard’ French is indeed of geographical origin.
This definition of the French language has immediate implications for the linguistic analysis of the language. In this section we will consider how such a definition has developed and been supported by institutions of French government and society and how it influences the way the history of the French language has been approached. A history that accepts this definition looks for the changes of cultivated language from its origins, a triumphalist view of the current state of power within the French linguistic community. This approach excludes large amounts of data, and, particularly in the early stages of the language, when texts are few, leads one to view widely disparate texts as part of a single line of linguistic development.