Middle French (French: moyen français) is a historical division of
French language that covers the period from the 14th to the early
17th centuries. It is a period of transition during which:
French language became clearly distinguished from the other
competing Oïl languages, which are sometimes subsumed within the
Old French (ancien français)
French language was imposed as the official language of the
France in place of
Latin and other Oïl and Occitan
the literary development of French prepared the vocabulary and grammar
Classical French (français classique) spoken in the 17th and
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The most important change found in
Middle French is the complete
disappearance of the noun declension system (already underway 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
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 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 fascination with classical texts led to numerous borrowings from
Latin and Greek. Numerous neologisms based on
Latin roots were
introduced, and some scholars modified the spelling of French words to
bring them into conformity with their
Latin roots, sometimes
erroneously. This often produced a radical difference between a word's
spelling and the way it was pronounced.
The French wars in
Italy 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 Italian. These tendencies would continue through
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 French and Norman origin in England. Some words of Romance origin
now found their way back into French as doublets through war and
Also, the meaning and usage of many words from
Old French were
Spelling and punctuation in this period are extremely variable. The
introduction of printing in 1470 highlighted the need for reform in
spelling. One proposed reform came from Jacques Peletier du Mans, who
developed a phonetic spelling system and introduced new typographic
signs (1550); but this attempt at spelling reform was not followed.
This period saw the publication of the first French grammars and of
Latin dictionary of
Robert Estienne (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 François
Villon, Clément Marot, Rabelais, Montaigne, Ronsard, and the poets of
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
In French Canada's history,
Middle French is almost only encountered
when reading the travels of
Jacques Cartier in their original
versions, after which the history usually fast-forwards 65 years to
Samuel de Champlain, whose French is better characterised as
^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds.
(2017). "Middle French".
Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck
Institute for the Science of Human History.
^ Larousse, v.
^ Larousse, xxvi.
^ Larousse, vi, xiii-xiv, xvii; Bonnard, pp. 113–114.
^ Wartburg, p. 160; Bonnard, p. 114.
^ Bonnard, p. 114.
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.
Dictionnaire du Moyen Français
Romance languages (Classification)
North Italian dialects
Gallo-Italic of Sicily
Gallo-Italic of Basilicata
Mediterranean Lingua Franca
Central, Sardinian and Eastern
Italics indicate extinct languages
Bold indicates languages with more than 5 million speakers
Languages between parentheses are varieties of the langu