Random Quote #95 topic: voltaire-dict, Philosophical Dictionary by Voltaire, 1694-1778


The French language did not begin to have any form until towards the
tenth century; it was born from the ruins of Latin and Celtic, mixed
with a few Germanic words. This language was first of all the _romanum
rusticum_, rustic Roman, and the Germanic language was the court
language up to the time of Charles the Bald; Germanic remained the sole
language of Germany after the great epoch of the partition of 843.
Rustic Roman, the Romance language, prevailed in Western France; the
people of the country of Vaud, of the Valais, of the Engadine valley,
and of a few other cantons, still retain to-day manifest vestiges of
this idiom.

At the end of the tenth century French was formed; people wrote in
French at the beginning of the eleventh; but this French still retained
more of Rustic Roman than the French of to-day. The romance of
Philomena, written in the tenth century in rustic Roman, is not in a
tongue very different from that of the Norman laws. One still remarks
Celtic, Latin and German derivations. The words signifying the parts of
the human body, or things of daily use, and which have nothing in common
with Latin or German, are in old Gaulish or Celtic, such as _tete_,
_jambe_, _sabre_, _pointe_, _aller_, _parler_, _ecouter_, _regarder_,
_aboyer_, _crier_, _coutume_, _ensemble_, and many others of this kind.
Most of the terms of war were Frank or German: _Marche_, _halte_,
_marechal_, _bivouac_, _reitre_, _lansquenet_. All the rest is Latin;
and all the Latin words were abridged, according to the custom and
genius of the nations of the north; thus from _palatium_, palais; from
_lupus_, loup; from _Auguste_, aout; from _Junius_, juin; from _unctus_,
oint; from _purpura_, pourpre; from _pretium_, prix, etc. Hardly were
there left any vestiges of the Greek tongue, which had been so long
spoken at Marseilles.

In the twelfth century there began to be introduced into the language
some of the terms of Aristotle's philosophy; and towards the sixteenth
century one expressed by Greek terms all the parts of the human body,
their diseases, their remedies; whence the words _cardiaque_,
_cephalique_, _podagre_, _apoplectique_, _asthmatique_, _iliaque_,
_empyeme_, and so many others. Although the language then enriched
itself from the Greek, and although since Charles VIII. it had drawn
much aid from Italian already perfected, the French language had not yet
taken regular consistence. Francois Ier abolished the ancient custom of
pleading, judging, contracting in Latin; custom which bore witness to
the barbarism of a language which one did not dare use in public
documents, a pernicious custom for citizens whose lot was regulated in a
language they did not understand. One was obliged then to cultivate
French; but the language was neither noble nor regular. The syntax was
left to caprice. The genius for conversation being turned to
pleasantries, the language became very fertile in burlesque and naive
expressions, and very sterile in noble and harmonious terms: from this
it comes that in rhyming dictionaries one finds twenty terms suitable
for comic poetry, for one for more exalted use; and it is, further, a
reason why Marot never succeeded in a serious style, and why Amyot could
render Plutarch's elegance only with naivete.

French acquired vigour beneath the pen of Montaigne; but it still had
neither nobility nor harmony. Ronsard spoiled the language by bringing
into French poetry the Greek compounds which the doctors and
philosophers used. Malherbe repaired Ronsard's mischief somewhat. The
language became more noble and more harmonious with the establishment of
the Academie Francaise, and acquired finally, in the reign of Louis
XIV., the perfection whereby it might be carried into all forms of

The genius of this language is order and clarity; for each language has
its genius, and this genius consists in the facility which the language
gives for expressing oneself more or less happily, for using or
rejecting the familiar twists of other languages. French having no
declensions, and being always subject to the article, cannot adopt Greek
and Latin inversions; it obliges words to arrange themselves in the
natural order of ideas. Only in one way can one say "_Plancus a pris
soin des affaires de Cesar._" That is the only arrangement one can give
to these words. Express this phrase in Latin--_Res Caesaris Plancus
diligenter curavit_: one can arrange these words in a hundred and twenty
ways, without injuring the sense and without troubling the language. The
auxiliary verbs which eke out and enervate the phrases in modern
languages, still render the French tongue little suited to the concise
lapidary style. The auxiliary verbs, its pronouns, its articles, its
lack of declinable participles, and finally its uniform gait, are
injurious to the great enthusiasm of poetry, in which it has less
resources than Italian and English; but this constraint and this bondage
render it more suitable for tragedy and comedy than any language in
Europe. The natural order in which one is obliged to express one's
thoughts and construct one's phrases, diffuses in this language a
sweetness and easiness that is pleasing to all peoples; and the genius
of the nation mingling with the genius of the language has produced more
agreeably written books than can be seen among any other people.

The pleasure and liberty of society having been long known only in
France, the language has received therefrom a delicacy of expression and
a finesse full of simplicity barely to be found elsewhere. This finesse
has sometimes been exaggerated, but people of taste have always known
how to reduce it within just limits.

Many persons have thought that the French language has become
impoverished since the time of Amyot and Montaigne: one does indeed
find in many authors expressions which are no longer admissible; but
they are for the most part familiar expressions for which equivalents
have been substituted. The language has been enriched with a quantity of
noble and energetic expressions; and without speaking here of the
eloquence of things, it has acquired the eloquence of words. It is in
the reign of Louis XIV., as has been said, that this eloquence had its
greatest splendour, and that the language was fixed. Whatever changes
time and caprice prepare for it, the good authors of the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries will always serve as models.


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