Obscenities and oaths: French languages before the Revolution

This essay was originally posted on Reddit’s AskHistorians forum in answers to the following question: “How true is this claim: ‘…in 1789, 50 percent of the French people did not speak [French] at all, and only 12 to 13 percent spoke it fairly well’?” I draw on a range of sources to answer it, including my older essay from this blog, “Alphabétisation,” which focuses on a later period than this essay. Below is a lightly adapted version combining several of my original answers on Reddit:

The phonetics professor Henry Higgins, lamenting the state of the English language in the classic musical “My Fair Lady,” compares the abundance of dialects and accents in English unfavorably to the state of French:

Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?

Norwegians learn Norwegian; the Greeks are taught their Greek.

In France every Frenchman knows

His language from “A” to “Zed.”

(The French don’t care what they do, actually,

As long as they pronounce it properly.)

To the degree Higgins’ views accurately reflected the linguistic landscape circa 1900, however, it was a recent development. Just a few decades earlier the country was still a maze of local languages, while rural areas of 18th Century France were in many ways a foreign country.

“Most subjects of Louis XVI spoke their own language or dialect”

In the 1740s, the astronomer Jacques Cassini (son of the more famous astronomer Giovanni Cassini, for whom the saturnal probe is named), sent an expedition out to fully map the country for the first time. When one of its geometers climbed Mont Gerbier de Jonc, “he could take in at a glance several small regions whose inhabitants barely knew of each other’s existence,” author Graham Robb writes in The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War. (my primary source for most of what follows).

“To walk in any direction for a day was to become incomprehensible,” Robb writes. “The people who saw the sun set behind the Gerbier de Jonc spoke one group of dialects; the people on the evening side spoke another. Forty miles to the north, the wine growers and silk-weavers of the Lyonnais spoke a different language altogether, which had yet to be identified and named by scholars. Yet another language was spoken in the region the traveller had left the day before, and though his own mother tongue, French, was a dialect of that language, he would have found it hard to understand the peasants who saw him pass” (3-4).

The insularity was especially pronounced in this region, the mountainous Massif Central, where “roads and byways came and went with the seasons… rivers were unnavigable” and “links to the rest of France practically non-existent.” Accentuating it was the truculent nature of the locals, who soon hacked Cassini’s geometer to death, apparently believing that a strangely clothed man pointing odd metal instruments at rocks was a sorcerer who was behind recent crop failures. A century later, another geographer said this region was best-viewed by balloon, but “only if the aeronaut can remain out of range of a rifle” (Robb, 5). But most other parts of France were only a little better. This was a country that was four-fifths rural at the time of the Revolution; “almost a third of the population (about ten million people) lived in isolated farms and cottages or in hamlets with fewer than thirty-five inhabitants and often no more than eight” (Robb, 13).

The French monarchy had tried to impose the French language from above, “requiring priests and those in liberal professions to speak French, and for church registers and public acts to be kept in French.” But “such controls only affected the surface of life in much of France,” Peter McPhee writes in A Social History of France: 1789-1914. “Most subjects of Louis XVI spoke their own language or dialect and lived within distinctive cultures of perception, language and ritual.”

Grégoire’s survey

In the first few years of the Revolution, the Abbé Henri Grégoire conducted a survey of language use in the whole country, asking each town hall questions like: “Did the people of the region have their own patois?” and “Could it be used to express intellectual concepts or was it riddled with obscenities and oaths?”

Everybody knew that the border regions included non-French speakers — Bretons, Basques, Flemings and Alsatians. And much of southern France spoke not French but a different Romance language, Occitan or langue d’oc. But even the ostensibly “French” or “Occitan” areas “turned out to be a muddle of incomprehensible dialects.”

In many parts, the dialect changed at the village boundary. Several respondents claimed that differences were perceptible at a distance of one league (less than three miles) and sometimes just a few feet, as the writer from Périgueux explained: ‘The patois’s reign ends at the river Nizonne. It is amazing to cross this little stream and to hear an entirely different patois, which sounds more like French.’ In the Jura, there were ‘almost as many different patois as there are villages’. Even plants and stars had their own local names, as if each little region lived under a different sky. (Robb, 50-51)

Though the patois (“‘language’ proper is spoken only in the capital,” the Encyclopédie wrote) were most prevalent in the countryside, peasants weren’t the only speakers.

The city of Lyon was a hive of micro-dialects: ‘The river people, the butchers, the silk-workers, the fish-wives and the herb-sellers each have a language all their own.’ In some southern regions, rich people, priests, scholars, lawyers and tradesmen all spoke the local dialect and ‘felt ill at ease when speaking French. If certain quartiers of paris had been included in the questionnaire, the Abbé might have added the communities of migrant workers who lived in the capital and whose dialects had a noticeable effect on the speech of Parisian workers. (Robb 52)

During the Revolution, in one Gascon département, “priests complained of peasants falling asleep during the reading of decrees from the Assembly, ‘because they [did] not understand a word, even though the decrees [were] read in a loud and clear voice and [were] explained.’ In consequence, successive assemblies encouraged the translation of decrees into local languages…” (McPhee, 38).

After his survey — presented to the National Convention on the very same day Robespierre was elected as the convention’s president — Grégoire concluded that “while France was the language of civilized Europe, France itself had no more than three million ‘pure’ French-speakers (11 per cent of the population), and many of them were unable to write it correctly.” More than six million couldn’t speak French at all, another six million “could barely conduct a conversation in it” (Robb 53).

In fact, Grégoire’s figures “were almost certainly an underestimate.”

Seventy years later, when official statistics treated a few days at school or the merest smattering of French as evidence of an ability to speak the language, many or most of the communes in fifty-three out of eight-nine départements were said to be non-French-speaking. In 1880, the number of people who felt comfortable speaking French was estimated to be about eight million (just over one-fifth of the population). (Robb 53. On page 54, he has an interesting map showing the spread of official French and dialects in 1863.)

An example of the linguistic differences

In an 1807 report, Napoleon’s interior minister ordered the prefect of every département to send translations of the parable of the Prodigal Son in the local patois.

This is the passage in English (King James Bible): “A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me.”

A 1744 translation by David Martin into French runs like this: “Un homme avait deux fils. Et le plus jeune dit à son père : mon père, donne-moi la part du bien qui m’appartient; et il leur partagea ses biens.”

Below are six different translations, a sequence which “follows the arc of the Mediterranean, staying within forty miles of the coast, from the eastern Pyrenees to Marseille. The average distance between each phrase is forty-six miles”:

French for elites

In much of the country, French was spoken — as a language for elites. Around 1780, an abbé from the southern Alps traveled through the Auvergne and remarked, “I was never able to make myself understood by the peasants I met on the road. I spoke to them in French, I spoke to them in my native patois, I even tried to speak to them in Latin, but all to no avail. When at last I was tired of talking to them without their understanding a word, they in their turn spoke to me in a language of which I could make no more sense” (McPhee, 8-9. The Auvergnat peasants probably spoke a dialect of Occitan. The abbé’s local patois may have been his likeliest bet, as his village probably spoke Vivaro-Alpine, which is also a langue d’oc.) A century later, in some parts of the country, “prefects, doctors, priests and policemen were like colonial officials, baffled by the natives and forced to use interpreters” (Robb 53).

Outside of the Massif Central, the same problem existed in many regions of France. France’s northern frontier region spoke Flemish, while a million Celts lived in Brittany, which though not mountainous could be no less inhospitable and isolating a territory than the area around Mont Gerbier de Jonc. “It is difficult to picture those Breton forests as they really were,” Victor Hugo wrote in what Robb describes as resembling a “science fiction anthropology” in tone, though Hugo “had covered more miles on foot than any historian of France” and knew something of what he was talking about (Robb, 14).

“Nothing could be more secret, silent and savage than those inextricable entanglements of thorns and branches. In those vast thickets, stillness and quietness made their lair. No desert ever appeared more deathlike and sepulchral,” Hugo wrote, in his novel Quatrevingt-treize or Ninety-Three — though he noted that the forest was not nearly as desolate as it appeared. If the trees could be magically removed, “as if by a flash of lightning, there would have stood revealed in those shades a swarming mass of men.”

South of the Loire in the Vendée, which would resist the Revolution like no other region of France, “unmapped tracks ran for hundreds of miles through deep tunnels of vegetation. An aerial view would have shown a typical bocage landscape of fields marked off by trees and bushes. (But) on the ground, it was a muddy labyrinth sunk in a limitless wood” (Robb 15).

Robb notes that the “faceless millions” who lived and spoke in a different world from Paris did so in large part because their “patterns of settlement” made them “just as difficult to educate as… to conquer” (17).

Change slow to come

Even after the Revolution, this situation changed only slowly. An 1833 law mandated a school for boys in every village but set minimal standards; the schools could be public or private and were in many places Catholic. “Many village teachers had been little more than skivvies: they helped the priest at mass, rang the bells, sang in the choir and were paid the same as a day-labourer, sometimes more if they could read and write,” Robb writes (322, emphasis added).

As late as 1872, around 30 percent of the French population 6 years old or older were illiterate (and illiteracy was higher among adults over 20 than it was among children). In some départements, less than half the population could read or write, and in the rural parts of those departments the illiteracy rate was doubtlessly higher (Frederick Martin, The Statesman’s Year-Book: Statistical and Historical Annual of the States of the Civilised World: Handbook for Politicians and Merchants for the year 1876).

I previously made a map of French literacy rates in the 1872 Census:


Under the French Third Republic, especially from the 1880s on, this situation finally changed. The republican government passed universal, secular education and increased its education spending from 2.3 percent of the budget in 1881 to 6 percent in 1913 (François Caron, An Economic History of Modern France).

But the limited literacy rates didn’t only reflect lack of effort by the central authorities. It was also, in many cases, what the illiterate, dialect-speaking locals wanted.

Many parents were reluctant to send their sons and daughters to school when they needed them for the harvest. Inspectors often found that girls were kept out of school to work as seamstresses in filthy sweatshops where they spent the day with relatives and neighbors, learning the local traditions and values that their mothers considered to be a proper education. Above all, many parents were afraid that once they learned to speak and write French like Parisians, their children would leave for the city and never come home.

“Their fears were justified,” Robb wrote. The Third Republic’s project involved not just teaching people to read, but teaching them to read — and speak — French.

War on patois under the Third Republic

“The eradication of patois as a first language became a cornerstone of education policy,” Robb writes. “Schoolchildren were punished for using words they had learned at their mother’s knee. A pupil who was heard speaking patois was made to carry a stick or some other token that was then passed on to the next offender. The pupil who had the signum at the end of the day was thrashed, given lines or made to clean the toilets” (325).

This war on patois persisted for a long time. “There are Bretons still alive who remember the mortifying difficulty of learning French — ‘a language whose words were like half-empty boxes, and you weren’t even sure what was inside them’ — and the endless insults from sneering teachers and patronizing newspaper articles.”

That said, this only went so far. Official policy included a degree of “tactful decentralization”; many teachers “were also local historians and were saddened by the disappearance of local languages and dialects. Some taught in dialect as well as French and believed that an ability to use both languages was an asset. They forced their pupils to use French, not because they wanted to stamp out minority cultures, but because they wanted their pupils to pass examinations, to have the means of discovering the outside world, to improve the lot of their families,” Robb writes. (These good intentions did not necessarily make the experience any more pleasant.) Even in Brittany, where the anti-patois push was fiercest, “the French Republic never led the sort of full-scale linguistic assault on its population that made life so miserable in Alsace-Lorraine after the annexation by Germany in 1870” (327).

Still, many of these local languages survive to this day — albeit in greatly atrophied states. In a population of roughly 67 million, there are around 610,000 Occitan speakers, 570,000 speakers of langues d’oïl (the same linguistic family that includes mainstream French) dialects, 140,000 speakers of Franco-Provençal, about 550,000 speakers of Alsatian, 280,000 Breton-speakers, 200,000 Corsican-speakers, “anywhere from 30,000 to 400,000” speakers of Lorraine Franconian, 50,000 Basque-speakers and unknown numbers speaking Catalan and Gallo-Italic. Many of these languages are spoken primarily by the elderly, as with Breton, where more than half of the remaining speakers are older than 60. (Shannon Kennedy, “A Look at the Languages and Dialects of France”)

Dead dialects

Some dialects have died out completely, especially those only ever used by very small groups of people. Among the more fascinating (all from Robb 60-61):

“If such a remarkable language escaped detection,” Robb writes, “many other quieter dialects must have died out before they could be identified.”

Other dialects survive

But the outlook for these languages has improved lately and may not be as dire as it sometimes seems.

“The dormancy of the local language could create the impression — often a false impression — that it was disappearing,” Robb writes. “For the last hundred and fifty years, examples of ‘pure’ patois have been collected from people invariably described as ‘old’, as if a separate, senescent species somehow propagates itself and its language without ever growing young. Generation after generation, countless people said the same thing: that the old language was spoken now only by the old people. A woman in the small Alsatian town of Thann told me this (in French) in 2004. She was probably born in the early 1970s. It turned out, however, that when she talked to her little daughter at home, she used Alstatian. The younger woman who was with her was introduced — and introduced herself — as an example of the generation that has almost forgotten the language and will see the last speakers of it die away. Yet she, too, spoke Alsatian with her mother and grandmother. She also took many of her school classes in Alsatian. She could easily have told me in Alsatian that Alstatian was dying out” (Robb, 66).