In the same way that scientists study ice samples from glaciers to understand the climate of the past, we can learn a lot about the history of a language by reflecting on the words that make them up.
Take English for example. We typically make a noun plural by adding an “s” on the end. So what about words such as:
child / children
ox / oxen?
Their “irregular” endings are traces from an era of proto-Germanic dominance, before the influence of romance languages took over.
These survivors of past eras are typically words that concern everyday living. Their usage needed to be sufficiently entrenched to resist the normalising thrust of clerics and academics.
The French words un œuf / des œufs, un bœuf / des bœufs are just such relics. The f is pronounced in the singular. In the plural it is dropped and the smile shape closes just a little:
un bœuf / des bœufs
un œuf / des œufs
Qui vole un œuf vole un bœuf
As French spelling became standardised, silent consonants were usually replaced by a silent x:
un cheval, des chevaux
un œil, des yeux
But the f in œufs and bœufs somehow survived the chop – a cheeky trap for language learners sent down to us from our ancestors.
Marseille, Nice, Monaco and Antibes all owe their names to the Phœnicians who settled in the south of France some 500 years before the Romans. The modern word for a novel – un roman – tells us that the name of the language spoken in France before France became France was le roman (un roman was a text written in that vernacular instead of Latin). The names François and Françoise are time capsules from the pre-modern era, their status as proper names protecting them from the vowel and spelling shifts that gave birth to the modern français / française.
Language shifted into what we now learn as standard French for many reasons. The word endings that provide classical written Latin with its grammatical purity weren’t so good for comprehensibility in spoken communication, particularly when there was interaction between different communities, and they were gradually replaced by the array of articles, prepositions and compound verbs that are at the heart of modern French. Because wording endings were less important, word order ended up defining meaning and therefore became more rigid.
Latin words were often eroded, so for example mater became la mère. But as French became a language of learned discourse it was found to be insufficiently rich in the expression of intellectual concepts, so the Latin words were imported again in a Frenchified form: la maternité, maternel, le matriarcat. Precisely because these second generation import words were invented, there behaviour and spelling is much more rules-based: for example, all concept words derived from Latin ending in -tion are feminine, (une institution, une révolution) and words derived from Latin that end in -age are masculine (un garage, un mariage…).
The desire to codify, the arrival of the printing press, l’Académie Française and universal education have all helped enshrine the notion of correct usage and the rules have scarcely changed over the last two hundred years. As good students we have no choice but to fear error and seek conformity: our errors will be errors. But as we do so, it’s not bad for morale to remember that the exercise is somewhat artificial, an intellectual construct built around the fearless evolution of the spoken word.