Post-classical history

French Language in the Levant

The language used among the Franks of Outremer and Cyprus in written and oral communication was a form of Old French, recorded from the beginning of the thirteenth century and articulated in different local varieties. Italian dialects were diffused among traders and sailors in the coastal cities. Arabic was the mother tongue of most of the local population of Outremer, whether Muslim, Christian, or Jewish, while Armenian, Syriac, and Greek were also spoken, especially in the northern states. In Cyprus, Greek was the language of the majority native population.

The early emergence of French as a literary language (and the high level attained by this literature in verse and prose) favored its spread all over western Europe, where, at the time, the choice of a vernacular for literary purposes was relatively independent of the nationality of the author. The diffusion of French in the Levant may be considered an important (although often ignored) step in this process: during the twelfth century, it became the language of the ruling class in Outremer, much of which had a Northern French origin. French acquired the status of an international vehicular language in the eastern Mediterranean, together with Greek, Arabic, and some Italian dialects, diffused in the same area but in different sociolinguistic domains.

In Outremer and Cyprus, French was used, together with Latin, for a wide range of written texts: chronicles (e.g., Chronique d’Ernoul, Gestes des Chiprois), moralistic treaties (e.g., La Dime depenitance by Jean de Journy, Quatre âges de l’homme by Philip of Novara), legal handbooks (e.g., Livre en forme de plait by Philip of Novara, Livre des Assises by John of Ibelin), translations (e.g., Rhetorica ad Herennium and Cicero’s De inventione as translated by John of Antioch, Boethius’s Consolatio Philosophiae as translated by Peter of Paris), celebrative inscriptions, and funeral epitaphs.

French was employed as an administrative language, and many documents (e.g., charters, wills, commercial transactions, and statutes) were recorded in it. Given the influential position of its users, it could also serve as a diplomatic language in international political relations: the Venetian Archives preserve later copies of French documents addressed to Venetian authorities by al-Nāsir Yûsuf, ruler of Aleppo (1254) and by the kings of Cilicia Leon II (1272), Leon III (1307), and Leon IV (1321). The originals were probably written in Arabic or Armenian and then translated into French in the chanceries of Aleppo and Sis.

Presumably, the use of French for written texts was paralleled in Outremer by its employment in oral communication, but evidence for this is scanty and often indirect. The upper layer of Frankish society was mainly of northern French origin, with significant Provençal (Occitan) and Italian elements. The spread of French in this aristocratic milieu seems plausible, and is witnessed by the vernacular literature addressed to or sponsored by this social class, mirroring its tastes and values. It is more difficult to assess the linguistic medium of the lower layers of society: probably there were many, depending on ethno-religious affiliations, on social and professional ranks, and on relationships with other groups and communities. French may well have experienced a massive expansion among Western settlers, who had quite diverse origins. A good number of these settlers arrived in Outremer together with their lords, either bound by feudal obligations or enticed by the possibilities of social ascent offered in a frontier land. And since the majority of the nobles of Outremer came from French-speaking areas, so too did their followers.

Arabic was employed as a literary, religious, and administrative language, but its knowledge was unusual among Franks, as may be inferred by the frequent reference to interpreters (often Eastern Christians) in contemporary sources, where the ability of Franks to understand, speak, read, or write Arabic is considered exceptional and worth mentioning. Greek, too, enjoyed the status of a language of culture and worship among many of the Arabic-speaking Christians on the mainland. In spite of the segmented character of the society of Outremer, there were contacts, and sometimes permanent relations, among individuals and groups belonging to different social layers or communities. These contacts are reflected in loan-words: hundreds of lexical items of Greek, Arabic, Persian, or Turkish origin entered western European languages during the Middle Ages; the focal points of this linguistic exchange were the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily, and Outremer. Most of the exotic words that came from Outremer refer to the fields of trade and navigation, and, not surprisingly, were brought to western Europe via Italian dialects, mainly Venetian, Genoese, and Tuscan. But French also played a role, although a minor one, in this impressive process of lexical borrowing.

Characterizing the French of Outremer is not an easy task: its description is necessarily based on written texts, and therefore ignores the language of the illiterate part of society, which made up the majority. Moreover, most of the literary (and some of the legal and administrative) texts originally written in Outremer were later copied elsewhere, so that they reflect the linguistic habits of their scribes more than that of their writers. Finally, the few surviving texts written and copied in Outremer have often been poorly edited, and therefore cannot be used as reliable sources for linguistic inquiry. However, thanks to some good (and usually recent) editions, it is possible to sketch a tentative characterization.

The French of Outremer was the outcome of a situation of interdialectal contact, due to the presence in Outremer of settlers from different French-speaking regions, in a wider context of interlinguistic contact. Because of its geographical remoteness and its peculiar nature, Outremer French was less affected by the leveling influence of the Parisian dialect, a long-lasting process of standardization that began in the thirteenth century and concluded only in modern times. Literary texts, especially those with artistic pretensions, were usually closer to European French norms than documentary or practical texts, which could more directly reflect everyday speech.

After the loss of Outremer to the Mamlûks in 1291, Cyprus inherited the role, cultural traditions, and to some extent the social structures of the Frankish states of the mainland, but it suffered a gradual weakening of its Latin or Frankish character. French was still widely used on the island in the fourteenth century as a literary and administrative language, and was commonly spoken by Franks. However, the local population (whether nobles, bourgeois, or peasants) predominantly spoke Greek, and the political and economic expansion of Venice and Genoa increased the growth of Italian colonies, leading to the spread of Italian dialects all over the eastern Mediterranean. In the fifteenth century, French was still used in the royal chancery of Cyprus, and probably in some aristocratic groups, but it was losing ground to its strongest competitors, Greek and Venetian. The native Cypriot nobility recovered its cultural self-consciousness, and through mixed marriages with Frankish aristocrats, it regained its powerful position as a ruling class, favoring the oral use of Greek and its literary revival after a long period of decline. Some Cypriot documents dating to the late fourteenth or to the fifteenth centuries show an inextricable intermingling of (northern) Italian and French, although it is difficult to say whether these texts portray an effective situation of language mixing or a written bureaucratic convention. The island’s incorporation into the Venetian mercantile empire continued until it was completed in 1489. For nearly a century, Cyprus was a Venetian island, and an italianized form of Venetian (or a venetianized form of Italian) replaced French in all its remaining official functions. On the eve of the Turkish conquest (1571), the Venetian Senate ordered the translation into Italian and publication of the Assises de la Haute Cour du Royaume de Chypre, the traditional legal texts that Venetian officers were no longer able to read.

It is possible to identify at least two local varieties of Levantine French: one in Outremer and the other in Cyprus; the latter is much better documented than the former, its documentation covering almost three centuries. Possibly this dialectal variation, at least at phonetic and lexical levels, was due to the linguistic substratum or adstratum, which was Arabic in the case ofOutremer, and Greek in that of Cypriot French. Both varieties share a number of linguistic features, at graphical, phonetic, morphological, syntactic, and lexical levels. Among those, we can mention: use of the grapheme -z- for -s- (espouze, iglize) and -h- for -s- (amohne, dihme); preference for -ou- forms over those with -eu-, both from Latin long O (doulour, seignour); monophthongation of the diphthongs -ei- > -e- (fes, saver) and -ui- > -u- (nut, redure); preservation of the final consonant in words like leuc, feuc; extension to the singular of the plural ending -au(s) in words with final -l (cazau, mareschau); occasional postposition of the personal pronoun to the infinitive (avoir les, tenir le). The field of lexicon is certainly what givesOutremer French its characteristic flavor: there are general French words that acquired a specialized meaning in the Latin East (bain, poulain); some regional French words that gained general diffusion in Outremer (mermer, delier); and several loan-words from Arabic (fonde < Arab. funduq, mathessep < Arab. muhtāsib) and Greek (apodixe < Gr. apodeixis, pitare < Gr. pitharia). The wordapaut (< Lat. appactum) was apparently coined by French and Italian notaries in Outremer and then spread overseas.

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