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The Napoleon Series > Resources > 18th And 19th Century Society

Research Subjects: 19th Century Society

A Simple Matter of Speaking French

By Tom Holmberg

At the time of the Revolution the average Frenchman's experience of the world was extremely limited. It was more than likely that an individual who lived in rural France would live, marry and die within 10 kilometers of where they were born. Peasants living only a short distance apart, separated perhaps by a river or range of hills, might well have their own distinctive dress, customs and speech inflections or accents. Before the Revolution the kings of France generally had preferred to maintain the particular characteristics and institutions of newly annexed territories. As a result, the provinces of France displayed an enormous diversity of size, institutions, history, customs, privileges and, most particularly, language. This issue of language is infrequently discussed in histories of the Revolution and almost never discussed in the histories of the Empire.

During the Revolution however the issues of unity and "nationhood" conflicted with those of diversity and regionalism. In the Year II, the Abbe Gregoire reported to the government [1] on the use of the French language in France. He estimated that out of a population of about 28 million, there were at least 6 million Frenchmen who were ignorant of the French language and another 6 million who could not carry on a conversation in it. This is not including those French-speakers who were illiterate (or in the case of the Empire, non-French serving in the French armies).

Gregoire identified some 30 different patois, dialects and languages that were spoken within the borders of France, these include Bas-Breton, Bourguignon, Bressan, Lyonnais, Dauphinois, Auvergnat, Poitevin, Limousin, Picard, Provencal, Languedocien, Valayen, Bearnais, Roergat and Gascon. Among the largest groups of the non-Francophone population were the approximately one million Breton-speakers, one million German speakers, 100,000 Basque-speakers, 100,000 Catalan speakers, as well as those speaking Flemish and Italian. In fact, only a sixth of the departments around Paris were exclusively French speaking.

In the Christmas carols of the Midi, the angels spoke French, but the shepherds answered in Provencal. In Perpignan, priests were still preaching in Catalan in the 1870s. An observer from Gascon-speaking Lot-et-Garonne pointed out that "the reading out of [Revolutionary] decress bores [the populace] - this is because they do not understand a word, even though the decrees are read in a loud and clear voice and are explained." In 1864 the minister of Education found that in 18 French departments 60% of the population did not speak French.

This linguistic diversity was of particular concern to the Revolutionary governments who saw France as a single unified entity. This ultimately led to a sort of linguistic nationalism. As the Jacobin grammarian Francois-Urbain Domergue wrote: "As children of the same family, we must have the same thought and be moved by the same sentiment," adding that "it is very hard to be united by opinions when you are separated by language." Gregoire in his Rapport wrote hopefully of a future "epoch when these feudal idioms shall have disappeared." Bertrand Barere, a member of the Committee of Public Safety, less charitable, said (in his speech of 8 Pluvoise Year II) that federalism and superstition spoke Breton, emigration and hatred spoke German, the counter-revolution spoke Italian, and fanaticism spoke Basque, adding, "Let us break these harmful instruments of error." In 1794, St.-Just had dreams of resettling the German-speakers of Alsace to central France in order to "Frenchify" this border region. The Alsatian towns would be renamed for soldiers who had died fighting for the Republic.

In fact the Revolutionary and Napoleonic armies were an important force in ultimately bringing about a greater cultural and linguistic unity to France, in part by mixing individuals from various regions of France together and by requiring officers and non-commissioned officers to be able to read and write French. The armies strove for at least a degree of comprehension of French by non-Francophone conscripts, although this was certainly no overnight process. And as Stuart Woolf points out in his Napoleon's Integration of Europe (p. 2): "as a result of Napoleonic conscription, every French peasant family must have acquired knowledge of one or more of the countries of Europe directly or indirectly, through the military experiences of relatives or neighbors." With this widening of their horizons came an increased feeling of being a Frenchman, rather than just an inhabitant of their province, region or village.


  1. Rapport Sur La Necessite Et Les Moyens D'aneantir Les Patois Et D'univeraliser L'usage De La Langue Francaise.
  2. For a fuller examination of this issue see: "Regionalism and Linguistic Conformity in the French Revolution." by Martyn Lyons. In Reshaping France: Town, Country And Region During The French Revolution. Ed. by Alan Forrest and Peter Jones. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991)


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