Skip to main content

Acadia, The Old Far - Really Really Old "Far West": Sprachbund and Kulturbund

A Sprachbund is the usual German term employed in linguistics in order to describe a language which has experienced a high level of convergence with another, and that as a consequence of this close proximity, the languages - be they genetically related or not - are "bound" together, meaning their mutual influence on one another can be felt in many ways. For instance, as it relates to the Indian Subcontinent, the fusion between the Dravidian (Tamil) and Indo-Aryan (Hindi) languages make the two unrelated language groups close as far as sharing many distinguishing features, and this aside from a commonly shared vocabulary in reference to the similar culture and values held by the two separate groups of speakers. Much the same can be observed in Romanian, an Italic language (from Latin), which because of the close proximity of other unrelated languages in Central and Southeastern Europe, basically the Slavic languages in the Balkans - around the Black Sea-, as a consequence of this geographic coexistence with Bulgarian for instance, Romanian and Bulgarian have over time come to share many distinguishing features.

Well, if you have read my previous article (see Acadian Prehistory) exploring the long history of interaction between the English and French languages - and all of the other related languages such as those that belong to the langues d'Oïl group, such as the Poitevin-Saintongeais variety that gave rise to Acadian/Cajun - then it is not surprising in the least to see English and French in general as a Sprachbund. English contains by far the most Latin borrowing of any Germanic language, whereas the French language is noticeably quite different that other Latin-derived languages (i.e. Italian, Spanish), since French contains a substrate influence from Gaulish (from the Celtic-speakers living in Gaul when Julius Caesar invaded it and imposed Roman rule and Latin along with it) and a superstrate influence from Frankish (Germanic). The Frankish kingdoms and subkingdoms were basically first restricted to the Ile-de-France where Paris is located, but eventually the name spread to all of what is modern-day France (again, read my previous article).

So basically, in a nutshell, the Celtic-speaking Gallic people under Roman rule spoke Latin with a Gallic accent, until the Frankish imposed their rule - and Germanic accent - years later after having carved themselves out a fair chunk of the Roman Empire in what would be eventually known as Francia or the Frankish Empire.

The Frankish Empire, 481 to 814

The French language can therefore trace back its Germanic influence to 481 when the Franks came to rule over this former Roman territory in Late Antiquity. This Celtic and Germanic influence is what distinguishes the French (and other langues d'Oïl) language from Latin-derived languages such as Italian and Spanish. The  Oïl accent opposes the Oc (Occitan) accent which dominates the South of France and which is more Latin. The Oïl accent heard in French Acadian is more from the Poitevin influence than from Parisian French variety, for "French" per se does not even exist yet at this early point in history. The Frankish borrowings passed into the Romance languages, meaning the vulgar forms of Latin that existed on the territory of Roman Gaul when the Germanic tribes invaded; Classical Latin was purely for scribal purposes, reading and writing, while in everyday usage, Old French - an artificial term that comprises such different dialectal forms of Latin as Francien ("French" from the Ile-de-France), Picard, Saintongeais, Occitan, etc... - basically it is in these precursors of "French" that inherited the Germanic borrowings. It is estimated that nearly close to a thousand Germanic Frankish terms were inherited by the these Romance languages, with only 400 that remain in Standard French today (Leclerc 1989: 339).

English inherited, it is estimated, nearly two-thirds of its vocabulary of words from French, mostly from Norman French since the Norman Conquest of England which is marked by the Battle of Hastings in 1066, where William the Conqueror defeated the English. Over the centuries, the English-speakers absorbed an astonishingly high percentage of words from the Norman language into their own. However, the reverse, with the English rule over France with the Angevin Empire (see previous article, Acadian Prehistory) did not have the same results on the "French" language(s), and this for the simple reason that most of the English rulers from the Angevin line were all originally from French pedigree and at this point in time the Kingdom of France was by far the most populated country in Europe and also the lingua franca of the epoch. As opposed to the thousands of French words which have passed into the English language since the 11th century Norman Conquest, in stark contrast to this the same cannot be said of English borrowings into French. As a matter of fact, English contributions to the French language are fairly recent in the history of the language, because up until the 17th century, the English linguistic influence was rather insignificant (Leclerc 1989: 349): a total of 8 English words borrowings in the 12th century, 2 in the 13th, 11 in the 14th, 6 in the 15th, 14 in the 16th, and then 67 in the 17th and 337 in the course of the 19th century (ibid. 349). As can be seen with these figures, the increase in English word borrowings into French coincided with the rise of the British Empire in the mid-17th century when England became the dominant colonial power in North America and India. The English words borrowed into French therefore usually had something to do with the exotic places and things being discovered in the course of their world conquest, along with other words typical to British morals, maritime trade, and political and judicial terms, equestrian sports, the newly established steam locomotive railroad system, and finally words that belong to the industrial revolution (Leclerc 1989: 349).

The cultural legacy of the British Empire is truly great, and until the 20th. century the English word borrowings were mostly inherited from the British, but then, henceforth, the English contribution would come by way of the United States of America. The U.S.A. would influence the French language and culture through cinema, industrial innovations, commerce, sports, science and technology, and... Well, to say the least, when all is said and done, the English contribution to the French language in the long run might possibly outnumber the Italian influence, which up until now was the most important one with a little over 1500 "italianismes" having incorporated themselves over time in French - especially since the Renaissance period (ibid. 347-49). 

Another important detail to consider is that with the increase of English borrowings into the French language in the mid-17th century, importantly this period also marks the foundation of the Académie française by Cardinal Richelieu, the "French Academy" responsible for the preservation of the French language. The Académie and its forty immortels - the name reserved for its members - is considered as the ultimate authority on all matters pertaining to the French language, its grammar and spelling. The origins of the Académie française date to the 1620s and 30s and was modeled on the Accedemia della Crusca, founded in Florence in 1582. The Académie française would help France do what the Accademia had done for Italian, having formally made the dominant Tuscan dialect of Florence the model for "Italian" as an official national language.

So far any of this sound familiar at all? Germanic speaking barbarians overrunning the Roman Empire - Roman Gaul - in the end influencing the vernacular Latin spoken their to the extent that the langues d'Oïl group would retain this trace of influence to this day in languages such as Francien (the precursor to Standard French) and Poitevin (the precursor to Acadian) - what linguists refer to as the superstrate influence or trace of Frankish. Latin gave way to vernacular forms of Latin in "France" between the 7th to 9th centuries, and Francien and Poitevin among other vernacular forms of Latin are the culminating result of this Frankish influence in the North of "France". Then there are the Germanic-speaking Vikings from Scandinavia (Norway or Sweden) that terrorized the Frankish rulers into giving them what would be known as Normandie, and then barely a century and a half later these Normans would rule over England. Ironically, the Germanic cultured Vikings somewhat assimilated into French customs and developed their own vernacular, Norman French which they imposed on the English. The Angevin Empire (again, see Acadian Prehistory) is another prime example of the Sprachbund (language convergence) and Kulturbund (convergence of cultures over time) over Germanic (Frankish, Scandinavian, English) and Latin vernaculars (Francien, Poitevin).

This convergence even seems to follow the Poitevin people when they come to settle in Acadia, for as they fled a war-torn Poitou where the French Wars of Religion (1562-98) had destroyed and ruined, the peasantry had ultimately signed up to flee their feudal overlords and opted to leave France behind them. Although, at the beginning of the 17th century, the first Acadians certainly did not consider themselves to be French nationalists (as contemporary French immigrants consider themselves nowadays) but rather it was their regional Poitou identity that would have been most important to them. French nationalism simply did not exists as it does today at this point in time.

Since the first settlement of Acadia in 1604, with all the ensuing colonial wars that would culminate with the British conquest of Acadia in 1710, le Grand Derangement starting in 1755, the Battle of the Plains of Abraham 1759, the Louisiana Purchase in 1803... Seemingly, history is cyclical. The end result of all this is Canada and the U.S.A., which leaves the French element as a substrate - a minority - in a majority Germanic English-speaking majority. However, to understand the fact that both the history of the Quebecois and Acadian long before their North American origins are steeped in a world where the Germanic and Latin tongues has formed a convergence since the barbarians invaded Rome and the Germanic-speaking and -cultured Franks made France into what it is today.

To think of l'Office québecois de la langue française (OQLF) in the grand scheme of things,  their mandate of enforcing the province language laws, dealing with violations to these linguistic rights guaranteed by Québec's Charte de la langue française... In short, OQLF might indeed be a good instrument in the fight against rampant Anglicization and assimilation rates, but it is nevertheless nothing but an autodefense mechanism against a perceived threat - of the Germanic barbarian invasions? Notwithstanding, lest we forget, that it is these same barbarians - the Frankish that is - that for the most part basically created the "French" language, something that Cardinal Richelieu's creation of the Académie française in the first half of the 17th century, has consequently had the effect of preserving something as artificial and fleeting as a language that seemingly can be written down on a pile of paper somewhere for all to admire as a grandiose cultural achievement - as though something as full of life and breath as language, could ever remain static over time.

But all this is getting a little off topic...

Back to Sprach und Kultur bundes... hmm, I mean language and cultures convergences. Acadia seems to emerge as a sort of 17th century distant European Far West, in terms of cultural paradigms. Not unlike a final stage set for the ultimate expression of the eternal strife between Germanic (English) and Latin (Acadian French) cultures and languages. The fact that Chiac emerges as an ultimate mariage or hybridity of Acadian and English languages - a contact language that leaves native speakers often socially marginalized as potential Francophones or Anglophones. Chiac is quite interesting; a kind of in-between cultural and/or linguistic state - the ultimate expression of Sprachbund if ever there was one.     

I cannot help but think Charlemagne and Rollo would have approved.

Charlemagne statue in front of Notre-Dame-de-Paris


Interesting to see language on a grander scale than what is usually permitted according to a nationalistic discourse. Sometimes, in North America, one gets the distinct impression the world began at Plymouth Rock down south, while here in Canada, it's mostly the Plains of Abraham for the Quebecois and Port Royal for the Acadians. Why can't we not expand our horizons a little bit past caricaturist representations of ourselves - La Sagouine and Acadieman quickly come to mind - and look back a little further in time to when the first traces of Acadian language and literature can be discerned in the parent Poitevin language which composed the Sermons poitevins around 1250 when the language was first emerging as a distinct linguistic entity and language by comparison to others of the period.   

There you go, Acadian literature and language starts in the 13th century: How's that for a prehistoric Acadian nationalist discourse? Or am I simply the product of an assimilated Francophone mind to even want to embrace Anglicisms and Anglicization as symptomatic of a great Germano-Latino Sprachbund? If English, having embraced an estimated two-thirds of its vocabulary from Norman French and other Latin roots, then why should French fear Anglicization to the extent that it does? At least Chiac seems to embrace it, so maybe it the lingua franca of the future ;)

I'll have to give it some more thought. But for now, as I like to say in Chiac: Worry pas ta brayne, juste va t'otchuper avec tcheuchouse d'aute. (lit. "Don't worry your brain, just go preoccupy yourself with something else.")

Here are some interesting links for more about Chiac:


Leclerc, Jacques. Qu'est-ce que la langue ? Synthèse (Laval, Quebec), Mondia Editeurs, 1989.



Popular posts from this blog

Acadian Prehistory: From Medieval Religion, the Angevin Empire... and leaving Poitou behind

William S. Burroughs and Cut-Up Writing

I think William S. Burroughs was on to something. Aside from Jack Kerouac, Burroughs was another one of the influential authors of the Beat Generation that in the 1950s and 60s found popularity - if not notoriety in Burroughs' case - in his experimental writing styles. Burroughs was introduced to the cut-up technique of writing, which basically means he would quite literally "cut-up" a strand of linear text into segmented pieces with one or a couple of words a piece, and then simply reorder them in whatever fashion he saw fit.

Burroughs experimented with the cut-up technique at great length and it suited him fine, for he found that by doing so he could somehow alter reality - or even foretell future events. The Nova Trilogy, published in the early 1960s were a series of three experimental novels published by Burroughs in which he made use of the cut-up. The Soft Machine was the first book in the trilogy - published two years after his groundbreaking Naked Lunch- , and it…

The Divine Serpentine: A Cross-Cultural Survey of the Hindu Nāga Worship & the Judaeo-Christian Interpretation of Moses’ “Copper Snake”, the Nehushtan