For centuries, political delegates from around the world learned to speak French — the language of diplomacy and international relations.
But what does that mean? How did one of the Romance languages become the international language of law?
The Beginnings of the Language of Diplomacy
The French language was beginning to come into its own by the 13th century, becoming more widely spoken throughout Europe. It was considered sophisticated and associated with high society, and many people chose to learn it to obtain greater wealth and higher social status.
By the middle of the 14th century, French became the most spoken language in Europe, already being used for diplomatic affairs between several countries.
The Hundred Years’ War, which ended in 1453, had an effect on both French and English nationalism. Despite an effort by English officials to ban French, the language continued to thrive as the language of diplomacy throughout Europe.
The Worldwide Language of Diplomacy
The Villers-Cotterêts Ordinance, passed in 1539, decreed that all French administrative documents must be in the French language. This ordinance made French an official language — a turning point for the country.
As France became a world leader throughout the next few centuries, people throughout the world began to learn French. French was becoming a lingua franca — a language that goes beyond the boundaries of its community of speakers and becomes a language for communication between groups not sharing a common tongue.
By the 17th century, French was known as the language of diplomacy and international relations throughout the world.
The Rise of English
The growing popularity of the English language in recent times means that French may no longer have the “language of diplomacy” designation that it used to.
Political officials and French nationalists have fought to keep French as the international language of diplomacy, but many argue that English has taken over that role.
Despite the popularity of English, the French language still continues to play an integral part in international relations. Institutions like the United Nations still use French regularly, and the French language is the official language of many countries and still appears on passports throughout the world.
Though French may not technically be the language of diplomacy any longer, the effects of its wide use over several centuries are still seen in many places today.