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In Les visiteurs (The Visitors), two Frenchman from 1123 are transported to 1993. In the movie, the visitors from 1123 can understand the speech of the modern French people in 1993, and vice versa, with minimal confusion.

Would the people speaking Old French and the people speaking modern French really be able to understand each other, or has French changed too much from Old French to be mutually intelligible?

  • infoplease.com/encyclopedia/society/… (without much details). If they came from the region of Paris there might be some common basis, like between Serbian and Bulgarian. – Joop Eggen Jan 29 '14 at 15:38
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    Since there have been no native speakers of Old French for centuries, and since modern French didn't come into existence until much later, the question has the same answer as whether Old English and modern English were mutually intelligible, viz, no one will ever know. – jlawler Jan 29 '14 at 21:30
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    Not quite. I have high confidence that Old English and Modern English would not be mutually intelligible to any extent that would be useful. – Justin Olbrantz Jan 30 '14 at 4:24
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    @jlawler: As a practical question it may be silly and unanswerable, but as a theoretical question it's perfectly fine. And linguists are accustomed to thinking about theoretical questions. – hippietrail Jan 30 '14 at 4:46
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    Not very well, though. And I don't know of a linguistic theory that comes close to measuring mutual intelligibility. Most of them simply assume it, in one way or another. – jlawler Jan 30 '14 at 5:53
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The closest natural experiment we can make is to expose an untrained contemporary French speaker to a reading of a text from that period. Conveniently, the poems of Chrétien de Troyes are only a few decades older. I consider myself a relatively educated native speaker of French with basic (but not extensive) training in the relevant fields, and I must say that even taking into account that poetry is presumably harder than ordinary speech, I find a passage such as

Mere, ne soliez vos dire que li enge Deu nostre sire sont si tres bel c'onques Nature ne fist si bele criature, n'el monde n'a si bele rien ? - Biax filz, ancor le di ge bien. Jel dis por voir et di ancores. - Teisiez, mere ! Ne vi ge ores les plus beles choses qui sont, qui par la Gaste Forest vont ? Il sont plus bel, si con ge cuit, que Dex ne que si enge tuit. » La mere antre ses braz le prant et dit : « Biax filz, a Deu te rant, que mout ai grant peor de toi. Tu as veü, si con je croi, les enges don la gent se plaignent, qui ocïent quanqu'il ataignent. - Voir non ai, mere, non ai, non ! Chevalier dïent qu'il ont non. »

extremely hard to understand (and yet it is so famous that I knew most of the exchange beforehand), and in particular much harder to understand than anything Les Visiteurs say in the film (but who doubted that about a comedy marketed at families?). That said, I do understand most of it and many French can read these texts fluently. More generally, I find that the main difficulty I encounter when reading texts from that period is that I don't know the exact meaning of a couple of grammatical words or constructions (so that I'm not quite sure whether the sentence is, for instance, hypothetical or assertive). The syntax is very odd but completely understandable and the vocabulary is a mixed bag, with the overwhelming majority of the words at least ringing a bell, but with a fair number of them having manifestly a slightly different meaning that the one I am used to.

Based on this, I would say that an educated native speaker of French would probably require only a few days of training to be able to follow a conversation in XIIth century French, but that the first encounter would probably be quite puzzling.

UPDATE: So, there is a very easy to find out. I asked a friend with a PhD in Old French to read once the text above at normal delivery speed to a group of twelve students (age 18 and 19) with no prior knowledge of Old French (a few of them even wondered afterwards what the language was, but a few others volunteered that it was a tale of knighthood in Old French), nor in fact of Medieval literature (as evidenced by the fact that none recognized the text even after I provided the translation, even though it is a relatively famous scene from the most famous work of Chrétien de Troyes). They were allowed to share what they had understood afterward. This is what they got.

This is a dialogue between a son and her mother. The son has seen or wants to see beautiful things in a forest. The mother also knows about them and maybe wants to see them. The mother is afraid for her son. Perhaps the son wants to be a knight.

This has to be compared with the original (my translation, deliberately as close to the original text as can be).

Mother, didn't you tell me that the angels of God our lord are so beautiful that Nature never made creatures so fair and that there is nothing so beautiful in the world? Beautiful son, and so I say again. I said it once and then again. Silence, mother! Didn't I just see the most beautiful things that may be, going through the Waste Forest? The mother, taking him in her arms, says Beautiful son, may God keep you, for I have great fear for you. You have seen, or so I believe, the angels about whom everybody complains and who kill what they touch. Not at all, mother, no! Knight is their name, they said.

Compared with the original, I was surprised that none mentioned either God or angels in their summary and interested by the fact that they, like me, find it especially hard to identify mood and modality (about half thought the son wanted to go in the forest see the beautiful things and the other half thought, correctly, that he had already seen them in the forest).

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    The question was about whether people "speaking" Old French would be understood by people "speaking" Modern French. To answer with a passage WRITTEN in Old French ORTHOGRAPHY and asking whether modern French people would understand this written text does not address the question. Old French was probably spoken more or less as it is written, but Modern French is very far removed from Modern French orthography. – fdb Jan 30 '14 at 11:20
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    @fdb The question is 1) could someone speaking French understand someone speaking Old French 2) vice-versa. 2) is unknowable. If someone were to read the quoted text aloud to me (with our current knowledge of Old French pronunciation, which is quite extensive), then I would understand at least 60% of it, so the answer to 1) is clearly mostly yes and definitely yes if a few days of training is allowed. In fact, I am almost sure that written texts in Old French are easier to understand when read aloud correctly (because the pronunciation often gives important clue towards the modern form). – Olivier Jan 30 '14 at 12:54
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    Yes, but we are not talking about trained linguists, we are talking about the ordinary French person on the street. I contend that the proverbial man on the street would not understand anything of this text if it were read out in correct (reconstructed) Old French pronunciation. – fdb Jan 30 '14 at 14:55
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    @fdb OK, just made the experiment, as described in my update. They did not understand most of the text, and notably less than I did reading it for instance, but still got something out of it. – Olivier Jan 30 '14 at 17:37
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    Very interesting. I would imagine that English students would do about as badly with an orally delivered text in Middle English (e.g. Chaucer), and even worse with a text in Old English (roughly contemporary with your text). But one could repeat the experiment. – fdb Jan 30 '14 at 17:58
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Not readily, but I don't think it would take them too long to attune their ears either way.

The obvious difference is all the consonants which have disappeared in modern French (mostly still represented in the spelling). The fact that many verbal endings have fallen together (-e, -es, -ent), and the fact that the passé simple has fallen out of use and replaced by a periphrastic tense, would I suspect make the Old French speakers think the moderns were talking a sort of pidgin.

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This is an interesting discussion. I am in the midst of writing a fantasy novel wherein the heroine is transported back in time from present day US to Normandy at the time of the First Crusade. I have her attempting to communicate with the people around her by using the scant vocabulary she remembers from the two semesters of French that she took in college, and a lot of pantomiming.

Reading through the excerpt from Chretien de Troyes I had the sense that there was a Germanic influence. I understand that Normandy is so-called because of the numbers of Norwegian Viking settlers in the area. Surely they would have left their imprint on the language in terms of some pronunciation and vocabulary.

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    This is not an answer to the question, but it could be a comment to it—you can comment on any question with a few points of reputation. – jknappen - Reinstate Monica Mar 29 at 11:29

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