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Old French Language

Below is some practical advice about how to decipher Old French. Reading Old French is not a requirement of the module; however, the advice below may give you a better idea of what's going on in the original text. This is not a comprehensive introduction to Old French language, but rather a set of tips about how to deal with some of the major differences between Old French and modern French.

For reference works to help you with Old French language, have a look at the 'further reading' pages.



Old French is much more flexible than modern French.  Half the trick of understanding the text is being able to move the words around until you find something that makes sense. 

  • e.g.  ‘a merveille l’amot sa mere’ (his mother loved him enormously)



Verbs can stand on their own, without a subject pronoun. There are no accents in Old French.

  • e.g. ‘m’entremet’ = ‘je me mets à’; ‘un an demura tut entier’ (he stayed for a whole year)


Tenses look vaguely like modern tenses:

  • PRES. (jeo) chant, chantes, chante, chantons, chantez, chantent;
  • IMPFT.: chantoie/chanteie;
  • PAST HIST.:  chantai, chantas, chanta, chantames, chantastes, chanterent;
  • FUT.: chanterai;
  • COND.: chantereie, chanteroie…chanteriions, chanteriiez, chanteroient; SUBJONCTIF: (very much like the present);
  • IMP. SUBJ.: chantasse, chantasses, chantast, chantissons, chantisseiz, chantassent.



Spelling is very irregular and a word can be spelled differently several times in the same text.  If you are stuck on a word, say it out loud.  Much of the spelling is phonetic and once you hear it you might recognize it as a word you know hiding behind a phonetic spelling.  Drop the ‘s’ from the middle of words when you say them; sometimes that helps.

  • e.g. ‘les’ can mean ‘laisse’ / ‘cungea’ (congé) / ‘mist’ (mit) / esteit (était)
  • ‘eissit’ (he exited or left), ‘esmut’ (as ‘ému’, mouvoir – he moved, left) / ‘ço’ = ‘ce’.


Nouns in Old French are declined.


Masculine nouns are usually declined like this:

  Singular       Plural    
Subject MURS                   MUR                    
Object  MUR                    MURS                                                               


some have 2 forms:      

  Singular                Plural
Subject BER                       BARON
Object BARON                 BARONS


Feminine nouns are easier:

  Singular                Plural
Subject  ROSE                    ROSES
Object   ROSE                   ROSES


Beware therefore of final ‘s’! It often means that the noun is the singular subject of a verb only and does not necessarily designate the plural.


K / QU

‘K’ and ‘Qu’ are pretty much interchangeable; thus ‘ki’ can mean ‘qui’, ‘kar’, ‘car’ etc.



The letter ‘u’ often stands for ‘u’ and ‘o’ and ‘ou’, even ‘eu’ in Anglo-French (the Lais are written in the French of England).

  • e.g. ubliër = oublier, nun = nom, tut=tout, lur=leur


M / N

Likewise, ‘m’ and ‘n’ are often interchangeable, same for ‘g’ & ‘w’, ‘l’ & ‘u’, ‘j’ & ‘g’

  • e.g.   ‘cantom, cantum, cantun’ can all mean ‘nous chantons’ (N.B. also that ‘c’ and ‘ch’ can both be used for the same word, i.e. ‘cant’ or ‘chant’)



After substituting ‘o’ for ‘u’ in words you don’t recognize, start substituting other vowels and diphthongs for the vowels you have before you.

  • e.g. ‘lur’=leur, ‘estoit/esteit’=était, ‘eime’=aime,


I / E

The letters ‘i’ and ‘e’ can appear in unexpected places:  ‘iceile’ = ‘celle’, ‘oict’= ‘huit’, ‘estrif’= strif



Possession does not require the ‘de’:

  • e.g. ‘de la maisnee li reis fu’ (he was from the household of the king).



Articles are different:  ‘li’ instead of ‘le’ for a masculine subject, ‘le’ for a masculine object; ‘uns’ instead of ‘un’ (the ‘s’ means it is a subject).  Demonstrative adjectives and pronouns are also slightly different:

  • masculine forms are ‘cil, cel, celui, cels, ceus’ (meaning ‘that’ or ‘that one’) and ‘cist, cest, cestui, cez (‘this’ or ‘this one’);
  • feminine forms are: ‘cele, celi, celes’.



Check the conjugations of ‘avoir’ and ‘être’ carefully (see below).  Often short words can throw you off the track: e.g., ‘ot’ (il eut) but ‘od’ (avec).



Pr. Ind.

ai – as – a – avons – avez – ont

Pr. Subj.

aie – aies – ait – aiiens, aions – aiiez, aiez – aiez


aie – aiiens, aions – aiiez, aiez


avoie – avoies – avoit – aviiens, avions – aviiez, aviez - avoient


avrai, aria – avras, aras – avra, ara – avrons, arons – avrez, arez – avront, aront


avroie, aroie – avroies, aroies – avroit, aroit – avriiens, avrions, ariiens, arions – avriiez, avriez, ariiez, ariez – avroient, aroient

Pr. Part.



oi – eüs – out, ot – eümes – eüstes – ourent, orent

Imp. Subj.

eüsse – eüsses – eüst – eüssons, eüssiens – eüsseiz, eüssoiz, eüssez, eüssiez – eüssent

Past. Part.

oü, eü




Pr. Ind.

sui – es, ies – est – somes – estes – sont

Pr. Subj.

soie – soies – soit – soiiens, soions – soiiez, soiez – soient


soies – soiiens, soions – soiiez, soiez


1. ere, iere – eres, ieres – ere, iere, ert, iert – eriiens, erions – ermes, eriiez, eriez – erent, ierent

2. estoie – estoies – estoit – estiiens, estions – estiiez, estiez – estoient


1. er, ier – ers, iers – ert, iert – Ø – Ø – erent, ierent

2. serai – seras – sera – serons – serez – seront


seroie – seroies – seroit – seriiens, serions – seriiez, seriez – seroient

Pr. Part.



fui – fus – fu – fumes – fustes - furent

Imp. Subj.

fusse – fusses – fust – fussons, fussiens – fussiez, fussez, fussiez – fussent

Past. Part.





‘Si’ usually isn’t translated, or it means ‘and therefore…’ ‘really…’ 

‘Se’ usually means ‘si’ (if) or ‘se’ as in reflexives.  The same goes for ‘ja’ which just often just strengthens the force of what you have said, especially when combined with negatives ‘ja mais’ = jamais



The subjunctive is more often used than in modern French.  Watch for ‘ü’ ‘ï’ , often markers of the imperfect subjunctive:

  • e.g. ‘veïst’ (voir)
  • ‘requeïst’ (ask for)



Enclitics are tricky.  Instead of ‘du’ ‘des’ ‘au’ ‘aux’, the ones you are used to, there are many more and with different forms:

  • jam = ja me
  • a le = al, au
  • je le = jel, jol
  • je les = jes, ges
  • je me – jem
  • ne le = nel, nul, nou, nu
  • ne les = nes
  • si le = sil       
  • si me = sim
  • si en = sin
  • tu me = tum
  • si les = sis
  • qui me = quim
  • que le = quel, queu