History of French

French is a Romance language (meaning that it is descended primarily from Vulgar Latin) that evolved out of the Gallo-Romance dialects spoken in northern France.

The discussion of the history of a language is typically divided into "external history", describing the ethnic, political, social, technological, and other changes that affected the languages, and "internal history", describing the phonological and grammatical changes undergone by the language itself. For the history of phonological changes, see: Phonological history of French.

External history

Roman Gaul (Gallia)

Before the Roman conquest of what is now France by Julius Caesar (58–52 BC), much of present France was inhabited by Celtic-speaking peoples referred to by the Romans as Gauls and Belgae. Southern France was also home to a number of other remnant linguistic and ethnic groups including Iberians along the eastern part of the Pyrenees and western Mediterranean coast, remnant Ligures on the eastern Mediterranean coast and in the alpine areas, Greek colonials in places such as Marseille and Antibes,[1] and Vascons and Aquitanians (Proto-Basques) in much of the southwest.[2][3]

The Celtic population of Gaul had spoken Gaulish, which is moderately well attested, with what appears to be wide dialectal variation including one distinctive variety, Lepontic. While the French language evolved from Vulgar Latin (i.e., a Latinised popular Italo-Celtic dialect called sermo vulgaris), it was nonetheless influenced by Gaulish.[4][5] Chief among these are sandhi phenomena (liaison, enchainement, lenition), the loss of unstressed syllables, and the vowel system (e.g. raising [u], [o] → [y], [u], fronting stressed [a], [ɔ] → [e], [ø]/[œ]).[6][7] Syntactic oddities attributable to Gaulish include the intensive prefix ro- ~ re- (cited in the Vienna glossary, 5th century)[8] (cf. luire "to glimmer" vs. reluire "to shine"; related to Irish ro- and Welsh rhy- "very"), emphatic structures, prepositional periphrastic phrases to render verbal aspect, the semantic development of oui "yes", aveugle "blind", and so on.

Some sound changes are attested. The sound changes /ps/ → /χs/ and /pt/ → /χt/ appears in a pottery inscription from la Graufesenque (1st century AD) where the word paraxsidi is written for paropsides.[9] Similarly, the development -cs- → /χs/ → /is/ and -ct- → -χt- → /it/, the second common to much of Western Romance, also appears in inscriptions, e.g. Divicta ~ Divixta, Rectugenus ~ Rextugenus ~ Reitugenus, and is present in Welsh, e.g. *seχtansaith "seven", *eχtamoseithaf "extreme". For Romance, compare:

These two changes sometimes had a cumulative effect in French: Latin capsa → *kaχsacaisse (vs. Italian cassa, Spanish caja) or captīvus → *kaχtivus → Occ caitiu, OFr chaitif[10] (mod. chétif "wretched, feeble", cf. Welsh caeth "bondman, slave", vs. It. cattivo, Sp. cautivo).

In French and adjoining folk dialects and closely related languages, some 200 words of Gaulish origin have been retained, most of which pertain to folk life. These include:

Other Celtic words were not borrowed directly, but brought in through Latin, some of which had become commonplace in Latin, as for instance braies "knee-length pants", chainse "tunic", char "dray, wagon", daim "roe deer", étain "tin", glaive "broad sword", manteau "coat", vassal "serf, knave". Latin quickly took hold among the urban aristocracy for mercantile, official, and educational reasons, but did not prevail in the countryside until some four or five centuries later, since Latin was of little or no social value to the landed gentry and peasantry. The eventual spread of Latin can be attributed to social factors in the Late Empire such as the movement from urban-focused power to village-centered economies and legal serfdom.

The Franks

From the 3rd century on, Western Europe was invaded by Germanic tribes from the north and east, and some of these groups settled in Gaul. In the history of the French language, the most important of these groups are the Franks in northern France, the Alemanni in the modern German/French border area, the Burgundians in the Rhône valley and the Visigoths in the Aquitaine region and Spain. Their language had a profound influence on the Latin spoken in their respective regions, altering both the pronunciation (especially the vowel system phonemes; e, è, eu, u, short o) and the syntax. They also introduced a number of new words (see List of French words of Germanic origin). Sources disagree on how much of the vocabulary of modern French (excluding French dialects) comes from Germanic words, ranging from just 500 words (1%)[14] (representing loans from ancient Germanic languages: Gothic and Frankish)[15] to 15% of modern vocabulary (representing all Germanic loans up to modern times: Gothic, Frankish, Old Norse/Scandinavian, Dutch, German and English)[16] to even higher if Germanic words coming from Latin and other Romance languages are taken into account. (Note: According to the Académie française, only 5% of French words come from English.)

Changes in lexicon/morphology/syntax:

The Old Frankish language had a determining influence on the birth of Old French, which in part explains why the first documents written in Old French are older than documents written in other Romance languages (e. g.: Strasbourg Oaths, Sequence of Saint Eulalia).[18] This is the result of an earlier gap created between Latin and the new language, which was no longer mutually intelligible with it. The Old Low Frankish influence is also primarily responsible for the differences between the langue d′oïl and the langue d′oc (Occitan) as well, because different parts of Northern France remained bilingual in Latin and Germanic for several centuries,[19] and that corresponds exactly to the places where the first documents in Old French were written. This Germanic language shaped the popular Latin spoken here and gave it a very distinctive identity compared to the other future Romance languages. The very first noticeable influence is the substitution of the Latin melodic accent by a Germanic stress[20] and its result was diphthongization, difference between long vowels and short vowels, the fall of the unaccentuated syllable and of the final vowels, e. g.: Latin decima > F dîme (> E dime. Italian decima, Spanish diezmo); VL dignitate > OF deintié (> E dainty. Occitan dinhitat; Italian dignità; Spanish dignidad); or VL catena > OF chaiene (> E chain. Occitan cadena; Italian catena; Spanish cadena). Otherwise two new phonemes that did not exist anymore in Vulgar Latin were added: [h] and [w] (> OF g(u)-, ONF w- cf. picard w-), e. g.: VL altu > OF halt ‘high’ (influenced by OLF *hauh ; ≠ Italian, Spanish alto / Occitan naut) ; VL vespa > F guêpe (ONF wespe, picard wespe) ‘wasp’ (influenced by OLF *waspa ; ≠ Occitan vèspa; Italian vespa; Spanish avispa) ; L viscus > F gui ‘mistle toe’ (influenced by OLF *wihsila ‘morello’ with analogous fruits, when they are not ripe ; ≠ Occitan vesc ; Italian vischio) ; LL vulpiculu ‘little fox’ (from L vulpes ‘fox’) > OF g[o]upil (influenced by OLF *wulf ‘wolf’ ; ≠ Italian volpe). On the opposite, the Italian and Spanish words of Germanic origin borrowed from French or directly from Germanic retain [gw] and [g], e. g.: It, Sp. guerra ‘war’). In these examples, we notice a clear consequence of bilingualism, that sometimes even changed the first syllable of the Latin words. We can add another opposite example, where the Latin word influenced the Germanic one : framboise ‘raspberry’ from OLF *brambasi (cf. OHG brāmberi > Brombeere ‘mulberry’ ; E bramble berry ; *basi ‘berry’ cf. Got. -basi, Dutch bes ‘berry’) mixed up with LL fraga or OF fraie ‘strawberry’, that explains the shift [f] for [b] and in turn the final -se of framboise changed fraie into fraise (≠ Occitan fragosta ‘raspberry’, Italian fragola ‘strawberry’. Portuguese framboesa ‘raspberry’ and Spanish frambuesa are from French[21]).

Philologists such as Pope (1934) estimate that perhaps still fifteen percent of the vocabulary of modern French derives from Germanic sources, but its proportion was bigger in Old French, because the French language was consequently relatinised and partly italianised by the clerics and the "grammarians" in the Middle Ages and later. Nevertheless, a large number of words like haïr "to hate" (≠ Latin odiare > Italian odiare, Spanish odiar / Occitan asirar) or honte "shame" (≠ Latin vĕrēcundia > Occitan vergonha, Italian vergogna, Spanish vergüenza) are still common.

Urban T. Holmes estimated that the German language was spoken as a second tongue by public officials in western Austrasia and Neustria as late as the 850s, and that it completely disappeared as a spoken language from these regions only during the 10th century.[22]

The Normans and terms from the Low Countries

In 1204 AD, the Duchy of Normandy was integrated into the Kingdom of France, and about 150 words of Scandinavian origin[23] were introduced into the French language from Norman. Most of these words have to do with the sea and seafaring: abraquer, alque, bagage, bitte, cingler, équiper (to equip), flotte, fringale, girouette, guichet, hauban, houle, hune, mare, marsouin, mouette, quille, ras, siller, touer, traquer, turbot, vague, varangue, varech. Others pertain to farming and daily life: accroupir, amadouer, bidon, bigot, brayer, brette, cottage, coterie, crochet, duvet, embraser, fi, flâner, guichet, haras, harfang, harnais, houspiller, marmonner, mièvre, nabot, nique, quenotte, raccrocher, ricaner, rincer, rogue.

Likewise, words borrowed from Dutch deal mainly with trade, or are nautical in nature, but not always so: affaler, amarrer, anspect, bar (sea-bass), bastringuer, bière (beer), blouse (bump), botte, bouée, bouffer, boulevard, bouquin, cague, cahute, caqueter, choquer, diguer, drôle, dune, frelater, fret, grouiller, hareng, hère, lamaneur, lège, manne, mannequin, maquiller, matelot, méringue, moquer, plaque, sénau, tribord, vacarme, as are words from Low German: bivouac, bouder, homard, vogue, yole, and English of this period: arlequin (from Italian arlecchino < Norman hellequin < OE *Herla cyning), bateau, bébé, bol (sense 2 ≠ bol < Lt. bolus), bouline, bousin, boxer, cambuse, cliver, chiffe/chiffon, drague, drain, est, équiper (to set sail), gourmet, groom, héler, interlope, merlin, nord, ouest, pique-nique, potasse, rade, rhum, sloop, sonde, sud, turf, yacht.

Langue d'oïl

See also: Old French

The medieval Italian poet Dante, in his Latin De vulgari eloquentia, classified the Romance languages into three groups by their respective words for "yes": Nam alii oc, alii si, alii vero dicunt oil, "For some say oc, others say si, others say oïl". The oïl languages  from Latin hoc ille, "that is it"  occupied northern France, the oc languages  from Latin hoc, "that"  southern France, and the si languages  from Latin sic, "thus"  the Italian and Iberian peninsulas. Modern linguists typically add a third group within France around Lyon, the "Arpitan" or "Franco-Provençal language", whose modern word for "yes" is ouè.

The area of langues d'oïl

The Gallo-Romance group in the north of France, the langue d'oïl like Picard, Walloon, and Francien, were influenced by the Germanic languages spoken by the Frankish invaders. From the time period of Clovis I on, the Franks extended their rule over northern Gaul. Over time, the French language developed from either the Oïl language found around Paris and Île-de-France (the Francien theory) or from a standard administrative language based on common characteristics found in all Oïl languages (the lingua franca theory).

Langue d'oc, the languages which use oc or òc for "yes", is the language group in the south of France and northern Spain. These languages, such as Gascon and Provençal, have relatively little Frankish influence.

The Middle Ages also saw the influence of other linguistic groups on the dialects of France:

Modern French, principally derived from the langue d'oïl acquired the word si, used to contradict negative statements or respond to negative questions, from cognate forms of "yes" in Spanish and Catalan (), Portuguese (sim), and Italian ().

From the 4th to 7th centuries, Brythonic-speaking peoples from Cornwall, Devon, and Wales traveled across the English Channel, both for reasons of trade and of flight from the Anglo-Saxon invasions of England. They established themselves in Armorica. Their language became Breton in more recent centuries, giving French bijou "jewel" (< Breton bizou from biz "finger") and menhir (< Breton maen "stone" and hir "long").

Attested since the time of Julius Caesar, a non-Celtic people who spoke a Basque-related language inhabited the Novempopulania (Aquitania Tertia) in southwestern France, while the language gradually lost ground to the expanding Romance during a period spanning most of the Early Middle Ages. This Proto-Basque influenced the emerging Latin-based language spoken in the area between the Garonne and the Pyrenees, eventually resulting in the dialect of Occitan called Gascon. Its influence is seen in words like boulbène and cargaison.

Scandinavian Vikings invaded France from the 9th century onwards and established themselves mostly in what would come to be called Normandy. The Normans took up the langue d'oïl spoken there, although Norman French remained heavily influenced by Old Norse and its dialects. They also contributed many words to French related to sailing (mouette, crique, hauban, hune, etc.) and farming.

After the conquest of England in 1066, the Normans's language developed into Anglo-Norman. Anglo-Norman served as the language of the ruling classes and commerce in England from the time of the conquest until the Hundred Years' War,[24] by which time the use of French-influenced English had spread throughout English society.

Around this time period, many words from the Arabic language entered French, mainly indirectly through Medieval Latin, Italian and Spanish. There are words for luxury goods (élixir, orange), spices (camphre, safran), trade goods (alcool, bougie, coton), sciences (alchimie, hasard), and mathematics (algèbre, algorithme). Only after the 19th century development of French colonies in North Africa did French borrow words directly from Arabic (e.g., toubib, chouia, mechoui).

Modern French

See also: Middle French

For the period up to around 1300, some linguists refer to the oïl languages collectively as Old French (ancien français). The earliest extant text in French is the Oaths of Strasbourg from 842; Old French became a literary language with the chansons de geste that told tales of the paladins of Charlemagne and the heroes of the Crusades.

The first government authority to adopt Modern French as official was the Aosta Valley in 1536, three years before France itself.[25] By the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts in 1539 King Francis I made French the official language of administration and court proceedings in France, ousting the Latin that had been used before then. With the imposition of a standardised chancery dialect and the loss of the declension system, the dialect is referred to as Middle French (moyen français). The first grammatical description of French, the Tretté de la Grammaire française by Louis Maigret, was published in 1550. Many of the 700 words [26] of modern French that originate from Italian were introduced in this period, including several denoting artistic concepts (scenario, piano), luxury items, and food.

Following a period of unification, regulation and purification, the French of the 17th to the 18th centuries is sometimes referred to as Classical French (français classique), although many linguists simply refer to French language from the 17th century to today as Modern French (français moderne).

The foundation of the Académie française (French Academy) in 1634 by Cardinal Richelieu created an official body whose goal has been the purification and preservation of the French language. This group of 40 members is known as the Immortals, not, as some erroneously believe, because they are chosen to serve for the extent of their lives (which they are), but because of the inscription engraved on the official seal given to them by their founder Richelieu—"À l'immortalité" ("to [the] Immortality [of the French language]"). The foundation still exists and contributes to the policing of the language and the adaptation of foreign words and expressions. Some recent modifications include the change from software to logiciel, packet-boat to paquebot, and riding-coat to redingote. The word ordinateur for computer was however not created by the Académie, but by a linguist appointed by IBM (see fr:ordinateur).

From the 17th to the 19th centuries, France was the leading power of Europe; thanks to this, together with the influence of the Enlightenment, French was the lingua franca of educated Europe, especially with regards to the arts, literature, and diplomacy; monarchs like Frederick II of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia could both not just speak and write in French, but in most excellent French. The Russian, German and Scandinavian Courts spoke French as their main or official language, regarding their national languages as the language of the peasants.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the French language established itself permanently in the Americas. There is an academic debate about how fluent in French the colonists of New France were. While less than 15% of colonists (25% of the women – chiefly filles du roi – and 5% of the men) were from the region of Paris and presumably spoke French, most of the rest came from north-western and western regions of France where regular French was not the primary native language. It is not clearly known how many among those colonists understood French as a second language, and how many among them – who, in overwhelming majority, natively spoke an oïl language – could understand, and be understood by, those who speak French thanks to interlinguistic similarity. In any case, a linguistic unification of all the groups coming from France happened (either in France, on the ships, or in Canada) such that, according to many sources, the then "Canadiens" were all speaking French (King's French) natively by the end of the 17th century, well before the unification was complete in France. Canada's reputation was to speak as good French as Paris did. Today, French is the language of about 10 million people (not counting French-based creoles, which are also spoken by about 10 million people) in the Americas.

Through the Académie, public education, centuries of official control and the role of media, a unified official French language has been forged, but there remains a great deal of diversity today in terms of regional accents and words. For some critics, the "best" pronunciation of the French language is considered to be the one used in Touraine (around Tours and the Loire valley), but such value judgments are fraught with problems, and with the ever increasing loss of lifelong attachments to a specific region and the growing importance of the national media, the future of specific "regional" accents is often difficult to predict. The French nation-state, which appeared after the 1789 French Revolution and Napoleon's empire, unified the French people in particular through the consolidation of the use of the French language. Hence, according to historian Eric Hobsbawm, "the French language has been essential to the concept of 'France', although in 1789 50% of the French people did not speak it at all, and only 12 to 13% spoke it 'fairly' – in fact, even in oïl language zones, out of a central region, it was not usually spoken except in cities, and, even there, not always in the faubourgs [approximatively translatable to "suburbs"]. In the North as in the South of France, almost nobody spoke French."[27] Hobsbawm highlighted the role of conscription, invented by Napoleon, and of the 1880s public instruction laws, which allowed to mix the various groups of France into a nationalist mold which created the French citizen and his consciousness of membership to a common nation, while the various "patois" were progressively eradicated.

Modern issues

There is some debate in today's France about the preservation of the French language and the influence of English (see Franglais), especially with regard to international business, the sciences, and popular culture. There have been laws (see Toubon law) enacted which require that all print ads and billboards with foreign expressions include a French translation and which require quotas of French-language songs (at least 40%) on the radio. There is also pressure, in differing degrees, from some regions as well as minority political or cultural groups for a measure of recognition and support for their regional languages.

Once the key international language in Europe, being the language of diplomacy from the 17th to mid-20th centuries, French lost most of its international significance to English in the 20th century, especially after World War II, with the rise of the United States as a dominant global superpower. A watershed was when the Treaty of Versailles, ending World War I, was written in both French and English. A small but increasing number of large multinational firms headquartered in France are using English as their working language even in their French operations, and to gain international recognition, French scientists often publish their work in English. These trends have met some resistance. In March 2006, President Chirac briefly walked out of an EU summit after Ernest-Antoine Seilliere began addressing the summit in English.[28] And in February 2007, Forum Francophone International began organising protests against the "linguistic hegemony" of English in France and in support of the right of French workers to use French as their working language.[29]

French remains the second most-studied foreign language in the world, after English,[30] and is a lingua franca in some regions, notably in Africa. The legacy of French as a living language outside Europe is mixed: it is nearly extinct in some former French colonies (Southeast Asia), while the language has changed to creoles, dialects or pidgins in the French departments in the West Indies, even though people there are still educated in standard French.[31] On the other hand, many former French colonies have adopted French as an official language, and the total number of French speakers has increased, especially in Africa.

In the Canadian province of Quebec, different laws have promoted the use of French in administration, business and education since the 1970s. Bill 101, for example, obliges every child whose parents did not attend an English-speaking school to be educated in French. Efforts are also made, by the Office québécois de la langue française for instance, to make more uniform the variation of French spoken in Quebec as well as to preserve the distinctiveness of Quebec French.

There has been French emigration to the United States of America, Australia and South America, but the descendants of these immigrants have assimilated to the point that few of them still speak French. In the United States of America efforts are ongoing in Louisiana (see CODOFIL) and parts of New England (particularly Maine) to preserve the language.[32]

Phonological changes

Effect of substrate and superstrate languages

French is noticeably different from most other Romance languages. Some of the changes have been attributed to substrate influence – i.e., to carry-over effects from Gaulish (Celtic) or superstrate influence from Frankish (Germanic). In practice, it is difficult to say with confidence which sound and grammar changes were due to substrate and superstrate influences, since many of the changes in French have parallels in other Romance languages, or are changes commonly undergone by many languages in the process of development. However, the following are likely candidates.

In phonology:

In other areas:

See also


  1. Vincent Herschel Malmström, Geography of Europe: A Regional Analysis
  2. Roger Collins, The Basques, Blackwell, 1990.
  3. Barry Raftery & Jane McIntosh, Atlas of the Celts, Firefly Books, 2001
  4. R. Anthony Lodge, French: From Dialect to Standard (Routledge, 1993).
  5. Giovanni Battista Pellegrini, "Substrata", in Romance Comparative and Historical Linguistics, ed. Rebecca Posner et al. (The Hague: Mouton de Gruyter, 1980), 65.
  6. Henri Guiter, "Sur le substrat gaulois dans la Romania", in Munus amicitae. Studia linguistica in honorem Witoldi Manczak septuagenarii, eds., Anna Bochnakowa & Stanislan Widlak, Krakow, 1995.
  7. Eugeen Roegiest, Vers les sources des langues romanes: Un itinéraire linguistique à travers la Romania (Leuven, Belgium: Acco, 2006), 83.
  8. Jean-Paul Savignac, Dictionnaire français-gaulois, s.v. "trop, très" (Paris: La Différence, 2004), 294-5.
  9. Pierre-Yves Lambert, La Langue gauloise (Paris: Errance, 1994), 46-7. ISBN 978-2-87772-224-7
  10. Lambert 46–47
  11. "Mots francais d'origine gauloise". Mots d'origine gauloise. Retrieved 2006-10-22.
  12. Calvert Watkins, "Italo-Celtic revisited", in H. Birnbaum, J. Puhvel, ed, Ancient Indo-European Dialects, Berkeley-Los Angeles 1966, p. 29-50.
  13. Lambert 158.
  14. Henriette Walter, Gérard Walter, Dictionnaire des mots d’origine étrangère, Paris, 1998
  15. "The History of the French Language". Catholic Central French. Archived from the original on 2006-08-16. Retrieved 2006-03-22.
  16. Walter & Walter 1998.
  17. Le trésor de la langue française informatisé
  18. Bernard Cerquiglini, La naissance du français, Presses Universitaires de France, 2nd Edition 1993, C. III, p. 53.
  19. Cerquiglini 53
  20. Cerquiglini 26.
  21. Etymology of frambuesa (Spanish)
  22. U. T. Holmes, A. H. Schutz (1938), A history of the French language, p. 29, Biblo & Tannen Publishers, ISBN 0-8196-0191-8
  23. Elisabeth Ridel, Les Vikings et les mots, Editions Errance, 2010
  24. Baugh, Cable, "A History of the English Language, 104."
  25. La Vallée d'Aoste : enclave francophone au sud-est du Mont Blanc.
  26. Henriette Walter, L'aventure des mots français venus d'ailleurs, Robert Laffont, 1998.
  27. Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780 : programme, myth, reality (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990; ISBN 0-521-43961-2) chapter II "The popular protonationalism", pp.80–81 French edition (Gallimard, 1992). According to Hobsbawm, the main source for this subject is Ferdinand Brunot (ed.), Histoire de la langue française, Paris, 1927–1943, 13 volumes, in particular volume IX. He also refers to Michel de Certeau, Dominique Julia, Judith Revel, Une politique de la langue: la Révolution française et les patois: l'enquête de l'abbé Grégoire, Paris, 1975. For the problem of the transformation of a minority official language into a widespread national language during and after the French Revolution, see Renée Balibar, L'Institution du français: essai sur le co-linguisme des Carolingiens à la République, Paris, 1985 (also Le co-linguisme, PUF, Que sais-je?, 1994, but out of print) ("The Institution of the French language: essay on colinguism from the Carolingian to the Republic. Finally, Hobsbawm refers to Renée Balibar and Dominique Laporte, Le Français national: politique et pratique de la langue nationale sous la Révolution, Paris, 1974.
  28. Anonymous, "Chirac upset by English address," BBC News, 24 March 2006.
  29. Anonymous, "French fury over English language," BBC News, 8 February 2007.
  30. "DIFL". Learn Languages. Dante Institute of Foreign Languages. Retrieved 15 February 2012.
  31. "Sain Lucian Creole French". Ethnologue. Retrieved 15 February 2012.
  32. "Cultural Organisations". Maine Acadian Culture Preservation Commission. Retrieved 15 February 2012.
  33. Jacques Allières, La formation du Français, P. U. F.
  34. Cerquiglini, Bernard. Une langue orpheline, Éd. de Minuit, 2007.
  35. Rebecca Posner. The Romance Languages. pp. 24–29.
  36. Craddock, Jerry Russell. Latin Legacy Versus Substratum Residue. p. 18.
  37. Pope, M.K. From Latin to Modern French. p. 6.
  38. Posner. Linguistic Change in French. 250-251
  39. Maria Polinsky and Ezra Van Everbroeck (June 2003). "Develop of Gender Classifications: Modeling the Historical Change from Latin to French". Language. 79 (2). pp. 365–380.
  40. Pope, From Latin to modern French, with especial consideration of Anglo-Norman, p. 16.

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