American and French Research for the Treasury of the French Language (ARTFL) Project


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Project Overview

Image of ARTFL Homepage
The American and French Research on the Treasury of the French Language Project (ARTFL) is the extension of the Tr??sor de la Langue Fran??aise (TLF), a database, conceived in 1957 by the French Government, of French texts from the seventeenth through to the twentieth century???s. It was initially built to produce a new dictionary of words, but was later extended to be a database of texts as well. In 1981 the ARTFL project was established by the cooperation of the University of Chicago and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, which would oversee the database going online. It has since been available, by subscription, to scholars, researchers, and students all around the world.

The ARTFL project's main corpus, the ARTFL-FRANTEXT database, currently contains nearly 3,000 pieces of work from the last four century???s of French writing, equating to well over 15 Million words. Accompanying the database is a proprietary search tool called PhiloLogic (now hosted by Google, via Google Sites), which was designed to navigate the wealth of texts with relative ease, but also pay homage to the initial intent of the TLF. Other databases available for subscription by the ARTFL project now include, among others, a French Women Writers database, a Proven??al Poetry database, as well the Textes de Fran??ais Ancien (TFA): a database containing works from the twelfth though to the fifteenth century. A full list of the ARTFL databases and their descriptions can be found on the ARTFL website.

The three points of focus of the ARTFL project, according to the website and staff, have been and always will be:

  • to include a variety of texts so as to make the database as versatile as possible;
  • to create a system that would be easily accessible to the research community;
  • to provide researchers with an easy-to-use but effective tool;

The ARTFL project is supported by a full-time staff at the University of Chicago, which continues to obtain valuable texts that are transcribed and added to the database, while seeking out new contributions and proposals for more texts.


The ARTFL project, as it is exists today, began in 1981 as a cooperative project establishment between the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and the University of Chicago. Its roots, however, date back to 1957, when the French Government held an international colloquium at Centre de Phililogie Romane of the Facult?? des Lettres at Strasbourg. It was initiated, after much stressing by lexicographers led by Paul Imbs, that a new dictionary, under the project name Tr??sor de la Langue Fran??aise, would be created and that it would be comprehensive in both its synchronic and its diachronic dimensions (Morrissey, 1993, p 93). The government decided that the best way to compile all of the words samples for the new dictionary was to transcribe an extensive selection of French texts for use with a computer. A daunting task, certainly, but also extremely forward thinking, given the first French built computers had only first been made available as little as two years prior (Monier-Kuhn, 1990). Regardless, during its creation, the team responsible for implementing the TLF oversaw the transcription of nearly 1,500 works from the eighteenth through to twentieth century???s, though only a modern (nineteenth and twentieth century) version would be produced, with plans for the previous century version set aside for a later date. What resulted was, perhaps, a lexicographers dream, but a logistical nightmare for everyone else involved. Once it was decided that the appropriate number of works from the modern centuries had be transcribed, the team was able to make relatively limited use of the TLF: they proceeded to generate one giant printed concordance the two modern centuries filling a large room at the headquarters in Nancy with a bound volume of word occurrences and their three line context (Morrissey, 1993, p 93). If a lexicographer desired more context, they could visit a larger room with a matching ???fiche-texte:??? an oversized file card with 18 lines of context, or if they were really in need of context, the basement of the building housed typed editions of the works. As it would turn out, many of those who desired the latter amount of context for a word ended up referring to the regular published edition of the text instead.

Surprisingly (or perhaps not given the French obsession with their treasured language), despite constant criticism from the research community in France, the TLC was maintained (and funded) more as a large collection of machine readable text???s than a functional dictionary. Finally in the late 70???s its director, Paul Imbs, was succeeded by Bernard Qu??mada, who ???wished to modernize the technology and open up use of the database to a wider research community and for projects other than the creation of a dictionary??? (Morrissey, 1993, p 94). The TLF was absorbed by the Institute National de Langue Fran??aise (INaLF), which woulduse the technology in ???many aspects of linguistic analysis,distribution of electronic texts, and the creation of dictionary ofMiddle French??? (Morrissey, 1993, p 94). Unfortunately, it wasalso about this time that the TLF was starting to show its age andhad trouble responding to newer challenges, particularly the issueof providing greater access to the database. As luck would have it,a group of scholars from the University of Chicago were working atthe research center for the TLF. Conversations ensued, and theresult was the ARTFL project, which mandated to make the TLF corpusavailable in North America and to develop facilities for queryingthe database. A few years later, in 1981, ???three members of theINaLF arrived in Chicago, computer tapes in hand??? (Morrissey,1993, p 94).

Limited technology, by standards of the time, made storing thedatabase online far too costly. Early versions of the databasequery tools were unfortunately unwieldy as they only allowed accessto only a few texts at a time. However, by the mid 1990???s storagetechniques and information networks made it possible to not onlystore the entire database online, but also allow researchers anopportunity to expand it. By the turn of the century, over 2,700texts populated the ever expanding ARTFL-FRANTEXT database, and the entire system was entirely available on-line with much easier-to-use navigation software, known as PhiloLogic, was designed and implemented.

Purpose / Audience

Table of Sample TLF word occurrence output
As the initial purpose of the TLF was to create a dictionary of theFrench language, it wasn't useful to anyone who wasn???t alexicographer. Thus, although the intended audience of the TLF mayhave initially been French speakers around the world, it was neverreally that useful. The main product of the TLF were lists of over15 million French words, listed by their occurrence and crossreferenced to their period of origin. The idea, then, was to createa dictionary based on the frequency of the words, and definedaccording to their most common context (also available with theTLF). Needless to say, outside of lexicography and linguistics itis difficult to find a use for such lists. When the TLF wasexpanded to be not only a database of French words, but also adatabase of French texts, it became far more useful to researchersand scholars alike. When the database was then put online under thenew banner of the ARTFL project, it became even more valuablesimply because of its availability. For example, Keith Baker, aresearcher of the French Revolution was able to compare andcontrast the occurrence of "opinion publique" in thelatter half of eighteenth century France. Because it was possibleto not only find every occurrence of the words, but also everysimilar occurrence and then determine its context, Baker was ableto notice the transformation of the phrase from uncertainty anddisorder, to rational authority during the revolutionary years(Morrissey, 1993, p 94).


The ARTFL project ??? or rather the TLF before it, was alwaysconceived as being a project involving computers. The computers ofthe time in France, having been only conceived and delivered twoyears prior, would likely have had vacuum tubes, with electricalline or ferrite core working memory able to store anywhere from 60to 256 words, and a backup storage drum able to hold anywhere from2,000 to 32,000 words depending on the model. Clock speeds wouldhave been in the 100???s of kHz and likely would not have exceededeven half a MHz. The input systems for computers of the time periodwere almost certainly punch cards, which meant a user would firstneed to produce the punch card for a text, and then have it fedinto the system. For output, a user could make use of either anelectronic printer known as a ???Num??rograph,??????fiche-texte,??? or reels of computer punched tape thatonly another computer could then read (Mounier-Kouhn, 1990).

When the ARTFL project was created, in 1981, the database wastransferred to more modern computers of the period they would havebeen servers somewhat similar to what is in use today, thoughadmittedly much slower and much larger. As the ARTFL project becamepublicly accessible, it quickly became apparent that a modernsearch tool was necessary to truly tap into the databasespotential. PhiloLogic is that tool. PhiloLogic isessentially a full-text search enging built primarily for use withthe ARTFL database, but available for other projects. AlthoughARTFL has its own sophisticated set of instructions, it remains(even to this day) remarkably well documented and is actually quiteeasy for anyone to use. The ARTFL project is available on the WorldWide Web, and therefore uses HyperText Markup Language (HTML) forviewing with an internet browser that anyone in the world with aninternet connection can use. The PhiloLogic tool is available foruse on the projects website, though a subscription is required toaccess the database.


Robare, Lori, and Joni Roberts. "ARTFL Project." College & Research Libraries News 61, no. 10 (November 2000): 942. Education Research Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed September 24, 2010).

Morrissey, Robert. "Texts and Contexts: The ARTFL Database in French Studies." Profession (1993): 27-33. MLA International Bibliography, EBSCOhost (accessed September 24, 2010).

Mounier-Kuhn, Pierre-E. "Specifications of Twelve Early Computers Made in France." IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 12, no. 1 (January 1, 1990): 3. TOC Plus, EBSCOhost (accessed September 24, 2010).

Wolff, M. "Poststructuralism and the ARTFL Database: Some Theoretical Considerations." INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY AND LIBRARIES 13, no. 1 (1994): 35. British Library Document Supply Centre Inside Serials & Conference Proceedings, EBSCOhost (accessed September 24, 2010).

External Links

American and French Research on the Treasury of the French Language Project (ARTFL) - Home Page

ARTFL Database - University of Alberta Access

University of Chicago - Homepage

Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique'; = '#ff0000';" onMouseOut = "this.innerHTML = 'Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique'; = '#000000';">Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique - Homepage

PhiloLogic Old Homepage

PhiloLogic - New Homepage

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