French Language

  • In the news

  • Language anniversary forgotten
    London Free Press, Canada -
    ... remembers being called a Nazi and a traitor in 1974, when he was Quebec education minister and introduced landmark legislation to promote the French language. ...
  • Culture: Rwanda 'Turning' Its Back On French Language, Africa -
    ... In July 1994, Rwanda, whose official language had been French since independence in 1962, decreed that all laws be published in both French and English and ...
  • Swiss Voters Set to Reject Referendum
    Kansas City Star (subscription), United States -
    ... The country's French- and German-speaking regions were deeply divided, with French-language Geneva and Jura accepting the proposals and German-language Alpine ...
  • French Language to be part of Police training
    GhanaWeb, Ghana -
    27, GNA - President John Agyekum Kufuor on Friday announced that French language would be taught at Police Training Colleges in view of the increasing co ...
  • Banging the drum for German music
    International Herald Tribune, France -
    ... The plan draws inspiration from France, where a quota was set up in 1996 to protect French-language musicians. The system has breathed ...
French (le français, la langue française) is one of the most important Romance languages, outnumbered only by Spanish and Portuguese. French is the 11th most spoken language in the world, spoken by about 77 million people (called Francophones) as a mother tongue, and 128 million including second language speakers, in 1999. It is an official or administrative language in various communities and organizations (such as the European Union, IOC, United Nations and Universal Postal Union).

French (Français)
Spoken in: France and 53 other countries.
Total speakers: 128 Million
Ranking: 11
Official status
Official language of: France and 24 other countries
Regulated by: Académie française
Language codes
ISO 639-1: fr
ISO 639-2(B): fre
ISO 639-2(T): fra

1 History

2 Geographic distribution

3 Sounds

4 Grammar

5 Vocabulary

6 Writing system

7 See also

8 External links

Table of contents


The Roman Invasion of Gaul

The French language is a Romance language, meaning that it is descended from Latin. Before the Roman invasion of what is modern-day France by Julius Cæsar (58-52 B.C.), France was inhabited largely by a Celtic people that the Romans referred to as Gauls , although one also finds other linguistic/ethnic groups in France at this time, such as the Iberians (in southern France and Spain), the Ligurians (on the Mediterranean coast), Greek and Phoenician outposts (like Marseille) and the Vascons (on the Spanish/French border).

Although in the past many Frenchmen liked to refer to their descent from Gallic ancestors ("Nos ancêtres les gaulois"), perhaps fewer than 200 words with a Celtic etymology remain in French today (largely place and plant names and words dealing with rural life and the hearth). In the reverse direction, some words for Gallic objects which were new to the Romans (like clothing items) and for which there were no words in Latin were imported into Latin. Latin quickly became the lingua franca of the entire Gallic region for both mercantile, official and educational reasons, yet it should be remembered that this was the colloquial or vulgar Latin as spoken by the Roman army and its agents and not the literary language of Cicero.

The Franks

From the third century on, Western Europe was invaded by Germanic (or "Barbarian") tribes from the east, and some of these groups settled in Gaul. For the history of the French language, the most important of these groups are the Franks (northern France), the Alemanni (German/French border), the Burgundians (the Rhone valley) and the Visigoths (the Aquitaine region and Spain). These Germanic-speaking groups had a profound effect on the Latin spoken in their respective regions, altering both the pronunciation and the syntax. They also introduced a number of new words: perhaps as much as 15% of modern French comes from Germanic words (including many terms and expressions associated with their social structure and military tactics).

Langue d'Oïl

Linguists typically divide the languages spoken in medieval France into two geographical subgroups: Langue d'Oïl and Langue d'Oc. Langue d'Oïl (meaning the language where one says "oïl" for "yes") are those dialects in the north of France which were the most affected by the Frankish invasions (dialects like Picard, Walloon, Francien, Norman, etc.). From the baptism of the Frankish king Clovis (c.498) on, the Franks extended their power over much of northern Gaul. Over time, the Langue d'Oïl dialect spoken in the Ile-de-France (the region around Paris) called Francien supplanted the other dialects and became the basis for the official French language.

Langue d'Oc (meaning the language where one says "oc" for "yes") are those dialects in the south of France and northern Spain (see Ibero-Romance dialects) which remained closer to the original Latin (dialects like Gascon and Provençal, etc.).

Other Linguistic Groups

The early middles ages also saw the movement of other linguistic groups into France:

From the 5th to the 8th centuries, Celtic speaking peoples from south western Britain (Wales, Cornwall, Devon) traversed the English channel (both for reasons of trade and also as a result of the Anglo-Saxon invasions of England) and established themselves in Brittany. Although this is not a direct descendant of the pre-Roman Gallic, it is a Celtic dialect. This dialect is called Breton.

From the 6th to the 7th centuries, the Vascons crossed over the Pyrénées and influenced the occitan language dialect spoken in south-western France. This dialect is called Gascon.

The Norsemen or Vikings invaded France from the 9th century on and established themselves in what would come to be called the Normandy region; they took up the langue d'oïl dialect spoken in that region but also contributed words to French dealing with, among other things, maritime activities. With the Norman conquest of England in 1066 the Normans brought their Norman language to England; the dialect which developed in the Norman realms as a language of administration and literature is referred to as Anglo-Norman. Because of the Norman conquest, perhaps as much as two thirds of modern English comes from French.

Finally, the Arabs also supplied many words to French in this period, including words for luxury goods, spices, trade stuffs, sciences and mathematics.

History of French

For the period up to around 1300, linguists refer collectively to the langue d'oïl dialects as Old French ("l'ancien français"). With the final ascendancy of Francien and the loss of the declension system, the language is referred to as Middle French ("le moyen français"). Following a period of unification, regulation and purification, the French of the 17th to the 18th centuries is sometimes referred to as Classical French ("le français classique"), although many linguists simply refer to French language from the 17th century to today as Modern French. The earliest extant text in French is the Oath 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. 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.

The foundation of the Académie française in 1634 by Richelieu created a official body whose goal has been the purification and preservation of the French language. This group of 40 members (the "immortals") chosen for life still exists today and contributes to the policing of the language and the elimination of foreign words and expressions.

From the 17th to the 19th centuries, French was the lingua franca of educated Europe, especially with regards to the arts and litterature, and monarchs such as Frederick II of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia could both speak and write in French.

It is important however to realize that as of 1790 , one half of the French population did not speak or understand French and that many other languages were spoken in France. A huge part of southern France spoke Occitan dialects, such as Provençal, Gascon (including Béarnais), Auvergnat, Limousin, Languedocian and (along the Spanish border) Catalan. In the Savoie region of France, Franco-Provençal (a dialect considered halfway bewteen Langue d'Oc and Langue d'Oïl) was spoken. One also found Alsatian (a dialect of German), Flemish (a dialect of Dutch), Basque and Corsican (a dialect of Italian). Furthermore, even in those regions where French was spoken and understood, each region had its own particular accent and regionalisms. In the 1880's, the rise of French nationalism (via universal military service and national education) encouraged the suppression of regional differences and local dialects; by 1910, 90% of the French population understood French, although 50% still understood a local dialect. Since then, many of these linguistic groups have fought hard to maintain their linguistic traditions and in today's France one finds some of these local dialects coming back. Some linguists estimate that 10% of the French today understand a local dialect (although they may not speak it).

Modern Issues

There is some debate in today's France about the preservation of the French language and the influence of English (or "franglais"), especially with regards to international business, the sciences and popular culture. There have been laws 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.

Geographic distribution

French is an official language in the following countries:

country native speakers population pop. dens. area
  (rough est.) (July 2003 est.) (/km2) (km2)
France (Metropolitan) 60,000,000 60,180,600 105 547,030
Democratic Republic of the Congo 55,225,478 24 2,345,410
Canada 6,700,000 32,207,000 3 9,976,140
Madagascar 16,979,900 - 587,040
Côte d'Ivoire 16,962,500 - 322,460
Cameroon 15,746,200 - 422,277
Burkina Faso 13,228,500 - 274,200
Mali 11,626,300 - 1,240,000
Senegal 10,580,400 - 196,190
Belgium 4,000,000 10,290,000 335 30,510
Rwanda 7,810,100 - 26,338
Haiti 7,527,800 - 27,750
Switzerland 1,400,000 7,318,638 - 41,290
Burundi 6,096,156 - 27,830
Togo 5,429,300 - 56,785
Central African Republic 3,683,600 - 622,984
Republic of the Congo 2,954,300 - 342,000
Gabon 1,321,500 - 267,667
Comoros 632,948 - 2,170
Djibouti 457,130 - 23,000
Luxembourg 100,000 454,157 171 2,586
Guadeloupe 442,200 - 1,780
Martinique 390,200 - 1,100
Mauritius 1,000,000 1,210,500 - 2,040
Vanuatu 200,000 - 12,200
Seychelles 80,469 - 455

Although not official, French is the major second language in the following countries.

country population pop. dens. area
  (July 2003 est.) (/km2)


Algeria 32,810,500 - 2,381,440
Tunisia 9,924,800 - 163,610
Morocco 31,689,600 - 446,550

Also, there are some French-speakers in Egypt, India (Pondicherry), Italy (Aosta Valley), Laos, Mauritania, United Kingdom (Channel Islands), United States of America (mainly Louisiana & New England) and Vietnam.

La Francophonie is an international organization of French-speaking countries and governments.

Historically, for nearly 300 years Anglo-Norman French was also the language of the ruling classes and commerce in England, from the time of the Norman Conquest until 1362, when the use of English was resumed.

Legal status in France

France mandates the use of French in official government publications, education (though these dispositions are often ignored) and legal contracts; advertisements must bear a translation of foreign words. Contrary to a misunderstanding common in the American and British media, France does not prohibit the use of foreign words in Web pages or any other private publication, which would anyway contradict constitutional guarantees on freedom of speech.

Legal status in Canada

French is one of Canada's two official languages, with English; various provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms deal with the right of Canadians to access services in English and French all across Canada. By law, the federal government must operate and provide services in both English and French; proceedings of the Parliament of Canada must be translated into both English and French; and all Canadian products must be labelled in both English and French.

French is an official language of New Brunswick, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut, and is the sole official language of Québec. See Charter of the French Language.

Dialects of French

Languages derived from French


French spelling is by no means phonetic. Terminal consonants have often become silent in most dialects, unless followed by a vowel sound (liaison) or silent altogether (e.g., "et" is never pronounced with the ending "t"). In many words, the "n" and "m" become silent and cause the preceding vowel to become nasalized (i.e. pronounced with the soft palate extended downward so as to cause the air to leave through the nostrils instead of through the mouth). Furthermore, French words tend to run together when spoken, with ending consonants often being chained to the start of the next word.


Oral vowels of French (in IPA):


Traditionally, French is described as having four distinct nasal vowels: [ɛ̃], [ɑ̃], [ɔ̃], and [œ̃]; however, many speakers have merged [œ̃] and [ɛ̃].

Note: /ɑ/ is for many speakers no longer a phoneme. Whether /ə/ (Schwa) is a phoneme of French is controversial. Some see it as an allophone of /ø/

i si si 'if'
e se ses 'his, hers' (pl)
ɛ sait 'knows'
sɛʁ serre 'greenhouse'
y sy su 'known'
ø ceux 'these'
œ sœʁ sœur 'sister'
ə ce 'this'
a sa sa 'his, hers' (f)
u su sous 'under'
o so sot 'silly'
ɔ sɔʁ sort 'fate'
ɑ̃ sɑ̃ sans 'without'
ɔ̃ sɔ̃ son 'his, hers' (m sg)
ɛ̃ sɛ̃ saint 'saint'


Bilabial Labio-
Dental Palato-
Palatal Velar Uvular
Plosive p b t d k g
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ1
Fricative f v s z ʃ ʒ ʁ
Lateral approximant l

Palatal Labial-Palatal Labial-Velar
Approximant j ɥ w

Notes; #The velar nasal is not a native phoneme of French, but occurs in loan words such as le parking.


Main article: French grammar French grammar shares several notable features with most other Romance languages, including:

  • the loss of Latin's declensions
  • only two grammatical genders
  • the development of grammatical articles from Latin demonstratives
  • new tenses formed from auxiliaries
French word order is Subject Verb Object.


Word Origins

The majority of French words originated from vernacular Latin or were constructed from Latin or Greek roots. There are often pairs of words, one form being popular (noun) and the other one savant (adjective), both originating from Latin. Example:

  • brother: frère (brother) / fraternel
  • finger: doigt / digital
  • faith: foi (faith) / fidèle
  • cold: froid / frigide
  • eye: œil / oculaire
The French words which have developed from Latin are usually less recognisable than Italian words of Latin origin because as French developed into a separate language from Vulgar Latin, the unstressed final syllable of many words was dropped or elided into the following word.

It is estimated that a little less than 13% (4,200) of common French words found in a typical dictionary such as the Petit Larousse or Micro-Robert Plus (35,000 words) are of foreign origin. About 25% (1,054) of these foreign words come from English and are fairly recent borrows. The others are some 707 words from Italian, 550 from ancient Germanic languages, 481 from ancient Gallo-Roman languages, 215 from Arabic, 164 from German, 160 from Celtic languages, 159 from Spanish, 153 from Dutch, 112 Persian and Sanskrit, 101 Native American languages, 89 from other Asian languages, 56 from Afro-Asiatic languages, 55 Slavic languages and Baltic languages, 144 from other languages (3% of the total).

Source: Henriette Walter, Gérard Walter, Dictionnaire des mots d'origine étrangère, 1998.

Writing system

French is written using the Latin alphabet, plus five diacritics (the circumflex accent, acute accent, grave accent, diaeresis, and cedilla) and a ligature (œ).

Spelling corresponds only weakly to pronunciation; in general, the written form is more conservative than the spoken form. This is mainly due to extreme phonetic changes since the Old French period, without a corresponding change in spelling. However, some conscious changes were also made to restore Latin orthography:

  • Old French doit > French doigt "finger" (Latin digitum)
  • Old French pie > French pied "foot" (Latin pedem)
As a result, it is nearly impossible to predict the spelling based on the sound alone. Final consonants are silent more often than not. For example, all these words end in a vowel sound: nez, doigt, pied, aller, œufs, œil, les, lit, beaux.

On the other hand, it's very generally possible to predict the sound based on the spelling.

The diacritics have phonetic, semantic, and etymological significance.

  • grave accent (à, è, ù): Over a or u, used only to distinguish homophones: à ("to") vs. a ("has"), ou ("or") vs. ("where"). Over an e, indicates the sound /ε/.
  • acute accent (é): Over an e, indicates the sound /e/. Often indicates the historical deletion of a following consonant (usually an s): écouter < escouter.
  • circumflex (â, ê, î, ô û): Over an e, indicates the sound /ε/. Most often indicates the historical deletion of an adjacent letter (usually an s): château < castel, fête < feste, sûr < seur, dîner < disner. By extension, it has also come to be used to distinguish homophones: du ("of the") vs. (past participle of devoir "to owe").
  • diaeresis or tréma (ë, ï): Indicates that a vowel is to be pronounced separately from the preceding one: naïve, Noël. Diaeresis on ÿ only occurs in some proper names (such as l'Haÿ-les-Roses) and in old French.
  • cedilla (ç): Indicates that a c is prononuced /s/ when it would otherwise be pronounced /k/.
The Walloon dialect has introduced the å for the long open o, a long closed o, or a long a, depending on the local varieties.

The ligature œ is a mandatory contraction of oe in certain words (sœur, œuvre, cœur), sometimes in words of Greek origin (œsophage, œnologie). It may be pronounced as /e/ in those latter cases, otherwise just the same as the eu digraph.

Some attempts have been made to reform French spelling, but few changes have been made over the last two centuries.

Some common phrases

  • French: français /fʁɑ̃ sɛ/ ("fran-seh")
  • hello: bonjour /bɔ̃ ʒuʁ/ ("bon-zhoor")
  • good-bye: au revoir /o ʁə vwaʁ/ ("o-ruh-vwar")
  • please: s'il vous plaît /sil vu plɛ/ ("sill voo pleh")
  • thank you: merci /mɛʁ si/ ("mairr-see")
  • you're welcome: de rien /də ʁjɛ̃/ ("duh ryeh") (France); bienvenue /bjɛ̃v ny/ ("byeh-venuh") (Quebec)
  • that one: celui-là /səlɥi la/ ("sull-wee la") or celle-là /sɛl la/ ("cell-la")
  • how much?: combien /kɔ̃ bjɛ̃/ ("kom-byeh")
  • English: anglais /ɑ̃ glɛ/ ("ahng-gleh")
  • yes: oui /wi/ ("wee")
  • no: non /nɔ̃/ ("non")
  • I'm sorry: Je suis désolé /ʒə sɥi de zo le/ ("zhuh swee deh-zo-leh")
  • I don't understand: Je ne comprends pas /ʒə̃ nə kɔ̃ pʁɑ̃ pa/ ("zhuh nuh comprahn pa")
  • Where is the toilet?: Où sont les toilettes? /u sɔ̃ le twa lɛt/ ("oo son leh twa-let")
  • Cheers (toast to someone's health): Tchin ("chin") or Santé /sɑ̃ te/("san-teh")
  • Do you speak English?: Parlez-vous anglais ? /paʁ le vu zɑ̃ glɛ/ ("par-leh voo ang-gleh") OR "Vous parlez anglais ?" /vu paʁ le zɑ̃ glɛ/ ("voo par-leh ang-leh")
  • shit!: merde! /mɛʁd/ ("maird")

See also

External links