French language

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French, occasionally called Langue d'Oïl (in its own language: français [fʀɑ̃sɛ] or rarely langue d'oïl [lɑ̃gdɔil]/[lɑ̃gdɔjl]), is the third-largest of the Romance languages in terms of number of native speakers, after Spanish and Portuguese. French is spoken by about 200 million people, among whom 128 million "are able to cope with common communicative situations".[1] French speakers are mainly located in Europe, Canada and Africa. It is an official language in 41 countries, most of which form what is called in French La Francophonie, the community of French-speaking nations.

Descended from the Latin of the Roman Empire, its development was influenced by the native Celtic languages of Roman Gaul (particularly in pronunciation), and by the Germanic language of the post-Roman Frankish invaders. This is one of the reasons why certain French sounds and spellings are distinctly different from those of neighbouring Romance languages and why Spanish and Italian sound more similar to one another than French does to either of them.

A lingua franca in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, its international role then declined to the benefit of English. It has kept some international recognition, however, being one of the two official languages of NATO and IOC, and one of the two working languages of the UN Secretariat.

Name, origin and definition issues

French and the Franks

French was born in northern Gaul (northern France) around the 8th century, from Vulgar Latin, but under the influence of the Germanic-speaking Franks (see below: History and Cradle). The native name of the language, français (archaically franceis), comes from the country name France, that comes from Latin Francia which use to mean initially "Land of the Franks". Similarly, the English name French comes from Old English frencisc, that is "Frankish, related to the Franks". This highlights the fact that French, although it emerged from Vulgar Latin around the 8th century, was strongly influenced during its genesis by the massive presence in northern Gaul of the Franks who used to speak Frankish, a Germanic language. So northern Gaul was a Latin-Frankish bilingual country from the 4th to the 8th centuries, then it became slowly a French (Romance)-Frankish (Germanic) bilingual country during the 8th and the 9th centuries, before French became the only usual language.

Therefore, French is the sole Romance language which bears a very heavy Germanic influence, making it quite particular compared with other Romance languages. It is also the only Romance language which is named after a Germanic ethnic group.

French or Langue d'Oïl

French is sometimes called Langue d'Oïl (“language of oïl”), oïl being an old variant of oui “yes”. This name was spread notably from De vulgari eloquentia (1303-1305), the famous essay by Italian writer Dante Alighieri, where three Romance languages were identified by the way of saying “yes”: Langue d'Oïl (“language of oïl” or French), Lingua di Sì (“language of sì” or Italian) and Lenga d'Òc (“language of òc” or Occitan).

One Langue d'Oïl or several Langues d'Oïl?

In traditional Romance linguistics, French and Langue d'Oïl are synonyms and both terms include a range of various regional dialects beside standard French.[2][3][4][5] But since the 1970s, some linguists have supported a new conception according to which the Langues d'Oïl (in plural) would be a subgroup of northern Romance languages and, inside it, each former French 'dialect' would become a 'language' distinct from 'French' proper. Those newly claimed Oïl languages would be for example French, Picard, Norman, Walloon, Morvandiau, Poitevin-Saintongeais, Gallo, Champenois, Lorrain and so forth.[6][7] This vision is not wholly accepted and some linguists reject it.[8]


Main article: History of French

By the middle of the first century BCE, northern Gaul was completely conquered by the Romans. Latin, and especially Vulgar Latin (i.e the popular language) progressively replaced the local Gaulish languages. The remnants of Gaulish languages are to be found in some phonological features and in a few words mostly dealing with rural life.

Germanic tribes settled in Gaul during the Migration Period. The most important, that of the Franks, gave its name to France. Germanic presence in France caused some changes in pronunciation and grammar, especially in the Northern half of Gaul. It evolved into a number of mutually intelligible dialects of the Langue d'Oïl. Though a variety of dialects remained for long, a common juridical and literary languages arose during the High Middle Ages. By the late 13th century, this common language was called interlingua Gallica (French common language). It progressively extended to Occitan-speaking areas in the South of France. 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 was still in use in official texts.

In the 16th century, Humanists paid a great interest to vernacular language. It was a period of multilinguism and many tried to enhance French technical accuracy and expressive possibilites by transposing words from dialects and other languages such as Italian, Greek, and above all Latin. In that time of linguistic dynamism, spellings and even vocabulary often changed from one author to the next. The following century was that of the unification of linguistic codes. A significant date is the foundation of the Académie française in 1635. Its aim was to embellish the French language and define a single linguistic model.[9] In 1694, the academy published a dictionnary that ought to define the right usage of words. The 17th century ideal was one of purity and simplicity of expression which was often associated with the French language in the following centuries. French formal language has changed relatively little since that period.

International status

Owing to the preeminent cultural and political role of France in 17th and 18th century Europe, French has been widely used in diplomacy but its international position has sharply declined to the benefit of English, especially after World War II. There are some traces of the past grandeur of French in diplomacy however. Notably, it is one of the two working languages of the UN Secretariat.

Geographic distribution

Primarily a European language, French has extended to other parts of the world, firstly through French expansion in Europe and, then, through French colonization out of Europe.


The initial area of French may be called the Pays d'Oïl [peidɔil / peidɔjl] (the 'country of Oïl'). It comprises roughly northern France (excepting zones where Breton, German and Dutch are spoken), southern Belgium (Wallonia), the Channel Islands and a northwestern tip of Switzerland (canton of Jura).

Neighbor languages are Occitan to the south, Francoprovençal to the southeast, Breton to the west, Dutch to the north and German to the northeast.

Inside the Pays d'Oïl, the standard variety of French expands continuously from Paris and causes the shrinkage of the French dialects (or the "Langues d'Oïl") toward peripheral zones.

Expansion in Europe

Conflict with other European languages

French threatens the use of minoritary languages in the following cases:

On the contrary, in the Channel Islands, French withdraws in front of English.

Status in Europe

French is the only official language of France and an official language in some neighbouring countries, most importantly in Belgium (the Regions of Wallonia and Brussels and Switzerland.

France mandates the use of French in official government publications, public education outside of specific cases (though these dispositions are often ignored) and legal contracts. Since the "Toubon Law" was carried in 1994, advertisements must bear a translation of foreign words. There exists, in addition to French, a variety of languages spoken in France by minorities.

More than 4 millions Belgians -around 40% of the national population- speak French as first language. It is the official language of most of Wallonia, while the main language of Flanders is Dutch. French and Dutch are both official languages of the Region of Brussels, the capital city. In the city of Brussels proper, most people speak French.

French is also an official language in Switzerland, where it is spoken by around 1.75 millions, mostly along the French border (Romandy).

It also has an official status in less populated areas: It is an official language in Luxembourg, along with German and Luxembourgish and in Val d'Aoste, Italy, along with Italian. It is the official language of the principality of Monaco.


France lost most of her American colonies through the Treaty of Paris (1763). However kept some pssessions in America and some French-speaking communities remained in other areas, most notably in Canada.

French is currently the official language in Overseas departments and territories of France (French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint Barthelemy, St. Martin, and Saint-Pierre and Miquelon). Haiti was a French colony until the beginning of the 19th century and French is still one of the official languages of the island, it is mostly spoken by the upperclass and well educated while Haitian Creole is more widely used.

French is along with English one of the two official languages of Canada at a federal level, though Provinces may choose their own provincial official tongue. Nearly a quarter of Canadians speak French as mother tongue. French native speakers are mainly located in the Eastern part of the country, epecially in Quebec, where French is the only provincial official tongue and in New Brunswick where it is co-official with English. Due to the geographical distance and close contacts with English as well as a will to ward it off, Canadian French has developed some particularities.

French is also an administrative language of Dominica and the U.S. state of Louisiana, where a dialect of French is still spoken by a few people.


French is an official language in most countries of the Western half of Africa, with the notable exception of Nigeria. This is to be ascribed to French and Belgian colonizations. French is widely used as a mean of national and international communication, though a great part of the population does not speak it as first language.

French is an official language in 22 African countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Congo (Brazzaville), Côte d'Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Guinea, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritius, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Seychelles and Togo. All but Equatorial Guinea were gouverned by France or Belgium at one point.

In addition, French is an administrative language of Mauritania and is commonly understood (though not official) in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.

Other parts of the world

French is sometimes used in former French Indochina: it is an administrative language in Laos and is used unofficially in parts of Cambodia and Vietnam.

It is unofficially used Lebanon and Syria which were French mandates from 1920 to 1946, and in former French trading posts in India (Mahé, Karikal and Yanam). In Puducherry -also a former French trading post- French has an official is an official language along with the region's de facto Language Tamil.

French is an official language in the French possessions of Mayotte and Réunion both located in the Indian Ocean.

It is also an official language of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu, along with France's current possessions of French Polynesia, Wallis & Futuna and New Caledonia.


Main article: French grammar

French grammar shares notable features with most other Romance languages. It is a moderately inflected language. Nouns and most pronouns are inflected for number (singular or plural); adjectives, for the number and gender (masculine or feminine) of their nouns; personal pronouns, for person, number, gender, and case; and verbs, for mood, tense, and the person and number of their subjects. Case is primarily marked using word order and prepositions, and certain verb features are marked using auxiliary verbs.

French word order is Subject Verb Object, except when the object is a pronoun, in which case the word order is Subject Object Verb. Some rare archaisms allow for different word orders.


The majority of French words derive from vernacular or "vulgar" 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 < from latin FRATER
  • finger: doigt / digital < from latin DIGITVS
  • faith: foi (faith) / fidèle < from latin FIDES
  • cold: froid / frigide < from latin FRIGIDVS
  • eye: œil / oculaire < from latin OCVLVS
  • the city Saint-Étienne has as inhabitants the Stéphanois

In some examples there is a common word from "vulgar" Latin and a more savant word from classical Latin or even Greek.

  • Cheval - Concours équestre - Hippodrome

The French words which have developed from Latin are usually less re cognisable 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 12 percent (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 percent (1,054) of these foreign words come from English and are fairly recent borrowings.

Sound system

Main article: French phonology

Writing system

Main article: French orthography

French is written using the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet, plus five diacritics that are the circumflex accent (â, ê, î, ô, û), the acute accent (é), the grave accent (è, à, ù), the diaeresis (ë, ï, ü and rarely ÿ), the cedilla (ç) and two ligatures (œ and rarely æ). Some attempts have been made to reform French spelling, but few major changes have been made over the last two centuries.

Sounds, spelling and history

A given spelling almost always leads to a predictable sound, but the reverse is not true. French spelling does not follow purely phonetic rules. This is mainly due to changes in pronunciations that did not resulted in changes in spelling. The spelling of some words was also changed in the 16th century without any phonetic justification, to tally with their latin etymons:

  • Latin digitum > Old French doit > Modern French doigt [dwa] with silent g ("finger")
  • Latin pedem > Old French pie > Modern French pied [pje] with silent d ("foot")


  1. "La Francophonie dans le monde 2006-2007", Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, Éditions Nathan
  2. BEC Pierre (1970-71)(collab. Octave NANDRIS, Žarko MULJAČIĆ), Manuel pratique de philologie romane, Paris: Picard, 2 vol.
  3. ALLIÈRES Jacques (2001) Manuel de linguistique romane, coll. Bibliothèque de grammaire et de linguistique, Paris: Honoré Champion
  4. POSNER Rebecca (1996) The Romance languages, coll. Cambridge language surveys, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  5. HOLTUS Günter, & METZELTIN Michael, & SCHMITT Christian (1991) (dir.) Lexikon der Romanistischen Linguistik [LRL], Tübingen: Niemeyer, 8 vol.
  6. CERQUIGLINI Bernard (2003) (dir.) Les langues de France, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France / Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication-DGLFLF
  7. ÉLOY Jean-Michel (2004) (dir.) Des langues collatérales: problèmes linguistiques, sociolinguistiques et glottopolitiques de la proximité linguistique. Actes du Colloque international réuni à Amiens, du 21 au 24 novembre 2001, Paris: L'Harmattan
  8. PICOCHE Jacqueline, & MARCHELLO-NIZIA Christiane (1996) Histoire de la langue française, coll. Nathan Université / Linguistique, Paris: Nathan
  9. "La principale fonction de l’Académie sera de travailler avec tout le soin et toute la diligence possible à donner des règles certaines à notre langue et à la rendre pure, éloquente et capable de traiter les arts et les sciences." ("The main function of the Academy will be to work as carefully and as diligently as possible to give definites rules to our language and make it pure, eloquent and able to deal with arts and sciences") Statutes of the Academy, article 24.