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).
The Roman invasion of Gaul
The French language is a Romance dialect, 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 Vulgar Latin, the colloquial dialect spoken by the Roman army and its agents and not the literary dialect of Cicero.
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).
Linguists typically divide the languages spoken in medieval France into three geographical subgroups: Langue d'Oïl and Langue d'Oc being the major ones with Franco-Provençal being considered transitional between the two major groups.
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. The French language developed on the basis of the mutually comprehensible features of the langues d'Oïl.
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.
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 which was 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.
Because of the Norman conquest, perhaps as much as two thirds of modern English comes from French.
History of French
For the period up to around 1300, some linguists refer to the oïl languages collectively as Old French ("l'ancien français"). 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. With the imposition of a standardised chancery dialect and the loss of the declension system, the dialect 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 foundation of the Académie française in 1634 by Richelieu created an 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 adaptation of foreign words and expressions : software became logiciel, packet-boat became paquebot and riding-coat became 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, French was the lingua franca of educated Europe, especially with regards to the arts and literature, and monarchs such as Frederick II of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia could both speak and write in French.
Through the Académie, public education, centuries of official control and the role of media, a unified official French langauge 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 the Touraine region (around Tours and the Loire valley), but such value judgments are frought 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 difficult to predict.
Other languages of France
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 regional languages were spoken, and continue to be spoken as minority languages, 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 was spoken. One also found Alsatian (a Germanic language), 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 1880s, 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, some members 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. See also Languages of France.
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. There is also pressure, in differing degrees, from regions for a measure of recognition and support for their regional languages.
French is an official language in the following countries:
Although not official, French is the major second language in the following countries.
La Francophonie is an international organization of French-speaking countries and governments.
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 Quebec and 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 Quebec. (See Charter of the French Language.) In Ontario, French does not have fully official status, although the provincial government does provide full French language services in 23 designated communities where significant numbers of franco-ontarians live.
All of the other provinces do make some effort to accommodate the needs of their francophone citizens, although the level and quality of French-language service varies significantly from province to province.
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].
French grammar shares several notable features with most other Romance languages, including:
French word order is Subject Verb Object.
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:
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-Romance 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.
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:
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, 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.
The ligatures æ and œ are a mandatory contraction of ae and oe in certain words (sœur "sister" /sœʁ/, œuvre "work [of art]" /œvʁ/, cœur "heart" /kœʁ/, cœlacanthe "Coelacanth" /selakɑ̃t/), sometimes in words of Greek origin, spelled with an οι /oj/ diphtong which became oe in Latin, pronounced /e/ in French (and other Romance languages): œsophage /ezɔfaʒ/, œnologie /enɔlɔʒi/. It may also appear in œu digraph (or œ alone in œil "eye"), in words that were once written with eu digraph (which could be read /y/ or /œ/, depending on the word): bœuf "ox" /bœf/ (Old French buef or beuf), mœurs /mœʁ/ "custom", œil "eye" /œj/, etc. In these cases, Latin etymon must be spelled with an o where the French word has œu: bovem > bœuf, mores > mœurs, oculum > œil.
Some attempts have been made to reform French spelling, but few major changes have been made over the last two centuries.
Some common phrases