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Encyclopedia > French (language)
French (Français)
Spoken in: France and 53 other countries
Region: Europe
Total speakers: 128 million
Ranking: 11
Genetic classification: Indo-European


Official status
Official language of: France and 24 other countries
Regulated by: Académie française
Language codes
ISO 639-1 fr
ISO 639-2 fre (B)/fra (T)

French (le français, la langue française) is one of the most important Romance languages, outnumbered in speakers only by Spanish and Portuguese. In 1999 French was the 11th most spoken language in the world being spoken by about 77 million people (called Francophones) as a mother tongue, and by 128 million altogether including second language speakers. 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 (such as les braies). 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.

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 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 middle 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 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 took 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.

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, some linguists refer to the oïl languages collectively as Old French (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 (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 (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 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 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

See major article 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. 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 national sentiment (via universal military service and national education) encouraged the suppression of regional differences and local languages and dialects; by 1910, 90% of the French population understood French, although 50% still understood a local language or 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 regional languages coming back. Some linguists estimate that 10% of the French today understand a regional language or dialect, although they may not speak it.

The geographical distribution of regional languages may be summarised as follows:

Much of southern France has been home to speakers of Occitan dialects, such as Provençal, Gascon (including Béarnais), Auvergnat, Limousin, Languedocian and (along the Spanish border) Catalan and the unrelated Basque language. In the Savoie region of eastern France, Franco-Provençal speakers can be found. In the north-eastern regions are speakers of Alsatian (a Germanic language), and Flemish (a dialect of Dutch). Across the north and west can be found speakers of the Oïl languages (such as Champenois, Walloon, Picard, Norman, Gallo and Poitevin-Saintongeais). Also in the west are speakers of Breton, while in the Mediterranean island of Corsica are speakers of Corsican (a language closely related to Italian). The French Republic also includes overseas territories populated by speakers of many other autochthonous languages.

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. There is also pressure, in differing degrees, from regions for a measure of recognition and support for their regional languages.

See also: Toubon law

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 7,100,000 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 400,000 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) (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 Lebanon,Cambodia, Egypt, India (Pondicherry), Italy (Aosta Valley), Laos, Mauritania, United Kingdom (Channel Islands), United States of America (mainly Louisiana and the New England region) and Vietnam.

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.

The myth may have arisen from a similar prohibition in the Canadian province of Quebec which made a rather draconian application of the Charter of the French Language between 1977 and 1993.

Legal status in Canada

About 9% of the world's Francophones are Canadian, and 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. Overall about 22 per cent of Canadians speak French as a first language.

French is the sole official language of Quebec. Between 1977 and 1993 Quebec had strict laws (See Charter of the French Language a.k.a. Bill 101) against non-French signs posted in public. Many provisions of Bill 101 have been ruled unconstitutional over the years, including those mandating French-only commercial signs, court proceedings and debates in the legislature. Even those provisions have in some cases remained in effect, using the constitutional "notwithstanding" clause that permits a non-compliant law to remain temporarily. In 1993 the Charter was changed to allow signage in other languages so long as French is markedly "predominant".

French is an official language of New Brunswick, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. 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


Main article: French phonology and orthography

French pronunciation follows strict rules based on spelling, but French spelling is often based more on history than phonology. The rules for pronunciation vary between dialects, but the standard rules are:

  • liason or linking: Final single consonants, in particular s, x, z, t, d, n and m, are normally mute. (The final letters 'c', 'r', 'f', and 'l' however are normally pronounced.) When the following word begins with a vowel, though, a silent consonant is once again pronounced, to provide a "link" between the two words and avoid a glottal stop between them. Certain words are exempt from this linking rule (e.g. et which never pronounces the "t"), but the exceptions vary between dialects and regions. Doubling a final consonant and adding a silent e at the end of a word (e.g. Parisien ==> Parisienne) makes it clearly pronounced, always.
  • elision or vowel dropping: Monosyllabic words such as je or que drop their final vowel before another word beginning with a vowel. The missing vowel is replaced by an apostrophe. (e.g. je ai is instead pronounced and spelled ==> j'ai)
  • nasal "n" and "m". When "n" or "m" follows a vowel combination, 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). Exceptions are when the "n" or "m" is doubled, or immediately followed by a vowel. The prefixes en- and em- are always nasalized. The rules get more complex than this but may vary between dialects.
  • digraphs French doesn't introduce extra letters or diacritics to specify its large range of vowel sounds and diphthongs, rather it uses specific combinations of vowels, sometimes with following consonants, to show which sound is intended. (See French phonology and orthography or French Pronunciation Guide (http://www.languageguide.org/francais/grammar/pronunciation/) for more details.)
  • accents are used sometimes for pronunciation, sometimes to distinguish similar words, and sometimes for etymology alone.
    • Accents that affect pronunciation:
      • "é", is pronounced /e/ instead of the defaults /ɛ/ or /ə/,
      • "è" means that the vowel is pronounced /ɛ/ (as usual) but that the following syllable is mute,
      • dieresis (e.g. naïve, Noël) as in English, specifies that this vowel is pronounced separately from the preceding one, not combined,
      • The "ç" means that the letter c is pronounced /s/, regardless of the vowel following it. ("c" is otherwise hard /k/ before a back vowel.)
    • Accents with no pronunciation effect:
      • The circumflex (e.g. pâte, île) has no effect on pronunciation in several dialects but usually indicates a former long vowel created by the dropping of an "s" from the Latin root (as in English "paste", "isle"),
      • All other accents are used only to distinguish similar words or for etymology, such as the adverbs and ("there", "where") from article and conjunction la and ou ("the fem. sing.", "or").


Main article: French grammar

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

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-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.

Writing system

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

French spelling, like English spelling, tends to preserve obsolete pronunciation rules. 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 generally silent, except when the following word begins with a vowel. For example, all of these words end in a vowel sound: nez, pied, aller, les, lit, beaux. The same words followed by a vowel, however, sound the consonants: beaux-arts, les amis, pied-a-terre.

On the other hand, a given spelling will almost always lead to a predictable sound, and the Académie française works hard to enforce and update this correspondence. In particular, a given vowel combination or diacritic predictably leads to one phoneme.

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 /ɜ/.
  • 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 or o, indicates the sound /ɜ/ or /o/, respectively. Most often indicates the historical deletion of an adjacent letter (usually an s or a vowel): 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"; note that is in fact written thus because of a dropped e: deu).
  • 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 modern editions of old French texts.
  • cedilla (ç): Indicates that an etymological c is pronounced /s/ when it would otherwise be pronounced /k/. Thus je lance "I throw" (with c = [s] before e), je lançai "I threw" (c would be pronounced [k] before a without the cedilla).

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

  • French: français /fʁɑ̃ sɛ/ ("fran-seh")
  • hello: bonjour /bɔ̃ ʒuʁ/ ("bon-zhoor")
  • My name is _____: Je m'appelle _____ ("zjem-ap-pelle")
  • 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"), je vous en prie, pas de quoi (France); bienvenue /bjɛ̃v(ə) ny/ ("byeh-venuh") (Quebec)
  • that one: celui-là /səlɥi la/ ("sull-wee la"), colloq. /sɥi la/ ("swee la"), or celle-là (feminine) /sɛl la/ ("cell-la")
  • how much?: combien /kɔ̃ bjɛ̃/ ("kom-byen")
  • English: anglais /ɑ̃ glɛ/ ("ahng-gleh")
  • yes: oui /wi/ ("wee"), colloq. ouais (seldom written) /wɛ/ ("way")
  • no: non /nɔ̃/ ("non")
  • I'm sorry: Je suis désolé. /ʒə sɥi de zo le/ ("zhuh swee deh-zo-leh"), colloq. /ʃsɥi de zo le/ ("shswee deh-zo-leh")
  • I don't understand: Je ne comprends pas. /ʒə nə kɔ̃ pʁɑ̃ pa/ ("zhuh nuh comprahn pa"), colloq. Je comprends pas /ʃkɔ̃ pʁɑ̃ pa/ (with dropping of "ne") ("shcomprahn 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"), Santé /sɑ̃ te/("san-teh") or À la vôtre /a la votʁ/ ("a la votr")
  • Do you speak English?: Parlez-vous anglais ? /paʁ le vu ɑ̃ glɛ/ ("par-leh voo ang-gleh") OR "Vous parlez anglais ?" /vu paʁ le ɑ̃ glɛ/ ("voo par-leh ang-leh")
  • Sorry : Pardon ("par-dohn")
  • Good night : Bonne nuit ("bun nwee")
  • Hi !: Salut ! ("sal-oo")
  • I'm tired : Je suis fatigué(e). (add the "e" if the speaker is feminine) ("jhe swee fah-tee-gay")
  • Are you coming ? : Venez-vous ? (or with close friends and relatives: Viens-tu ?) ("ven-ay voo") or ("vee-ahn too")
  • The Lord be with you ! : Le Seigneur soit avec vous ! ("leuh sehn-yoor swa avek voo")
  • And with you ! : Et avec votre esprit ! ("ay avek voh-trah espree")
  • Love thy neighbor. : Aime ton prochain. ("em tohn pro-shahn")
  • I'm thinking about it : J'y pense. ("jhee pahnss")
  • Sunday mass: Messe dominicale ("mess dom-in-ee-kahl")
  • I'm going to the grocer's: Je m'en vais à l'épicerie. ("jhe mahn vay a lay-pee-ser-ee")
  • We're walking to school: On marche vers l'école. ("ohn marsh vair lay-cohl")
  • She's so pretty. : Elle est si belle. ("el ay see bell")
  • Our neighbours to the South : Nos voisins du sud ("noh vwah-seen doo sood")
  • Can you help me ? : Pourriez-vous m'aider ? ("poo-ree-ay voo may-day")
  • May I help you ? : Puis-je vous aider? ("pwee-jha voo ay-day")
  • I need a tutor. : J'ai besoin d'un tuteur. ("jhay bez-wahn duhn toot-air")
  • It's the best of worlds : C'est le meilleur des mondes. ("tsay le may-yuhr day mohnd")
  • To salute the flag. : Saluer le drapeau. ("sall-oo-ay luh dra-poh")
  • Go to bed ! : Va au lit ! ("vah oh lee")
  • I'm watching TV. : Je regarde la télé. ("jhe ray-gard la tay-lay")
  • Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: Wikipédia, l'encyclopédie gratuite et libre. ("wee-kee-pee-dee-ah, lahns-eye-kloh-pay-dee grah-too-ee-tee ay lee-bruh")
  • I love you. : Je t'aime. ("jhe tem")

See also

  Results from FactBites:
French language. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001-05 (708 words)
Having served as an international language in diplomacy and commerce as well as among educated people during the last few centuries, it still enjoys great prestige culturally and is one of the languages used officially by the United Nations.
French is descended from Vulgar Latin, the vernacular Latin (as distinguished from literary Latin) of the Roman Empire (see Latin language).
In 1635 the French Academy was founded by Cardinal Richelieu to maintain the purity of the language and its literature and to serve as the ultimate judge of approved usage.
French language - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (3280 words)
French (français) is the third-largest of the Romance languages in terms of number of native speakers, after Spanish and Portuguese, being spoken by about 120 million people as a mother tongue or fluently.
It is the official language of the principality of Monaco and is spoken by a small minority in the principality of Andorra.
French is written using the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet, plus five diacritics (the circumflex accent, acute accent, grave accent, diaeresis, and cedilla) and the two ligatures (œ) and (æ).
  More results at FactBites »



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