French language

French (Français)
Spoken in: France, Canada, Belgium, Switzerland, U.S. state of Louisiana, Haiti, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar, Côte d'Ivoire, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, Rwanda, Burundi, Togo, Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Comoros, Djibouti, Mauritius, Seychelles.
Region: Africa, Europe, Americas
Total speakers: 77 million (128 million with second language speakers)
Ranking: 11
Genetic classification: Indo-European


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

French (français, spelled françois until 1835, both pronounced in standard French, but often heard pronounced ), or French language (langue française, formerly langue françoise, both pronounced ), is the third of the Romance languages in terms of number of speakers, after 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 BC), France was inhabited largely by a Celtic people that the Romans referred to as Gauls, although there were also 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 earth). In the reverse direction, some words for Gallic objects which were new to the Romans and for which there were no words in Latin were imported into Latin — for example, clothing items 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 in northern France, the Alemanni in the German/French border, the Burgundians in the Rhone valley and the Visigoths in 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. It is comparable to the divide that once existed between "yes" in the south of England and "aye" in the North.

Langue d'Oïl, the language where one says oïl (or nowadays oui) for "yes", is those dialects in the north of France which were the most affected by the Frankish invasions, 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, the language where one says oc for "yes", is those dialects in the south of France and northern Spain (Ibero-Romance dialects) which remained closer to the original Latin, like Gascon and Provençal, etc.

Romance languages outside of France derive their word for "yes" from sic, Latin for "thus".

Other linguistic groups

The early middle ages also saw the influence of other linguistic groups on the dialects of France:

From the 5th to the 8th centuries, Celtic-speaking peoples from southwestern Britain (Wales, Cornwall, Devon) traveled across the English Channel, both for reasons of trade and as a result of the Anglo-Saxon invasions of England. They established themselves in Bretagne (Brittany); the language they spoke is a Celtic dialect called Breton.

From the 6th to the 7th centuries, the Vascons crossed over the Pyrénées, a mountain range in the south of France. Their presence influenced the Occitan language spoken in southwestern France, resulting in the dialect called Gascon.

The Norsemen or Vikings invaded France from the 9th century onward and established themselves in what would come to be called Normandie (Normandy). They took up the langue d'oïl spoken there and contributed many words to French related to maritime activities, amongst other things.

With their conquest of England in 1066, the Normans took their language to England. The dialect that developed there as a language of administration and literature is referred to as Anglo-Norman. Anglo-Norman served as the language of the ruling classes and commerce in England from the time of the conquest until 1362, when the use of English resumed. Because of the Norman conquest, the English language has borrowed a considerable amount of vocabulary from French.

The Arab peoples also supplied many words to French around this time 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 (français moderne).

The foundation of the Académie française (French Academy) in 1634 by Cardinal Richelieu created an official body whose goal has been the purification and preservation of the French language. This group of 40 members is known as the Immortals, not as some erroneously believe because they are chosen to serve for the extent of their lives (which they are), but because of the inscription engraved on the official seal given to them by their founder Richelieu — "À l'immortalité" (to the Immortality -- understand "of the French language"). It still exists today and contributes to the policing of the language and the adaptation of foreign words and expressions. Some recent modifications include the change from software to logiciel, packet-boat to paquebot, and riding-coat to 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 Touraine (around Tours and the Loire River valley), but such value judgments are fraught 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.

Modern issues

There is some debate in today's France about the preservation of the French language and the influence of English (see franglais), especially with regard to international business, the sciences and popular culture. There have been laws (see Toubon law) 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 some regions as well as minority political or cultural groups for a measure of recognition and support for their regional languages.

Geographic distribution

Missing image
blue: French-speaking; violet: language of administration; red: language of culture; green: minority

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 (including bilinguals) 9,662,100 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
Monaco - 31,842 - 1.95

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, Russia, and the Czech Republic.

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

Legal status in France

Per the Constitution of France, French is the official language of the Republic since 1958.

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; advertisements must bear a translation of foreign words. See Toubon Law.

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 misunderstanding may have arisen from a similar prohibition in the Canadian province of Quebec which made strict application of the Charter of the French Language between 1977 and 1993, although these regulations addressed language used in advertising and the provision of commercial services offered within the province, not the language of private communication.

There exist in addition to French a variety of languages spoken in France by minorities; see Languages of France.

Legal status in Canada

About 12% 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 and 18% are bilingual.

French is the only 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 Yukon Territory, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. In Ontario and Manitoba, French does not have full official status, although the provincial governments do provide full French-language services in all communities where significant numbers of francophones 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.

Legal status in Switzerland

French is an official language in Switzerland. It is spoken in the part of Switzerland called Romandy.

Dialects of French

linguasphere on Romance languages (

Languages derived from French


Main article: French phonology and orthography

Template:IPA notice 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:

  • liaison 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. ParisienParisienne) 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 spelt → 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 does not 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 ( 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 instead of the defaults or,
      • "è" means that the vowel is pronounced (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 (or following one in some cases), not combined,
      • the "ç" means that the letter c is pronounced , regardless of the vowel following it. ("c" is otherwise hard before a back vowel.)
    • Accents with no pronunciation effect:
      • The circumflex (e.g. pâté, 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 etymological reasons, as in the case of distinguishing the adverbs and ("there", "where") from the article la and the conjunction ou ("the fem. sing.", "or") respectively.


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 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 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 from Persian and Sanskrit, 101 from Native American languages, 89 from other Asian languages, 56 from Afro-Asiatic languages, 55 from Slavic languages and Baltic languages, and 144 from other languages (3 percent of the total).

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

Levels of register

French, like many other languages, possesses a continuum of several levels of register. The colloquial register is used in almost any circumstance of life, and should not be confused with slang or rude talk. Formal French is used in writing or in formal occasions (when people make official speeches or when they are interviewed on television, for instance). Some level of formality is also normally used in classrooms in France, although colloquial French is now spoken by more and more professors with their students.

Colloquial French differs from formal French in terms of grammar. For instance, the negation in formal French is "ne... pas", whereas in colloquial French it is simply "... pas", such as "I don't think so", which is "Je ne crois pas" in formal French, and "Je crois pas" in colloquial French. Another example of change in grammar is the way to ask a question: by inverting verb and subject in formal French, or also by using "est-ce que", whereas in colloquial French a question is phrased exactly as an affirmation, with the voice rising in the end. E.g.: "Is he sick?" would be "Est-il malade?" or "Est-ce qu'il est malade?" in formal French, and "Il est malade?" in colloquial French.

Secondly, colloquial French differs from formal French in terms of pronunciation. Some words undergo shortening, or sound change, whereas some syllables are dropped altogether. For instance, "yes" is "oui" in formal French, and becomes "ouais" in colloquial French; "I" is "je" in formal French, but becomes "j' " in colloquial French; so a sentence like "I think he'll come" is "Je pense qu'il viendra" in formal French, and "J'pense qu'i'viendra" in colloquial French. There are many instances of shortening of words, such as "teacher", which is "professeur" in formal French, but becomes "prof" in colloquial French.

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 on the basis of 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 .
  • acute accent (é): Over an e, indicates the sound . 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 or , 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. Since the 1990 orthographic rectifications, the diaeresis in words containing guë (such as aiguë or ciguë) was moved onto the u: aigüe, cigüe.
  • cedilla (ç): Indicates that an etymological c is pronounced when it would otherwise be pronounced /k/. Thus je lance "I throw" (with c = before e), je lançai "I threw" (c would be pronounced before a without the cedilla).

The ligature œ is a mandatory contraction of oe in certain words (sœur "sister" , œuvre "work [of art]" , cœur "heart" , cœlacanthe "Coelacanth" ), sometimes in words of Greek origin, spelled with an οι diphthong which became oe in Latin, pronounced in French (and other Romance languages): œsophage , œnologie . 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 or , depending on the word): bœuf "ox" (Old French buef or beuf), mœurs "custom", œil "eye" , etc. In these cases, the 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 ("fran-seh")
  • hello: bonjour ("bon-zhoor")
  • I love you. : Je t'aime. ("jhe tem")
  • My name is _____: Je m'appelle _____ ("zjem-ap-pelle")
  • good-bye: au revoir ("o-ruh-vwar")
  • please: s'il vous plaît ("sill voo pleh")
  • thank you: merci ("mairr-see")
  • you're welcome: de rien (Literally: It's nothing) ("duh ryeh"), je vous en prie, pas de quoi (France); bienvenue ("byeh-venuh") (Quebec)
  • that one: celui-là ("sull-wee la"), colloq. ("swee la"), or celle-là (feminine) ("cell-la")
  • how much?: combien? ("kom-byen")
  • English: anglais ("ahng-gleh")
  • yes: oui ("wee"), colloq. ouais (seldom written) ("way")
  • no: non ("non")
  • I'm sorry: Je suis désolé. ("zhuh swee deh-zo-leh"), colloq. ("shswee deh-zo-leh"). Pardon ("par-dohn")
  • I don't understand: Je ne comprends pas. ("zhuh nuh comprahn pa"), colloq. Je comprends pas (with dropping of "ne") ("shcomprahn pa")
  • Where are the toilets? : Où sont les toilettes ? ("oo son leh twa-let")
  • Cheers (toast to someone's health): Tchin ("chin"), Santé ("san-teh") or À la vôtre ("a la votr")
  • Do you speak English?: Parlez-vous anglais ? ("par-leh voo ang-gleh") OR "Vous parlez anglais ?" ("voo par-leh ang-leh")
  • Excuse me : Excusez-moi ("eks-kyu-say mwa")
  • 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 ? : Est-ce que vous venez ? (or with close friends and relatives: tu viens?)
  • I'm thinking about it : J'y pense. ("jhee pahnss")
  • I'm going to the grocer's: Je vais à l'épicerie. ("jhe vay a lay-pee-ser-ee")
  • We're going to school: On va à l'école. ("ohn va a lay-cohl")
  • She's so pretty. : Elle est si jolie. ("el ay see jho-lee")
  • 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")
  • It's the best of worlds : C'est le meilleur des mondes. ("tsay le may-yuhr day mohnd")
  • Go to bed ! : Va au lit ! ("vah oh lee")
  • I'm watching TV. : Je regarde la télé. ("jhe re-gard la tay-lay")
  • Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: Wikipédia, l'encyclopédie gratuite et libre. ("wee-kee-pay-dee-ah, lahns-ee-kloh-pay-dee grah-too-ee tay lee-bruh")
  • The state is me. : L'état, c'est moi. ("leh-tah seh-mwa")

See also

External links

Dialects of the French language

France French (français méridional, Orléanais, Bourbonnais-Berrichon) – Canadian French (Acadian, Quebec) – African French (Maghreb)

Belgian FrenchCajun FrenchCambodian French

français d'AosteSwiss French


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