one of the world's main languages
status of French
is one of the world’s major languages. It
is a main or official language not just in France, but in parts of
Belgium and Switzerland, in Monaco, in parts of Canada –
not only in Quebec – as well as being widely spoken in north
Africa, Lebanon, and parts of south-east Asia, particularly in former
French colonies. It is an official or a main second language in 55
countries worldwide, and is reputed to be the foreign language which is
most widely used in international communications, after English. Almost
300 million people speak French as their native language or as a second
Until the early twentieth century, French was the
language of diplomacy, and one of the two main languages of
international negotiation; today it is one of the six official
languages of the United Nations, and one of the two official languages,
with English, of the International Postal Union, of the International
Olympic Committee, the International Red Cross, and other
organisations. It is also an official language in the Channel Islands
of Jersey and Guernsey.
of French through the
A “romance” language, modern French is derived from
Latin (as are
Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and some other Mediterranean languages).
Mediaeval French was one of the main historic roots of modern English,
notably in terms of vocabulary.
Like all languages, French has
evolved considerably in the course of time; the oldest known document
written in a form of French, rather than late Latin, is the “Serments de
written in the year 842. In Mediaeval times, different forms of French
flourished as the language of literature in both France and England:
famous works from the time include the “Chansons de
(Songs of chivalry), notably the epic “Chanson de
the Roman de la Rose
(the Romance of the Rose), and the Arthurian
legends (many written in French in England). By the time
of the Renaissance, French had evolved to a point where writers such as
were writing in a language that is still quite comprehensible to a
modern day educated reader; as for the great writers of seventeenth
century France, Molière,
Corneille and Racine,
they remain quite understandable to this day.
Yet in recent centuries, change has been slower than with English, on
account of the French Academy, the Académie
one of whose remits is to act as guardian of the French language. The
Academy has frequently resisted changes to the French language,
insisting that existing and traditional forms of the language were, by
virtue of their existence, “correct French”.
and the influence of English
Nevertheless, though both the Academy and the French government have
attempted on numerous occasions to preserve the perceived
French, modern French has been heavily influenced by English
rather, by American – and thousands of English words have
into French by journalists, scientists, travellers, musicians, showbiz
personalities, films, and street culture. Television chat-show hosts
and their guests, businessmen and stars of all sorts pepper their
French with words of English origin, which at first are quite
incomprehensible to ordinary French speakers. This type of talk is
known as “Franglais”.
One recent example, heard in a business context, is “une
to-do liste” , which appears to have entered the
language in around 2007. Words like “le
shopping” or “un
parking” or “le hard
are now so well established in modern French that many French speakers
do not even realise that they are borrowed from English.
Anti “Franglais” measures have had a few successes
or half successes.
entered the French language in the 1960s, the Academy banished the
word, decreeing that the French word for an oil pipeline was “un
oléoduc”: and that is the word now
used. But attempts to
have met with less success, and the purist’s alternative,
courriel” has only managed to establish itself
acceptable alternative to “email”,
used notably in official communications.
Among the reasons that have helped English make inroads into many
languages is the ease with which English forms new words or adapts
existing words to create new ones. Although French is a "synthetic"
language (i.e. a language that makes great use of inflections -
prefixes and grammatical endings ) it does not adapt words to create
new meanings with the ease that English does. Just look at the
complexity of the expression required to render the English word
"anticlockwise" in French... dans
le sens inverse des aiguilles d'une montre.
Surprisingly perhaps, the English word in this particular case has not
entered the French language in spite of its relative simplicity. This
is no doubt because it is not everyday vocabulary, not an erudite
variations of French
Modern standard French is derived from the variety of French spoken in
the area around Paris and the Loire valley area. It is the most
important variety of the “northern” group of French
dialects, known as
but it is not the only form of French.
In the south of France, particularly in rural areas, there are still
people who speak forms of Occitanian French, the “langues d’oc”;
these include Provençal, Occitan, and Catalan. Strongly
central governments for over a century, and considered as
these regional languages were fast disappearing until the
nineteen-seventies, when the first significant attempts were made to
revive them. Since then, there has been a major increase in awareness
of regional languages and cultures in France, illustrated here and
there today by road signs and street signs in two languages, and even
occasional articles in regional languages in regional newspapers. The
status of regional languages, as part of France's cultural heritage, is
now enshrined in the French constitution.
However, while people
in the Langue d’oc areas of France speak with accents that
from the accents of northerners, and may understand local patois or
dialects, only a minority can actually speak or write in non-standard
versions of French.
French is also, of course, spoken in countries other than France. It is
one of the languages spoken in Switzerland,
and a number of other countries. Swiss French and Belgian French are
virtually identical to standard French; just a few differences existe.
In Belgium and Switzerland, people say septante instead of
for 70, and nonante
instead of quatre-vingt-dix
for 90. The Belgians say octante
for 80, and the Swiss say huitante
for 80. In Canada, Quebec French has kept up several words and
expressions that have fallen out of use in modern France; some notable
examples are un breuvage
instead of une
boisson (a drink), or une
fournaise instead of une
chaudière (stove, boiler).
Grammar and syntax:
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Linguists describe French as a moderately inflected or “synthetic”
language, meaning one in which the grammatical function of words
(notably verbs) is often indicated by suffixes and other markers.
While French has not kept the complex noun declensions of Latin, with
its six cases (Nominative, accusative, dative, etc.), it has maintained
a verb system characterised by inflected forms; verbs may have up to
six different forms for a given tense, and for example the endings of
many verbs in the present simple tense are -e,
-es, -e, -ons, -ez, -ent (from first person singular to
third person plural).
For this reason, French is a language where grammar (syntax),
punctuation (or inflexion of the voice) and the form of words
(morphology) are key factors in determining meaning; compare this to
English, a more “analytic” language, where
word-order and the use of
link-words play a greater role in determining meaning.
For example: in French
vu la fille que j’ai rencontrée ?
is clearly defined as a question in written language by the presence of
the quesiton mark, and in spoken language by an interrogative inflexion
of the voice.
To ask the same question in English, it is necessary to use an
interrogative verb form:
see the girl I met ?
If an English writer forgets the question mark at the end, his sentence
is still clearly a question, on account of the word order. But if a
French writer forgets the question mark, the sentence reverts to being
Another example: in French,
– a single word –
has the meaning conveyed by three words in English: “Let’s
(let us) begin”.
As it is important for conveying unambiguous meaning in French, basic
grammar is something that needs to be mastered by anyone wanting to
communicate effectively in this language. Thus, although teachers in
France often lament the falling standards of grammar among their
pupils, the teaching of French grammar has remained an essential part
of the school curriculum, from primary school upwards.
Vocabulary of French
Being largely derived from Latin (with the addition of modern
vocabulary from English) the French language has a lot less words than
the English language (which is derived from both Old French and old
forms of German).
Here are some examples to illustrate how French is derived from Latin:
- A window Fenestra Fenêtre
love Amare Aimer
see Videre Voir
dog Canis Un chien
son Filius Un fils
sister Soror Une soeur
It is impossible to say just how many words a language has, as it
depends on how one defines what constitutes a word. For example, are nation,
national, nationalize, nationalism four words, or one word
with four forms? Is foot
one word or three ? A thing with five toes, twelve inches, and the
For this reason, it is unwise to say how many words the French language
has; however, by consensus, and using the same yardsticks of
measurement, it is generally suggested that French has between 30% and
45% less words than English.