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French

French, as it is spoken today by a vast Francophone population, began to become standardized with Charlemagne’s conquest of the Gauls and Franks in the 16th Century. The history of the modern French language in France emerged with the combination of Latin and Provençal. Keep reading to learn more.

French Language

French is used as the official language of 22 countries and is the co-official language of several others, including Belgium, Canada, Haiti, Madagascar, and Switzerland. It is spoken as a first language by 51 million people in France and Corsica; in Canada by 7.2 million; in Belgium by 3.3 million; in Switzerland by 1.2 million; in Monaco by 17,000; in Italy  by 100,000; and in the United States by nearly 2 million (primarily in Maine and Louisiana). In sub-Saharan Africa, some 5 million people (in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Guinea, Madagascar, Mali, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Togo, and Zaire) use French as their principal international language, as do additional millions in Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia). In addition, French continues to be spoken as a second language by many people in countries located along the southern and eastern rim of the Mediterranean that were once French colonies or territories (notably Algeria. Morocco, and Lebanon).

History of French Language

Modern French belongs to the group of so-called “Romance” languages. Descended from Latin, these languages may be said to represent living shadows of the ancient Roman empire, reflecting the divergent histories of regions formerly unified under Roman rule.

The source of modern French (and of the other Romance languages) was a spoken, popular version of the Latin tongue that was spread abroad by conquering Roman legions – namely, in the case of French, to so-called “Transalpine Gaul” by the armies of Julius Caesar during the century that preceded the birth of Christ.

Map of FranceThe invasion of Gaul in the 400’s AD by Germanic tribes (including the so-called “Franks”) fleeing nomadic attackers from central Asia resulted in a loss of military control by Rome and led to the establishment in of a new, Frankish ruling class whose mother tongue was, of course, not Latin.  Their adaptation to the speaking of popular Latin by the indigenous population tended to impose, by authoritative example, a pronunciation that retained a marked Germanic flavor – notably in the vowel sounds that can still be heard in the French of the present day (the modern French “u” and “eu”, for instance, remain very close to the modern German “ü” and “ö”– sounds unknown to any other modern language descended from Latin).

The changes in grammar gradually made it harder and harder for speakers of the current language to understand the Latin language still used in Christian religious services and in legal documents. As a result, a written codification of the evolving spoken language was found necessary for current legal and political use. The earliest written documents in a distinctly “French” (“Francien”, from “Frankish”) language are the so-called “Oaths of Strasbourg”, sworn by two of Charlemagne’s grandsons in 842 AD

This “French” language was in fact one of a number of different languages descended from Latin that were spoken in various parts of post-Roman Gaul. Others included notably the so-called “Provençal” language (or “langue d’oc”), spoken in much of the southern half of what is today metropolitan France. However the so-called “French” language gained a special status resulting from its association with the dominant feudal military power – namely the court of Charlemagne and his successors – whose territorial reach and effective control of French life grew over time.

The return of the French court to Paris – after its move to Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) under Charlemagne -- and the ultimate success of its armies against the Anglo-Norman occupiers of major parts of northern and southwestern France, led to a territorial consolidation that guaranteed the future position of “French” as the official language of a centralized monarchy (later nation-state). French was so established by the Edict of Villers-Cotterêts in the year 1539.

The poetic fertility of medieval Provençal, meanwhile, which had far surpassed that of French, in the so-called “Troubadour” period, now gave way to the literary productivity of the language of the central court and central institutions of justice and learning – the language of Paris and the surrounding Ile-de-France region.

The grammar of the French language spoken and written today is in its essentials unchanged from the late 17th century, when official efforts to standardize, stabilize, and clarify French grammatical usage were institutionalized in the French Academy. The purpose of this standardization was political: to facilitate the extension of the court’s influence and to smooth the processes of law, administration, and commerce throughout and even beyond the territory of France, as colonial ventures (as far away as India and Louisiana) opened new theaters of imperial growth.

Even today, after the decline of French imperial influence, post-World War II, French remains the second language of a vast “Francophone” population extending far beyond France’s remaining overseas territories and dependencies (French Guiana, Martinique, Guadeloupe, St.-Pierre and Miquelon, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Tahiti, Seychelles, Mauritius, and Réunion Island).

French in Canada

The French spoken in Canada today, principally in the Province of Quebec,differs from standard modern French as a consequence of Quebec’s political isolation from France after the defeat of French colonial armies by British forces in the Battle of Montreal during the so-called French and Indian War (also called the Seven Years’ War) (1756-1763).

The influence of English on the vocabulary and syntax of Québecquois French has been massive, especially since the introduction of radio and television. Pronunciation differences relative to Parisian French are explained also by the primarily French-Atlantic-coastal origins (largely rural) of many of the 17th-century French colonists of Quebec, whose mother tongue was a non-Parisian dialect of French.

Bilingualism in Canada

Canada is the only country in North America to have two official languages: English and French. Canada is a vast territory that can be divided into two national communities: one a majority accustomed to seeing English as the country’s predominant and usual language, the other, a minority located in Québec and parts of Ontario and New Brunswick that have recently begun to use French as their first language.

The Constitution of Canada has enshrined English and French as Canada’s official languages since 1982, but this declaration is only valid for the federal government and its divisions. The ten provinces and three territories of Canada are free to grant French or English the status of an official language, or not to do so. The only province that has granted equal status to both languages is New Brunswick. Since Canada was created in 1867, the Constitution has made Québec subject to certain obligations regarding bilingualism: it must adopt its laws in French and in English and guarantee parliament, judges, litigants, and parties to a legal proceeding with the use of the two languages. Because of these stipulations in the Constitution, Québec could not become a unilingual French province in 1974 when the Liberal government of Robert Bourassa made French the official language of Québec.

In Canada both languages are not equal and symmetrical. Outside of Québec, French is the language of the minority. It is only in Ontario and New Brunswick that Francophiles (Canadians whose first language is French) form large communities. In these provinces French is the dominant language in social settings including education, health services and culture. There is bilingualism in federal institutions across the country: government services, postal services, airports, etc. -but only 30% of federal public servants are bilingual and most of them work in the Ottawa region, the federal capital. By law all official and advertising documents must be published in both French and English.

There has been a highly publicized language dispute between the English and the French for many centuries. It all began in 1760, when the colony of New France (now known as Québec) was taken over by the British. The final ceding of New France to the British crown in 1763 put an end to two and a half centuries of French dominance in Canada. Over sixty thousand French inhabitants found themselves subject to the British Crown, a foreign language, religion, and a new legal system. At the conclusion of the Seven Years war, tensions between the Francophiles of Quebec, Ontario, and New Brunswick, and the majority Anglophiles periodically lead to conflict in the social arena.

French in Haiti

French is used in Haiti as one of its official languages and as the language of higher education. The popular language spoken in Haiti is a so-called Flag of Haiti“creole” (a term derived from the Spanish word criolla denoting a person “born in the colonies”). The creole of Haiti is a 17th-century derivative of the language of the French planters who imported captives purchased as slaves from African tribal leaders to work the sugar plantations of France’s then-colony on the island of Hispaniola. The creole represents a grammatically simplified “practical” version of French that arose to fill a need for communication among Afro-Haitians of differing tribal origins whose mother tongues were mutually unintelligible. The pronunciation differences relative to standard French reflect the sounds foreign to French that were present among the African tongues of the original speakers. Haitian creole is today also a written language, and is used as the country’s other official language.


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French Quick Facts

Alternate Names & Spellings: Français

Language Family: Indo-European, Italic, Romance, Italo-Western, Western, Gallo-Iberian, Gallo-Romance, Gallo-Rhaetian, Oïl, French

Official Language of: Switzerland, Togo, Vanuatu, Madagascar, Mali, Martinique, Mayotte Island, Monaco, New Caledonia, Niger, Reunion Island, Rwanda, St. Pierre and Miquelon, Senegal, Belgium, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Canada, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Congo, Congo Dem. Rep. of, Ivory Coast, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, France, French Guiana, French Polynesia, Gabon, Guadeloupe, Guinea, Haiti

Spoken by Approximately 64,858,000 people

Also Spoken In: United States

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