French Language

General Overview

Area of Distribution and Number of Speakers

French (Français) is a Romance language spoken in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada (principally Quebec), northern New England (especially the state of Vermont), the state of Louisiana and in many other countries and regions formerly or currently governed by France. It is an official language of more than 25 countries.

French is spoken as a mother language by 72,000,000 people and as a second language by some other 52,000,000. It is one of the five official languages of the United Nations.

Origin and History

French dialects developped from the Vulgar Latin which was brought to Northern Gaul with the Roman conquest in the 1st century B.C. (see Rome). The history of French language is divided into 6 main periods:

  1. Gallo-Romance (5th-8th centuries). The Vulgar Latin in Gaul has developped specific features that made it distinct from the Latin spoken in the other regions of the Roman empire. The Reichenau Glosses are a good example of its phonetics and vocabulary.
  2. Old French (9th-13th centuries). The dialects of Northern Gaul developed into separate language (Langue d'oil, see below) with a grammar of its own. The first written materials in it date from the Strasbourg Oaths of 842. The Old French literature flourished since the 10th century (chansons de geste etc.). French in this period was already taught in the neighboring countries (especially in Germany). In 11th-13th centuries it was the dominant language of the English administration (see more in the Romance Influences on English). It was, also, the language of the crusaders in the Levantine countries.
  3. Middle French (14th-15th centuries). This period was marked by changes both in the pronunciation and in the grammar. A common literary language, based on the dialect of Île de France (the region of Paris), was promoted by the writers. French was replacing Latin in the texts of the public administration in France.
  4. Early Modern French (16th century). The aim of the writers of this period, as is the case of the poets of La Pléiade, was to elevate the French language to the level of Latin as a medium for literary expression, In 1539  a royal decree  proclaimed French official language of the public administration. Since that period the government was always involved in the development and the standardization of the language.
  5. Classical Modern French (17th-18th century). In this period were fixed the main grammar convention of the modern French. By then it was used as an international language throughout Europe and even in the administrative correspondence of countries as Germany. With the colonial expansion of France French spread to America (Canada, Louisiana, the Caribbean islands etc.).
  6. Contemporary Modern French (since 19th century). The contemporary pronunciation of the standard language was fixed in that period, namely between 1789 and 1918. French was established as an official language in the French and Belgian colonial possessions in Africa.
Standard language and Dialects

The standard for French is based on the dialect of Île de France (technically known as Francien) which has been the official standard language since the mid-16th century. Francien has largely replaced other regional dialects of French spoken in northern and central France; these dialects made up the so-called Langue d'oïl (the term is based on the French use of the word oïl, modern oui, for yes). French dialects are classified in 5 groups:

Regional dialects of French survive for the most part only in uneducated rural speech, although the Picard-Walloon dialect of northern France and the Norman dialect of western France gave strong competition to Francien in medieval times, and Walloon is still spoken in Belgium.

The French language of Canada, originally probably of northwestern dialect type, has developed a lot of individual features. There exist also many French-based creoles (in Haiti, USA, the Carribbean islands etc.).

Standard French has also greatly reduced the use of the Occitan language of southern France (the so-called Langue d'oc, from Provençal oc for yes). Occitan's major dialect, Provençal, was a widely used medieval literary language.


More than 200 phonetic laws were operating in the transformation of Latin into French. The most essential of them is the suppression of the short vowels before and of all vowels after the stressed vowel; this resulted, at first, in the formation of consonant accumulations that were subsequently simplified and this led to great changes in the sounds of words as compared to their Latin parent forms as well as to cognates in the other Romance languages:

A great part of the other laws are similar to those specific to the Ibero-Romance languages (see Spanish and Portuguese): The above laws occur also subsequently: The palatalization of ca nd ga to cha and ja is peculiar to Francien:
See also

The French pronunciation was deeply influenced by the language of the pre-Roman Celts (amongst them probably the specific pronunciation of u as [y]) and of the later Germanic invaders (especially the Franks who gave the modern name of France). The initial Germanic w- was replaced by g(u)- in Francien:

Modern French has 15 vowels and 20 consonants. The vowels are opened and close (as [e] : [o]), labialized ([], [ø], [y]) and nasalized. The sometime great number of diphthongs was largely reduced; the modern language is marked especially by the rising diphthongs ui and oi (pronounced [wa]). The stress is fixed on the ultimate syllable of the word. The words, being relatively short, are pronounced in groups marked by a comon accent. The speech flow in modern French is rated at 320 words per minute.

The present day French pronunciation may be characterized as modus intensus -- the words consists predominantly of open syllables (i.e. ending in vowels), the falling diphthongs are suppressed, the lips are used actively in the articulation of the sounds.


French orthography is based on the medieval pronunciation with strong etymological bias towards the Latin parental forms. For ths reason the spelling is abundant of mute letters. This system, however, allows for distinction between the different grammatical forms. Thus the endings:

-er in parler to speak (present infinitive);
-ez in parler [you (in plural)] speak (2nd p. pl. present indicative);
-ais in parlais [I / you] was / were speaking (1st / 2nd p. sg. imperfect indicative);
-ait in parlait [he / she] were speaking (3rd p. sg. imperfect indicative);
-aient in parlaient [they] were speaking (3rd p. pl. imperfect indicative);
-ai in parlai [I] spoke (1st p. sg. past simple indicatve)
are all pronounced in the same way as an opened [e]. In the same manner are distinguished the numerous homophones, cf.:
elle (from L illa) she <=> aile (from L ala) wing etc.
The diacritical signs are used to modify the pronunciation. The acute accent over e marks a closed pronunciation (parlé) and the grave accent is used for an open articulation (succès); the circumflex accent is most often written to mark a dropped letter (as F bête <= OF beste <= L bestia beast); more rarely it is used to distinguis homophones (as cru increased and crû believed). The cedilla marks the pronunciation of c as [s] in front of o or u (cf. garçon boy, guy).


Old French preserved the two case system of the Vulgar Latin, consisting of Subjective case (cas sujet) and Objective case (cas régime):

In the 14th century this system became obsolete, the forms of the Objective case replacing those of the Subjective case. The further phonetic evolution brought about the coincidence of the grammatical forms and resulted in stronger trend towards analytism.

Thus, in modern French nouns are not declined for case. Formerly, they were marked for plural by the addition of -s or -es, but the ending, though retained in spelling, has generally been lost in speech. Masculine and feminine gender are distinguished but are usually marked not in the noun but rather in the accompanying article (definite article le / la) or adjective. Plural marking in spoken French is often similarly distinguished (definite article le / la : les). The neuter gender has completely desappeared.

Adjectives change endings (usually by adding an -e for feminine and -s for plural) to agree with nouns.

The verb in French is conjugated for three persons, singular and plural, but again, although distinguished in spelling, several of these forms are pronounced identically. French verb has 4 moods (indicative, imperative, subjunctive and conditional), 4 simple tenses (present, preterite, imperfect, future) of compound (analytical) perfect and progressive tenses; the latter are especially characteristic of the spoken language. As in the other Romance tongues, the French future and conditional indicative are really compounds formed by adding to the entire infinitive (used as a stem) the present and imperfect indicative endings, respectively, of avoirThe perfect, pluperfect and future perfect are usually constructed with avoir (L habere) to have, but some intransitive and all reflexive verbs use être (L esse) to be; in this French is quite similar to Italian (see...).

Another common feature with Italian is the usage of the partitive article (du, de l' / de la : des), cf.:

Like Italian, French uses pronominal adverbs (en = of it / them, y = to it / them), cf.: Vocabulary

Two third of the French vocabulary is derived from Latin. The basic words are inherited from Vulgar Latin and often are marked by some slang bias as compared with Classical Latin, cf.:

In the 16th century, when Frenh replaced the Latin in the official documents, there was a strong tendency not only to borrow new words from Latin, but also to remake the words of the spoken language on Latin pattern: In this period a lot of words were borrowed from Italian, or influenced by it, as courir to run, douche shower etc.

A few words were inherited from Gaulish language, between them crême cream, mouton ram, brébis sheep, bouleau work etc. Much more numerous are the German borowings (near 2% of the French vocabulary), mainly from Frankish: choisir to choose, gai gay, garantir to guarantee, gagner to gain, guerre war, heaume helm etc.; the world directions (nord, sud, est, ouest) and some nautical terms (bateau ship, baupré bowsprit) were borrowed from Old English (Anglo-Saxon) language; modern English contributed with drainer to drain, locquet lock, wagon wagon etc. The Arabic words (magasin magazine, orange orange) reached French mainly via Spanish.

The Greek words were inherited from Latin (accabler to encumber, baler to dance, gouverner to govern, parole word), but their mass introduction was connected with the development of the scientific literature in French after the 16th century. In their spelling are used the digraphs ch [=k], ph [=f], th [=t] and rh- [=r] for the initial Greek rhô.


Northern France, where the synthesis of Roman and Germanic traditions brought about the development of new spiritual and institutional patterns that replaced the ancient Greco-Roman culture and civilization in the western part of Europe, was the core around which was formed the Western world. French was the language in which were fixed the notions of the Western culture and for centuries it was used by the educated people all over Europe, gradually replacing Latin in the live international communications. As a result thousands of French words were absorbed into European languages, both in the western and in the eastern part of the continent. For the growth of the Western culture the French linguistic inheritance is maybe as important as that of the ancient Greek and Latin.

Outside the sphere of the Western culture, Arabic and Turkish have modernized their vocabularies by numerous borrowings from French.

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