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French language

French (la langue française) is one of the most important Romance languages, outnumbered only by Spanish and Portuguese. French is the 11th most spoken language in the world, spoken by about 77 million people as a mother tongue, and 128 million including second language speakers, in 1999. It is an official or administrative language in various communities and organizations (such as the European Union, IOC, United Nations and Universal Postal Union).

Spoken in:France and 53 other countries.
Total speakers: 77 Million
Official status
Official language of:France and 24 other countries
Regulated by:Académie française
Language codes
ISO 639-1: fr
ISO 639-2(B): fre
ISO 639-2(T):fra

Table of contents
1 History
2 Geographic distribution
3 Sounds
4 Grammar
5 Writing system
6 External links


Although in the past many Frenchmen liked to refer to their descent from Gallic ancestors ("Nos ancêtres les gaulois"), very little Celtic influence seems to remain in the French of today. Most of the vocabulary is of Latin and Germanic (Frankish) origin.

Originally, many dialects and languages were spoken throughout contemporary French territory (among them were several langue d'Oïl dialects, like Picard, Valon, etc.), Occitan dialects (Gascon, Provençal, etc.), Breton, Basque, Catalan, Low German, etc., but over time the dialect of the Ile-de-France (the region around Paris), Francien, has supplanted the others and has become the basis for the official French language. The earliest text in French is the Oath of Strasbourg from 842; the period of the language up to around 1300 is called Old French, which after 1300 turned into Middle French, and ultimately, Modern French. 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.

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 6,700,000 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 - 30,510
Rwanda 7,810,100 - 26,338
Haiti 7,527,800 - 27,750
Switzerland (millions) 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
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
Mauritius 1,210,500 - 2,040
Morocco 31,689,600 - 446,550

Also, there are some French-speakers in Egypt, India (Pondicherry), Italy (Aosta Valley), Laos, Mauritania, United Kingdom (Channel Islands), United States of America (mainly Louisiana & New England) and Vietnam.

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

Historically, for nearly 300 years French was also 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.

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 myth 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.

Legal status in Canada

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.

French is an official language of New Brunswick, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut, and is the sole official language of Quebec. See Charter of the French Language.

Dialects of French

Languages derived from French


French spelling is by no means phonetic. Terminal consonants have often become silent in most dialects, unless followed by a vowel sound (liaison) or silent altogether (e.g., "et" is never pronounced with the ending "t"). In many words, 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). Furthermore, French words tend to run together when spoken, with ending consonants often being chained to the start of the next word.


Oral vowels of French (in IPA):

Traditionally, French is described as having four distinct nasal vowels: [ɛ~], [ɑ~], [ɔ~], and [œ~]; however, many speakers have merged [œ~] and [ɛ~].

Note: /A/ is for many speakers no longer a phoneme. Whether /@/ (Schwa) is a phoneme of French is controversial. Some see it as an allophone of /9/

i si si 'if'
e se ses 'his, hers' (pl)
ɛ sait 'knows'
sɛʁ serre 'greenhouse'
y sy su 'known'
ø ceux 'these'
œ sœʁ soeur 'sister'
ə ce 'this'
a sa sa 'his, hers' (f)
u su sous 'under'
o so sot 'silly'
ɔ sɔʁ sort 'fate'
ɑ~ sɑ~ sans 'without'
ɔ~ sɔ~ son 'his, hers' (m sg)
ɛ~ sɛ~ saint 'saint'


Plosivep bt dk g
Fricativef vs zʃ ʒʁ
Lateral approximantl

Approximantj ɥw


The verb

There are three main verb categories, verbs ending in -er, -ir and -re.

French verbs are commonly conjugated in five simple tenses and five compound tenses. They are also conjugated in the "literary" or "historic" tenses, each of which have a commonly used equivalent tense. These literary tenses are used often in literature and history. There are two simple literary tenses and three compound literary tenses.

The commonly used simple tenses are: the present tense (le présent), the imperfect (l'imparfait), the future (le futur), the present subjunctive (le subjonctif) and the present conditional (le conditionnel).

The commonly conjugated compound tenses are the perfect (le passé composé), the pluperfect (le plus-que-parfait), the future perfect (le futur antérieur), the imperfect subjunctive (le subjonctif passé) and the past conditional (le conditionnel passé).

The perfect is the tense in common use used to describe actions that were started and completed in the past. The imperfect is the tense used to describe actions that were ongoing or continuous in the past or to describe habitual or repetitive action. The present and past subjunctives are used to describe doubt, emotions, possibilities and events which may or may not occur.

The simple literary tenses are the simple past or past historic (le passé simple), replaced in ordinary language by the perfect tense, and the imperfect subjunctive (l'imparfait du subjonctif), replaced in ordinary language by the present subjunctive.

The compound literary tenses are the past anterior (le passé antérieur), usually replaced by the pluperfect; the pluperfect subjunctive (le plus-que-parfait du subjonctif), usually replaced by the past subjunctive; and a second form of the past conditional.

Of the literary tenses, only the past historic tends to be used commonly any more. While grammatical distinctions were lost when the literary tenses fell out of common usage, the distinctions were not important enough for confusion to result.

Aside from these tenses, there is an imperative, a participle, and the infinitive, each of which can be inflected for tense (present and past), although the past imperative is quite rare.

Compound tense auxiliary verbs

In French, all compound tenses are formed with an auxiliary verb (either être "to be" or avoir "to have"). Most verbs use avoir as their auxiliary verb. The exceptions are sixteen commonly used verbs of motion and all reflexive verbs.

The distinction between the two auxiliary verbs is important for the correct formation of the compound tenses and is also essential to the agreement of the past participle.

The past participle

The past participle is used in French as both an adjective and to form all the compound tenses of the language. When it is used as an adjective, it follows all the regular agreement rules of the language, but when it is used in compound tenses, it follows special agreement rules.

-er verbs form the participle by changing the -er ending to -é, -ir verbs by changing -ir to -i, and -re verbs by changing to -u. Therefore, the past participle of parler, "to speak", is parlé; for finir, "to finish", fini, and for vendre, "to sell", vendu.

The rules of agreement for past participles differ for avoir verbs and être verbs (see "Compound tense auxiliary verbs"). For avoir verbs, the past participle does not agree with the subject unless the direct object comes before the verb, either in the form of a pronoun or a relative clause using que.

For the sixteen commonly used être verbs, the past participle always agrees with the subject. For reflexive verbs, the past participle generally agrees with the subject, unless there is a direct object to the reflexive verb.

Writing system

French is written using the Latin alphabet.

Some common phrases

See also:

External links