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The French Language - A Languages of the World Primer

Jan 22, 2008
French is one of the many so-called Romance languages that grew out of "Vulgar Latin". It is part of the linguistic subgroup known as Langue d'oil that developed in northern France in the middle ages. It differs from the other two main subgroups spoken in France, Langue d'oc (also known as Occitan) and Franco-Provencal spoken in southern France, in that it was heavily influenced by the Germanic languages brought in by the invading Franks.

In practical terms what we now know as modern French began to come to the fore following the 1539 Villers-Cotterets Ordinance in which King Francis I made Parisian French the official State language. Whilst the expressly declared goal was to displace Latin, the knock-on effect on other regional French languages cannot have gone unnoticed. To this day, it is official French state policy to promote French to the detriment of the other regional languages. The proof of this is that despite the fact that France is a signatory to the European Charter for Regional Languages it cannot ratify it because to do so would contravene the current French constitution.

The decree was followed by the publication of the first French Grammar in 1550 as major efforts were made to unify and purify the language. In 1634, this process was institutionalised with the founding of the Academie francaise (French Academy) by Cardinal Richelieu. As French power rose during the 17th and 18th centuries so did the reach of the French language, becoming the lingua franca across most of Europe, before being exported worldwide as France and Belgium became colonial powers.

Related languages
French is most closely related to the other Romance languages in the Langue d'oil subgroup (the bulk of northern France and Belgium). To refer to such languages (for example Picard and Walloon) as dialects of French is to profoundly misunderstand the shared roots and the process by which all of these languages developed side by side over time. French is also closely related to the other Romance languages spoken in France. Partly because of its part Germanic roots, mutual intelligibility between French and the Romance languages spoken outside France is, however, much lower than say between Italian and Spanish despite their greater geographic distance.

Current status
French is an official language of the United Nations, the European Union and a wide range of other international bodies. In addition to being an official language in close to 30 countries, La Francophonie (the primary international organisation of French-speaking countries) has over fifty members, showing the continued global influence of the French language despite the decline in French Power since the second World War. Members come from all corners of the globe.

Despite its European origins, the bulk of French speakers now live in Africa. A 2007 report published by La Francophonie estimated that some 115 million Africans spoke French as either their first or second language. Statistics as to the actual number of native speakers are impossible to verify, with estimates ranging from 70 million to over 100 million. How many non-native speakers there are is anybody's guess, but what is certain is that French is still a leading international language.

The only cloud on the horizon, from a purist's perspective, is the growing influence of English both as a usurper of French's traditional role as a lingua Franca and through its "contamination" of the perceived purity of the French language. It has, however, been argued that this view is slightly myopic and ignores the influence that French has had on English. French-speakers are now borrowing from English in the same way as English speakers borrowed from French in the past. In fact, estimates of the number of words of French origin in the English language range from between one third and two thirds depending on who you believe. Compared to this, French is estimated to have borrowed 3-4% of words from English, although admittedly most of these are recent borrowings and the trend can be expected to continue. It is however, a natural process and languages should not be viewed as stone edifices but rather as sea-like constructs that are constantly in motion.
About the Author
Stranslations offers professional language translation services in English, French, Spanish, German and other major European languages.
The original version of this article can found at www.stranslations.com.
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