THE FRENCH LANGUAGE
With an interesting history and many modern variations, la langue française is beautifully varied, as Kate McNally discovers
rench is the sixth most widely spoken language in the world after Mandarin Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish and Arabic, and there are currently more than 220 million French speakers worldwide. It is Europe’s second most widely spoken mother tongue with over 77 million speakers, after German with around 100 million, and ahead of English with around 61 million. It is an official language of 29 countries and is also the second most widely learned foreign language. It’s no wonder that the French are keen to promote and preserve it.
French is a Romance language descended from vernacular Latin, with influences across the centuries from the Celts, the Romans and the Vikings. In more recent times, the English language has increasingly made its presence felt, though more in terms of vocabulary than grammatical structure.
From the 17th to the 19th century, the French language was in its heyday. With France a leading power in Europe during this period, French became the lingua franca, both written and spoken, among the educated classes across the continent. In many European countries, the upper echelons often chose to speak in French rather than their native language as a way of asserting their superior culture and intellect. Native languages and dialects were for the peasant classes.
In France, similarly, most of the French populace spoke the local dialect or patois, while only the elite upper classes and legal and political circles spoke a more homogenised French, and in some religious and legal contexts they used Latin. The dialects of the north of France were known as the langues d’oïl (Champenois, Lorrain, Picard are examples); in the southern half of France the dialects were known collectively as the langues d’oc (Provençal, Occitan and Catalan, etc). Most people speaking a langue d’oïl or a langue d’oc could understand each other.
In the 16th century, moves began to encourage the use of a common French language understood by everyone – the idea largely following the development of a more central legal and administrative structure. The oïl northern style of French, notably the French spoken around Paris and the Loire Valley area, formed the basis of the new national language.
It was during the 19th century, with the creation of the post-Revolution nation state and its notion of uniting the French people, that the government insisted that a common French language be implemented and taught in schools. During the 20th century, the influence of French as the international language of diplomacy waned in favour of the English language, particularly after the rise of America as a leading international power after the Second World War. However, it is still one of the official languages in world and European affairs, and continues to be spoken in many of France’s overseas territories and former colonies, including parts of Canada, Africa, Asia, and closer to home, Jersey and Guernsey.
DIALECTS AND ACCENTS
In many parts of France, some of the older generations can still speak the old regional dialects. And, as ever, what goes around comes around, and the cultural heritage of these dialects is today seen as something to cherish and preserve, with festivals celebrating them.
Of course, as in many countries, there remain some regional differences in terms of vocabulary, which either descend from the local patois or have crossed the border from neighbouring countries. A few examples include, godiveau (chipolata), patate ( pomme de terre), camarade ( ami),
In some regions, there is also a marked difference from ‘normal’ French in terms of accent. The Picard accent in the north, for example, is typified by the pronunciation of the letter ‘s’ and the soft ‘c’ as a ‘sh’ sound, so laisser becomes laisher and c’est becomes sh’est –a difference that can cause confusion and that formed part of the central comedy in the hit French film Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis.
Meanwhile, in the south-east of France, the accent is more tuneful like Italian, with vowels sounds that are longer and more nasal, hence pain sounds like peng, and there is a tendency to pronounce silent syllables, for example,