With an in­ter­est­ing history and many mod­ern vari­a­tions, la langue française is beau­ti­fully var­ied, as Kate McNally dis­cov­ers

Living France - - LES PRATIQUES -

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.


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,

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