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  • 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 (called Francophones) 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 and United Nations).

  • For the period up to around 1300, linguists refer collectively to the langue d'oïl dialects as Old French ("l'ancien français"). With the final ascendancy of Francien and the loss of the declension system, the language is referred to as Middle French ("le moyen français"). Following a period of unification, regulation and purification, the French of the 17th to the 18th centuries is sometimes referred to as Classical French ("le français classique"), although many linguists simply refer to French language from the 17th century to today as Modern French. The earliest extant text in French is the Oath of Strasbourg from 842; 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.

  • The foundation of the Académie française in 1634 by Richelieu created a official body whose goal has been the purification and preservation of the French language. This group of 40 members (the "immortals") chosen for life still exists today and contributes to the policing of the language and the elimination of foreign words and expressions.

  • From the 17th to the 19th centuries, French was the lingua franca of educated Europe, especially with regards to the arts and litterature, and monarchs such as Frederick II of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia could both speak and write in French.

  • It is important however to realize that as of 1790, one half of the French population did not speak or understand French and that many other languages were spoken in France. A huge part of southern France spoke Occitan dialects, such as Provençal, Gascon (including Béarnais), Auvergnat, Limousin, Languedocian and (along the Spanish border) Catalan. In the Savoie region of France, Franco-Provençal (a dialect considered halfway bewteen Langue d'Oc and Langue d'Oïl) was spoken. One also found Alsatian (a dialect of German), Flemish (a dialect of Dutch), Basque and Corsican (a dialect of Italian). Furthermore, even in those regions where French was spoken and understood, each region had its own particular accent and regionalisms. In the 1880's, the rise of French nationalism (via universal military service and national education) encouraged the suppression of regional differences and local dialects; by 1910, 90% of the French population understood French, although 50% still understood a local dialect. Since then, many of these linguistic groups have fought hard to maintain their linguistic traditions and in today's France one finds some of these local dialects coming back. Some linguists estimate that 10% of the French today understand a local dialect (although they may not speak it).

  • The majority of French words originated from vernacular Latin or were constructed from Latin or Greek roots.

  • It is estimated that a little less than 13% (4,200) of common French words found in a typical dictionary such as the Petit Larousse or Micro-Robert Plus (35,000 words) are of foreign origin. About 25% (1,054) of these foreign words come from English and are fairly recent borrows. The others are some 707 words from Italian, 550 from ancient Germanic languages, 481 from ancient Gallo-Roman languages, 215 from Arabic, 164 from German, 160 from Celtic languages, 159 from Spanish, 153 from Dutch, 112 Farsi and Sanskrit, 101 Native American languages, 89 from other Asian languages, 56 from Afro-Asiatic languages, 55 Slavic languages and Baltic languages, 144 from other languages (3% of the total).

  • French is written using the Latin alphabet, plus five diacritics (the circumflex accent, acute accent, grave accent, diaeresis, and cedilla) and a ligature (œ).


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  • Jim Becker's French Page - Probably one of the most exhaustive resources on the Internet about the French language and the French-speaking countries.
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