The Importance of the French Language
French is spoken by about 128 million Francophones (French native speakers) in the world; it is the second most studied language in the world with about 100 million French learners and the second most abundant language on the internet.
There are 33 countries in all 5 continents were French is used as official or native language; it plays an important role in international business and commerce, as well as diplomacy and administration. French is the working language of many major international organizations such as the United Nations, the WTO, WHO, NAFTA, Interpol, and Amnesty International.
French is the official language in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Monaco, Andorra, Canada, Switzerland, Haiti, as well as in the French overseas territories of French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Miquelon, Saint Pierre, and St. Martin.
It is the official language in many former French or Belgian colonies in Africa including Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Rwanda, Togo, Congo, Benin, Central African Republic, Madagascar, Djibouti, Cameroon, Gabon, and Senegal and the administrative language in the Maghreb states of Mauritania, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia and a predominant language in Egypt, in particular for the more sophisticated classes of society.
French is also spoken and used as administrative language in the Asian countries of Lebanon, Laos, Cambodia, southern China, in some Indian territories, and in Oceania on the Islands of Vanuatu, French Polynesia and New Caledonia.
More than 55 countries worldwide are members of the so-called “Francophonie” – an organization that promotes French language and culture, democracy and human rights.
History and Origin of the French Language
French belongs to the Romance languages family and its lexicon and grammar derive from Latin. Before it was conquered by the Romans in first century BC, the area that is modern France today was inhabited by Celtic tribes, the Gauls. Under Roman rule, Latin quickly became the lingua franca; however, many Gaulish terms entered the Latin language. After the decline of the Roman Empire, many Germanic tribes such as the Franks, the Alemanni, the Burgundians and the Visigoths settled in the area. The influence of their languages altered the lexicon, pronunciation and syntax of the widely spoken Latin language. A new language developed that called itself français, referring to the tribe of the Franks.
In the Medieval Ages, Latin was still the language used by clerics, scholars, and politicians, while the population spoke in French dialects. Basically, two different forms of dialects emerged: the langue d’oeil (which was spoken in the north) and the langue d’oc (which was spoken in the south).
The first document in French, the “Serments de Strasbourg” dates back to 842 AC. Around the end of the 13th century, poetry and literature thrived at the court and French instead of Latin becomes more and more spoken among the upper classes of society.
In 1539, King François I proclaimed that all laws would have to be written in French from that moment on so that the general public could understand them.
During the times of the Renaissance (16th and 17th century) the printing press was developed and religious writings were translated into French. By that time, the first dictionaries were developed as well. The 17th century is considered to be the beginning of the modern French period. In 1635 the Académie Française was founded by Cardinal Richelieu. Its aim was to regulate the French grammar, spelling, and literature.
From the 17th century, France was one of the most powerful nations in Europe and its language became the language of the upper classes in many different European countries, and French also evolved into the language of arts, literature and diplomacy.
French literature – francophone literature, that is, written in French but from other countries is not included here – is considered one of the richest and most varied national literatures, and has had a strong effect on modern world literature thanks to some 20th-century movements like symbolism, existentialism, surrealism, the “Theatre of the Absurd”, the new novel, and postmodernism. Nowadays literature is still important for French people since it plays a significant role in their sense of identity. Indeed, French schools emphasize the study of poetry, novels and theatre; literary prizes are major news (e.g. the Prix Goncourt), and French television broadcasts shows about it.
Still today, the Académie Française is the principal institution to preserve the French language and to keep it clean from the adaption of foreign words, in particular from the English language.
The measures taken to preserve French language and culture from Anglicizing include media control such as quotas of French language songs on the radio (40% of the music played must be in French).
The region around the city of Tours at the Loire River is considered to speak the “best” and clearest French. However, there are numerous different varieties of French and especially the French speaking regions overseas have developed significant dialects and varieties or creoles of the standard language.