|Native to||France, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg|
|76.8 million worldwide|
321 million French speakers (L1 plus L2; 2022)
|Latin (French alphabet)|
Official language in
States where French is the majority native language
States where it is an official or administrative language but not a majority native language
States where it is a minority or secondary language
States that have a local francophone minority
|Part of a series on the|
French (français [fʁɑ̃sɛ] or langue française [lɑ̃ɡ fʁɑ̃sɛːz]) is a Romance language of the Indo-European family. It descended from the Vulgar Latin of the Roman Empire, as did all Romance languages. French evolved from Gallo-Romance, the Latin spoken in Gaul, and more specifically in Northern Gaul. Its closest relatives are the other langues d'oïl—languages historically spoken in northern France and in southern Belgium, which French (Francien) largely supplanted. French was also influenced by native Celtic languages of Northern Roman Gaul like Gallia Belgica and by the (Germanic) Frankish language of the post-Roman Frankish invaders. Today, owing to France's past overseas expansion, there are numerous French-based creole languages, most notably Haitian Creole. A French-speaking person or nation may be referred to as Francophone in both English and French.
French is an official language in 29 countries across multiple continents, most of which are members of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), the community of 84 countries which share the official use or teaching of French. French is also one of six official languages used in the United Nations. It is spoken as a first language (in descending order of the number of speakers) in France; Canada (especially in the provinces of Quebec, Ontario, and New Brunswick, as well as other Francophone regions); Belgium (Wallonia and the Brussels-Capital Region); western Switzerland (specifically the cantons forming the Romandy region); parts of Luxembourg; parts of the United States (the states of Louisiana, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont); Monaco; the Aosta Valley region of Italy; and various communities elsewhere.
In 2015, approximately 40% of the francophone population (including L2 and partial speakers) lived in Europe, 36% in sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Ocean, 15% in North Africa and the Middle East, 8% in the Americas, and 1% in Asia and Oceania. French is the second most widely spoken mother tongue in the European Union. Of Europeans who speak other languages natively, approximately one-fifth are able to speak French as a second language. French is the second most taught foreign language in the EU. All institutions of the EU use French as a working language along with English and German; in certain institutions, French is the sole working language (e.g. at the Court of Justice of the European Union). French is also the 18th most natively spoken language in the world, fifth most spoken language by total number of speakers and the second or third most studied language worldwide (with about 120 million learners as of 2017). As a result of French and Belgian colonialism from the 16th century onward, French was introduced to new territories in the Americas, Africa and Asia. Most second-language speakers reside in Francophone Africa, in particular Gabon, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritius, Senegal and Ivory Coast.
French is estimated to have about 76 million native speakers; about 235 million daily, fluent speakers; and another 77–110 million secondary speakers who speak it as a second language to varying degrees of proficiency, mainly in Africa. According to the OIF, approximately 321 million people worldwide are "able to speak the language", without specifying the criteria for this estimation or whom it encompasses. According to a demographic projection led by the Université Laval and the Réseau Démographie de l'Agence universitaire de la Francophonie, the total number of French speakers will reach approximately 500 million in 2025 and 650 million by 2050. OIF estimates 700 million by 2050, 80% of whom will be in Africa.
French has a long history as an international language of literature and scientific standards and is a primary or second language of many international organisations including the United Nations, the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the World Trade Organization, the International Olympic Committee, and the International Committee of the Red Cross. In 2011, Bloomberg Businessweek ranked French the third most useful language for business, after English and Standard Mandarin Chinese.
French is a Romance language (meaning that it is descended primarily from Vulgar Latin) that evolved out of the Gallo-Romance dialects spoken in northern France. The language's early forms include Old French and Middle French.
Vulgar Latin in Gallia
Due to Roman rule, Latin was gradually adopted by the inhabitants of Gaul, and as the language was learned by the common people it developed a distinct local character, with grammatical differences from Latin as spoken elsewhere, some of which being attested on graffiti. This local variety evolved into the Gallo-Romance tongues, which include French and its closest relatives, such as Arpitan.
The evolution of Latin in Gaul was shaped by its coexistence for over half a millennium beside the native Celtic Gaulish language, which did not go extinct until the late sixth century, long after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. The population remained 90% indigenous in origin; the Romanizing class were the local native elite (not Roman settlers), whose children learned Latin in Roman schools. At the time of the collapse of the Empire, this local elite had been slowly abandoning Gaulish entirely, but the rural and lower class populations remained Gaulish speakers who could sometimes also speak Latin or Greek. The final language shift from Gaulish to Vulgar Latin among rural and lower class populations occurred later, when both they and the incoming Frankish ruler/military class adopted the Gallo-Roman Vulgar Latin speech of the urban intellectual elite.
The Gaulish language likely survived into the sixth century in France despite considerable Romanization. Coexisting with Latin, Gaulish helped shape the Vulgar Latin dialects that developed into French contributing loanwords and calques (including oui, the word for "yes"), sound changes shaped by Gaulish influence, and influences in conjugation and word order. Recent computational studies suggest that early gender shifts may have been motivated by the gender of the corresponding word in Gaulish.
The estimated number of French words that can be attributed to Gaulish is placed at 154 by the Petit Robert, which is often viewed as representing standardized French, while if non-standard dialects are included, the number increases to 240. Known Gaulish loans are skewed toward certain semantic fields, such as plant life (chêne, bille, etc.), animals (mouton, cheval, etc.), nature (boue, etc.), domestic activities (ex. berceau), farming and rural units of measure (arpent, lieue, borne, boisseau), weapons, and products traded regionally rather than further afield. This semantic distribution has been attributed to peasants being the last to hold onto Gaulish.
The beginning of French in Gaul was greatly influenced by Germanic invasions into the country. These invasions had the greatest impact on the northern part of the country and on the language there. A language divide began to grow across the country. The population in the north spoke langue d'oïl while the population in the south spoke langue d'oc. Langue d'oïl grew into what is known as Old French. The period of Old French spanned between the 8th and 14th centuries. Old French shared many characteristics with Latin. For example, Old French made use of different possible word orders just as Latin did because it had a case system that retained the difference between nominative subjects and oblique non-subjects. The period is marked by a heavy superstrate influence from the Germanic Frankish language, which non-exhaustively included the use in upper-class speech and higher registers of V2 word order, a large percentage of the vocabulary (now at around 15% of modern French vocabulary) including the impersonal singular pronoun on (a calque of Germanic man), and the name of the language itself.
Up until its later stages, Old French, alongside Old Occitan, maintained a relic of the old nominal case system of Latin longer than most other Romance languages (with the notable exception of Romanian which still currently maintains a case distinction), differentiating between an oblique case and a nominative case. The phonology was characterized by a heavy syllabic stress, which led to the emergence of various complicated diphthongs such as -eau which would later be leveled to monophthongs.
The earliest evidence of what became Old French can be seen in the Oaths of Strasbourg and the Sequence of Saint Eulalia, while Old French literature began to be produced in the eleventh century, with major early works often focusing on the lives of saints (such as the Vie de Saint Alexis), or wars and royal courts, notably including the Chanson de Roland, epic cycles focused on King Arthur and his court, as well as a cycle focused on William of Orange.
Within Old French many dialects emerged but the Francien dialect is one that not only continued but also thrived during the Middle French period (14th–17th centuries). Modern French grew out of this Francien dialect. Grammatically, during the period of Middle French, noun declensions were lost and there began to be standardized rules. Robert Estienne published the first Latin-French dictionary, which included information about phonetics, etymology, and grammar. Politically, the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts (1539) named French the language of law.
During the 17th century, French replaced Latin as the most important language of diplomacy and international relations (lingua franca). It retained this role until approximately the middle of the 20th century, when it was replaced by English as the United States became the dominant global power following the Second World War. Stanley Meisler of the Los Angeles Times said that the fact that the Treaty of Versailles was written in English as well as French was the "first diplomatic blow" against the language.
During the Grand Siècle (17th century), France, under the rule of powerful leaders such as Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIV, enjoyed a period of prosperity and prominence among European nations. Richelieu established the Académie française to protect the French language. By the early 1800s, Parisian French had become the primary language of the aristocracy in France.
Near the beginning of the 19th century, the French government began to pursue policies with the end goal of eradicating the many minorities and regional languages (patois) spoken in France. This began in 1794 with Henri Grégoire's "Report on the necessity and means to annihilate the patois and to universalize the use of the French language". When public education was made compulsory, only French was taught and the use of any other (patois) language was punished. The goals of the Public School System were made especially clear to the French-speaking teachers sent to teach students in regions such as Occitania and Brittany. Instructions given by a French official to teachers in the department of Finistère, in western Brittany, included the following: "And remember, Gents: you were given your position in order to kill the Breton language". The prefect of Basses-Pyrénées in the French Basque Country wrote in 1846: "Our schools in the Basque Country are particularly meant to replace the Basque language with French..." Students were taught that their ancestral languages were inferior and they should be ashamed of them; this process was known in the Occitan-speaking region as Vergonha.
Spoken by 19.71% of the European Union's population, French is the third most widely spoken language in the EU, after English and German and the second most-widely taught language after English.
Under the Constitution of France, French has been the official language of the Republic since 1992, although the ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts made it mandatory for legal documents in 1539. France mandates the use of French in official government publications, public education except in specific cases, and legal contracts; advertisements must bear a translation of foreign words.
In Belgium, French is an official language at the federal level along with Dutch and German. At the regional level, French is the sole official language of Wallonia (excluding a part of the East Cantons, which are German-speaking) and one of the two official languages—along with Dutch—of the Brussels-Capital Region, where it is spoken by the majority of the population (approx. 80%), often as their primary language.
French is one of the four official languages of Switzerland, along with German, Italian, and Romansh, and is spoken in the western part of Switzerland, called Romandy, of which Geneva is the largest city. The language divisions in Switzerland do not coincide with political subdivisions, and some cantons have bilingual status: for example, cities such as Biel/Bienne and cantons such as Valais, Fribourg and Berne. French is the native language of about 23% of the Swiss population, and is spoken by 50% of the population.
Along with Luxembourgish and German, French is one of the three official languages of Luxembourg, where it is generally the preferred language of business as well as of the different public administrations. It is also the official language of Monaco.
At a regional level, French is acknowledged as official language in the Aosta Valley region of Italy where it is the first language of approximately 30% of the population, while French dialects remain spoken by minorities on the Channel Islands. It is also spoken in Andorra and is the main language after Catalan in El Pas de la Casa. The language is taught as the primary second language in the German land of Saarland, with French being taught from pre-school and over 43% of citizens being able to speak French.
The majority of the world's French-speaking population lives in Africa. According to a 2018 estimate from the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, an estimated 141 million African people spread across 34 countries and territories[Note 1] can speak French as either a first or a second language. This number does not include the people living in non-Francophone African countries who have learned French as a foreign language. Due to the rise of French in Africa, the total French-speaking population worldwide is expected to reach 700 million people in 2050. French is the fastest growing language on the continent (in terms of either official or foreign languages). French is mostly a second language in Africa, but it has become a first language in some urban areas, such as the region of Abidjan, Ivory Coast and in Libreville, Gabon. There is not a single African French, but multiple forms that diverged through contact with various indigenous African languages.
Sub-Saharan Africa is the region where the French language is most likely to expand, because of the expansion of education and rapid population growth. It is also where the language has evolved the most in recent years. Some vernacular forms of French in Africa can be difficult to understand for French speakers from other countries, but written forms of the language are very closely related to those of the rest of the French-speaking world.