Do you speak French? That is what the title of this article means. “La langue française” (the French language) is an official language in 29 countries and spoken by almost 265 million people around the world. French is one of the 26 Romance languages, and is ranked third most widely spoken Romance languages in 2007 by the total of native speakers, after Spanish, with 385 million and Portuguese with 210 million. Italian and Romanian come after French.
French is such a beautiful language. There is something in it that makes it so evocative of romance, of artistic expression, of joie de vivre. Maybe it is in the way that French words are spoken, or how France has been commercially portrayed as a place where romance, art, fashion and cuisine abound and bloom.
Just think about it. What comes to your mind when you hear the word “France,” “Paris” or even “French?” Doesn’t it conjure the image of the towering and well-lit Eiffel Tower, haute couture, French masters, wines, perfumes, beautiful people, French cuisine and a host of other things? Even if you are not an art lover, you’d have encountered the name Degas, Manet, Monet, Cézanne, Rodin, Renoir, Gauguin and van Gogh. Most of you would have heard of Isabelle Adjani, Charles Aznavour, Juliette Binoche, Catherine Deneuve, Phillippe Candeloro, Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane. What about Citroën, Courvoisier, Rémy Martin, Peugeot, Hennessy, Dom Pérignon and Moët & Chandon?
If not those, surely you’d have encountered one or two of these names: Boulanger, Cardin, Azzaro, Saint Laurent, Lacroix, Gaultier, Givenchy, Mugler, Hèrmes, Jourdan, Chanel, Courrèges, Ricci, Lacoste, Dior, Lanvin, Laroche and Vuitton?
Just thinking about it can make you say, “Je suis amoureux” (I am in love).
If you want to be technical about it, the Romance language is not the language of “romance.” It actually descended from the Vulgar Latin term, “romanice,” an adverb taken from the word “Romanicus.” This was created to distinguish the different colloquial languages. The Classical Roman was the language spoken by the upper classes in Roman society, while the Romance languages were prolongation of Vulgar Latin, which at that time was the colloquial and popular Latin spoken by merchants, settlers and soldiers of the empire of Rome. Therefore in those days, “romanice loqui” meant to speak in Roman, in contrast to “latine loqui” that meant to speak in Latin. In short, anything that was written in the Roman vernacular in Ancient Rome was called “romanice” or “romance.” This does take away the fantasy and mystery of the romance language, doesn’t it?
Although it developed from Vulgar Latin, French was heavily influenced by Gaulish, which was spoken by the Celtic population that inhabited Gaul; by several Germanic languages spoken by people in the different areas of France when it was occupied by Germany – the Franks, Alemanni, Visigoths and Burgundians. It also borrowed a lot of words from Old Norse, Dutch and Scandinavian languages, as well as from English, to a lesser degree.
An important language
French is the official language in France, Belgium , Canada, the Principality of Monaco, Switzerland, Luxembourg and colonies in Southeast Asia such as Vietnam, in Polynesia (Vanuatu, Tahiti), the Caribbean (Haiti, Guadeloupe) and Africa, including Benin, Togo, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Central African Republic, Congo, Chad, Gabon, Mali, Ivory Coast and Mauritania.
In the United States, French is spoken in New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine and Louisiana.
It is also one of the official languages of the United Nations and ranks second most spoken language in Europe after German. In non-French speaking countries in Europe, about 145.6 million still know how to speak French. Such is the dominance and importance of the language.
French is likewise an important diplomatic language, being the working language of several international cooperative agencies such as the Red Cross, Médicins du Monde, Médicins sans Frontières and Amnesty International. The World Trade Organization, Organization of American States, the European Space Agency, European Commission, the International Olympic Committee, International Court of Justice, the North American Free Trade Agreement, NATO and the Council of Europe are just some of the organizations that use French as their working language.
Understanding the basics of the French language
French has a formal and informal form. The pronoun “you” in French has more than one meaning. The informal “you” or “tu” is used among close friends, children and family. The formal “you” or “vous” is used when you have to show respect, when you are talking to someone you barely know or have just met. “You” in French also has a plural form.
When a word refers to a woman an extra “e” is added to the word. This is also true when the speaker is a woman, although in most cases it does not change the pronunciation, just the spelling. Negative French words have “ne” before the verb and “pas” after the verb. While modern French speakers tend to drop the “ne” when they speak, it is still necessary to have it included in the written form.
The French language has plenty of silent letters and the final consonant is usually not pronounced, except when it is L, F, R or C and verbs that end with the letter R. It should be noted that when a French person speaks, most of the words are slurred. So in true French fashion, when a word has a consonant ending which is not pronounced and the following word starts with a silent H or a vowel, the two words are strung together as one word, in which case, F is pronounced as V, D becomes T and the letters S and X becomes S. However, this is not done when the preceding word is “et.” These are called liaison. Examples include:
• Words after “est”
• Words following the adverbs “bien,” “plus” and “très”
• Words that come before an adjective such as “petits enfants” and “bon ami”
• Words the come before and after a pronoun like “je les ai” and “vous avez”
• Words the come after a determiner, for example, “des amis” and “un ami”
French nouns are either feminine or masculine and an easy way to remember this rule is by keeping in mind the most nouns ending with a consonant as well as those ending with -ment and -age are usually masculine, while those ending in -ette, -té, -ance, -ence,
-tion, -sion and -ure in most cases are feminine. Likewise, adjectives and articles must agree with the gender and the number of the nouns being modified.
In most cases, a noun is made plural by adding an -s at the end of the word, except when it already ends with an -s, in which case nothing is added to the plural form, such as in “le bus” (singular) and les bus (plural). If a noun ends in -eau or -eu, an X is added, for example, “le bateau” and “les bateux.” If the masculine noun ends in -ail or -al it is changed to -aux while some words ending in -ou gets an X in the plural form instead of an S. There are only seven nouns that gets treated in this way, which included hibou (owl), joujou (toy), pou (louse), genou (knee), chou (cabbage), caillou (pebble) and bijou (piece of jewelry).
Exceptions include “un œil” (an eye) that becomes “des yeux;” “le ciel” (the sky) that becomes “les cieux” and “un jeune homme” (a young man) that becomes “des jeunes gens” in the plural form.
French loan words
Although throughout its development the French language borrowed heavily from its neighbors, there are many French words the found their way into English as well. These include the words:
Some French phrases to learn
Even if you are not traveling to France in the near future, it is good to know some basic words and phrases that can come in handy, when you are chatting with global online friends and to impress your friends.
You might not be able to read a French menu in a French restaurant with these basic phrases, but you can still say oui, non, merci, s’il vous plait, and au revoir. Ca va?