The French and their language (#1)   A view of the French Academy, seen from the Seine (Credit)
 Their language is very important to the French   They are not French... 
  • The French love their language ! It may sound obvious - but French is the language taught in French schools!!! (this weird question was asked more than once to webmaster's wife Harriet Welty Rochefort in her conferences on French Toast and French Fried!). Correct spelling is highly emphasized and one of the most popular shows on national TV was "la dictée de Bernard Pivot" (dictations with abominably complicated words) with selections, semi-finals, etc... and a national final which was one of the most popular shows of the year (300,000 entrants, 7 million people watching). Pivot gave his last one (after 20 years) in November 2005 and the whole country was in despair.

  • Language in France is seen as the key element of French identity and an integral part of French culture. In 1994 the Culture Ministry waged a campaign to ban "franglais", the use of English words when there is a French equivalent. This law (Loi Toubon,Aug.4, 1994) was criticized and sometimes ridiculed in the Anglo-Saxon press but when you read it, you see that many of its provisions are pure common sense to put an end to the use of English in cases where the American society would not tolerate the same situation (for instance how about a labor contract in Chinese for the American branch of a Chinese company ?). A special body (Commission Générale de Terminologie et de Néologie), reporting to the Prime Minister, was created in 1996 to find equivalent French words when necessary. Read an excerpt of what Toubon wrote in the NYT to explain his law and read more.

  • The French love their language, including the most artificial difficulties of the spelling (some rules about the accent on "e", including the devilish circumflex "^", words with a double "nn" or not, etc...). regularly, a project of simplification is proposed and rejected, not only by the French Academy but actually by most of the French (even though they make more and more spelling mistakes). The last attempt in 2009 by a well-regarded journalist, François de Closet, although very moderate was opposed by 56% of the French. A daily dictation is still very frequent in schools and, for 20 years (1985-2005), a national dictation contest was one of the most popular TV shows by one of the favorite TV journalists( "La dictée de (Bernard Pivot").

  • Learning French is not out of reach and there are many possibilities offered to visitors who stay a minimum time in France (read more about it). It would of course make their life much easier and allow them to enjoy the complexity of certain rules (click here for a tongue-in-cheek example about when to say "vous" and when to say "tu").

  • The development of English as the global Lingua Franca can generate reactions of anti-Americanism (see an example about software). Within the European Community, English is the language which is studied the most (89%) with French coming in second (32%). In France 85% of high school students choose to study English. More about languages in Europe...


France is of course the biggest French-speaking country, but it is not the only one. Many artists are widely considered French when they are not : they are Canadian, Belgian, Swiss, etc...

Among them :

  • (in the past) : Frédéric Chopin and Marie Curie (Polish), Vincent Van Gogh (Dutch), Pablo Picasso (Spanish), etc... who lived and worked mostly in France
  • Singers : Jacques Brel (Belgian), Céline Dion or Robert Charlebois (see singers from Québec), etc...
  • Writers : Henri Michaux (Belgian), Blaise Cendrars (Swiss), Julien Green (American), etc...
  • Painters : James Ensor, René Magritte or Paul Delvaux (Belgians) etc..
  • Movie directors : Jean-Luc Godard (Swiss), etc..
  • and many others..

DID YOU KNOW THAT the French call French mixed with English words "Franglais". The best book about it was written in the 1960s by French academic Etiemble ("Parlez vous franglais"), a very funny and very wise book. "Globish" (for global English) is the 1500-word language which is spoken everywhere, and increasingly by the French

DID YOU KNOW THAT… ? All French words ending with « ….ou » make their plural with « ….ouS », except seven rather common words which make it with « …ouX ». If you want to impress a Frenchman, list them casually : he/she will be  flabbergasted because he/she learned them in school but when asked to list the seven, one always forgets one of them. The words are : choux, hiboux, poux, joujoux, bijoux, genoux and cailloux. By the same token, if you are often confused about the gender of words, think that three words are masculine in the singular and feminine in the plural : "amour", "delice" and "orgue". You say "Un grand amour" and "Des grandes amours". Wow!

  • Most people now choose a language because of economic, not cultural reasons. English is seen as being the most beneficial language to learn.

  • On the Web, English is first, followed by German and Japanese. French is fourth, followed by Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese.

  • The Google project of digitizing millions of books (in English) is considered in Europe a threat to cultural diversity and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France advocated for an additional European project.

  • French is spoken everywhere in France, but a few regional langages are largely spoken : among them Alsatian (650,000 speak it daily with their parents, according to a study : Enquête Famille INSEE, 1999), Occitan (600,000), various langues d'oïl : Picard, Normand, Lorrain, Vendéen (550,000), Breton and Gallo (280,000), Corsican (80,000), Basque (50,000), Auvergnat, Limousin, Gascon and Catalan (80,000) which successfully survived the domination of the French language. Some of them are taught in high school and can be taken in official exams : mainly Occitan, Corsican, Breton, Alsatian, Basque. (see the figures in 2008).

  • Young people, particularly in the suburbs surrounding large cities, speak slang French (called : "verlan") which is very difficult to understand.

  • Although the study of foreign languages is required in school, almost one out of two Frenchmen does not speak a foreign language.

DID YOU KNOW THAT ..... ? Like most langages, French has two "genders", masculine (LE soleil) and feminine (LA lune) but it has no neutral. By definition, masculine is also neutral and therefore "LE professeur" does NOT mean the teacher is a man, it means both genders. Today's feminist insist on saying LA professeurE for a woman, adding a (feminine) "E" to the noun. This is politically correct but grammatically incorrect !

What is "la Francophonie"?

For many English-speakers who hear the word, it is just another absurd example of French arrogance, neo-colonialism and search for past glory. What is it exactly?

  • France maintains a close relationship with countries where French is the (or one of the) official language(s) : it is called "la Francophonie" and concerns 54 countries worldwide (+observers) : Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Canada, North-African countries, many Western and Central African countries, Lebanon, etc.... (Spain has the same policy with "la Hispanidad" and Britain somewhat with the "Commonwealth"). Read a brief history of French colonization.

  • The largest French-speaking countries are : France 66 million, Congo 24, Algeria 16, Ivory Coast 13, Canada 12 and Morocco 10. The members of La Francophonie share TV5, a TV channel broadcasted worldwide with the best of the French-speaking TV channels.

  • French could be one of the languages of the 21st century because of the expected growth of some of these French-speaking countries, particularly in Africa (Read :"French is too important to be left to middle-class Francophiles", a column in the Observer by a British French professor )

  • An interesting book by two Canadian authors (The Story of the French, by Benoit Nadeau & Julie Barlow, St.Martin's Press, 2006) explains why their language is so important to the French and why it will resist the rising influence of English.

  • Did you know that French is the first official language of the Olympic Games ? Read why.

 DID YOU KNOW THAT .....? For Americans, too, the language is an important part of the national identity and speaking another language may be considered a threat to patriotism. Sociologist Fishman wrote that for Main Street (and sometimes for the Government...) : "suspicion toward bilingual people is deeply rooted within the set of fears which link the foreigner to the fantasy of "un-American".


DID YOU KNOW THAT .....? You may have noticed on advertising billboards in the streets that each sentence in a foreign language (for example English) MUST be translated into French in a footnote. This is the implementation of French laws requiring that everything you see in public places must be understood by all, i.e. in French. If it is transtated into English, it MUST be translated into another foreign language (as a proof that English is not the second official language in France : there is a special provision for that!).

French words with a highly symbolic meaning...

In French, as in any language, many commonly used words reflect the value system of the society, more than their literal meaning. To better understand, click on the word for a more detailed explanation :

USEFUL TIPS ....There are always exceptions but many French people do not like to be blunt and say things outright in order to leave an escape route open to the other person. In this respect, they're almost Japanese. When in France, it's important to understand what ISN'T being said (le non-dit).... This is why, very often, the French will be considered imprecise by Americans when they sincerely think that they have been very clear.

Improve your vocabulary!

  • " privatisation "(privatization) is a bad word in French : it means dirty private money (as opposed to good public money) : no French politician would say " we shall privatize something " : he/she will say " we shall reduce the influence of the state on something " ; used without precaution, the word sounds as bad as " pedophilia ". See about the French and the state.

  • " libéral, libéralisme " (liberal, liberalism) connotes being in favour of free entreprise and market economy : for the Left (around 50% in France), it is an insult and it means selfish, heartless, hard on the poor, etc ; saying " I am liberal " means : " I am an enemy of the working class "

  • "croissance" (growth) does not mean "growth resulting from the investment of firms" but "growth (or happiness?) resulting from the action of the State".

  • "patron" (employer) does not mean the head of a company which manufactures goods and provides jobs, it means the mean capitalist who only wants to exploit workers and loves to fire them.

  • More to come....

DID YOU KNOW THAT .....? There are two well-known sentences in French that very few people can pronounce correctly at normal speed. Try ! It's : "Les chaussettes de l'archi-duchesse sont-elles sèches, archi-sèches" or (worse) : "Tout chasseur sachant chasser doit savoir chasser sans chien car s'il ne sait pas chasser, il chassera avec son chien". If you succeed, your French is perfect !

To related pages : More on the French language (#2), French literature, education, etc...

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Harriet Welty Rochefort writes articles and books about France and the French. Order her books:

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

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