French is one of the world’s great languages, rivaled only by English as the language of international society and diplomacy. Besides being spoken in France, it is one of the official languages of Belgium, of Switzerland, and of Canada; it is the official language of Haiti, of more than 15 African countries, and of various French dependencies such as St. Pierre and Miquelon (off the coast of Newfoundland), Guadeloupe and Martinique (in the Caribbean), French Guiana (in South America), Reunion (in the Indian Ocean), and New Caledonia and Tahiti (in the South Pacific). In addition, French is the unofficial second language of a number of countries, including Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, and Syria. All told, it is the mother tongue of about 75 million people, with millions more familiar with it, to some degree, as a second language.
French is one of the Romance languages, descended from Latin. In French it is francais, which, when referring to the language, is never capitalized. The appearance of Latin in France (then called Gaul) dates from Caesar’s conquest of the region in the period 58–51 BC. Gaul became one of the richest and most important provinces of the Roman Empire, and Latin superseded the various Celtic (Gaulish) tongues as the language of the domain. In the 5th century Gaul was conquered by a Germanic people, the Franks (from whom the name “France” is derived), who eventually abandoned their Germanic tongue in favor of the Romance speech of the population. Although a number of dialects emerged, history favored the north; Paris became the capital of France in the 12th century, and Parisian French gained ascendancy over the others. In the 18th and 19th centuries French was pre-eminent as an international language, though it has been eclipsed by English in the 20th and 21st. French was one of the two official languages of the League of Nations and is now one of the six official languages of the United Nations.
The French alphabet is the same as that of English, though the letter w appears only in foreign words. Grave (è), acute (é), and circumflex (ô) accents are used (e.g., père – father, été – summer, élève – pupil, âme – soul); the cedilla ((ç)) appears under the letter c when preceding a, o, or u to indicate an s sound rather than k (leçon – lesson).
French spelling generally reflects the language as it was spoken four or five centuries ago and is therefore a poor guide to modern pronunciation. Silent letters abound, especially at the ends of words (hommes is pronounced um; aiment pronounced em), but a normally silent final consonant is often sounded when it is followed by a word that begins with a vowel. In this process, known as liaison, the consonant becomes part of the first syllable of the following word, so that the sentence il est assis (he is seated) is pronounced ē-lĕ-tă-sē. Although French pronunciation is governed by fairly consistent rules, reproducing the actual sounds of the language is difficult for the English speaker, and a good “French accent” is something not easily acquired.
As the two major languages of the Western world, English and French naturally have contributed many words to each other. The enormous impact of Norman French on the English language has already been discussed. More recent French contributions to English – with the French pronunciation retained as closely as possible – include such expressions as hors d’oeuvre, à la carte, table d’hôte, en route, en masse, rendezvous, carte blanche, savoir-faire, faux pas, fait accompli, par excellence, bon vivant, joie de vivre, raison d’être, coup d’état, nouveau riche, esprit de corps, laissez faire, chargé d’affaires, piéce de résistance, and R.S.V.P.
In recent years, however, traffic has been mainly in the opposite direction. To the dismay of purists of the language, to say nothing of the French Academy, French has been virtually inundated with English words of all kinds, such as le hamburger, le drugstore, le week-end, le strip-tease, le pullover, le tee-shirt, les blue-jeans, and le snack-bar. The resulting hybrid has been dubbed franglais – a combination of français (French) and anglais (English) – and a campaign has been under way for years to try and reverse the trend.
In some ways it has been successful. In the computer field at least, French appears to be holding its own, more so than other major languages such as German and Russian. The word for “computer” itself, Computer in German and kompyuter in Russian, in French is ordinateur. “Software,” which is Software in German, in French is logiciel. For “chip", which is the same in German and Russian as in English, the French is puce, the word for “flea.” And for “user friendly” the French have come up with the delightful equivalent convivial.
For more general terms, the French word for “commuter” is navetteur, from navette, or “shuttle.” But in many cases the English prevails because of its greater simplicity and brevity. While purists argue for sac gonflable, most people would rather say “air bag.” And the term “routing slip” has a certain crispness about it that is lacking in the French fiche de transmission.