views updated May 23 2018

FRENCH A ROMANCE LANGUAGE of Western Europe, the official language of France and an official language of Belgium (with Flemish) and Switzerland (with German, Italian, and Romansch); spoken in Luxembourg, Andorra, Aosta in Italy, and the CHANNEL ISLANDS; during the 11–13c widely spoken in the British Isles. In the Americas, French is an official language of Canada (with English), the official language of the French island department of St Pierre and Miquelon (off Newfoundland), the French Caribbean island departments of Guadeloupe and Martinique, of French Guyana, and of Haiti, and is spoken in ST LUCIA, and TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO. It is spoken in the US in Maine and Louisiana and among immigrants from QUEBEC in Florida. In Africa, it is the official language of Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Chad, Congo (Brazzaville), Congo (Kinshasa), Côte d'Ivoire, Gabon, Mali, Niger, Rwanda (with English), and Senegal, and is widely used in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia. In the Indian Ocean, it is the official language of the Comoros Islands, the Malagasy Republic, and the French island of Réunion, and is spoken in MAURITIUS. In Asia, it is spoken in Lebanon, and, to a lesser extent, in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. In the Pacific, it is the official language of the French island of New Caledonia and is spoken in Tahiti, VANUATU, and other islands. There are French pidgins and creoles in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Origins and nature

Historically, the language is divided into Old, Middle, and Modern. Old French (OF) more or less coincides with OLD ENGLISH (OE) and early MIDDLE ENGLISH (ME). Middle French (MF) stretches from the 14c to c.1600. Geographically, French is traditionally divided into two areas: Northern French or the Langue d'Oil, and Southern French or the Langue d'Oc (also Occitan). Oil (from LATIN ille that) and oc (from Latin hoc this) are the words for yes in OF and Occitan. The northern tongue was influenced by Frankish, the Germanic language of the Franks, who gave their name to both France and French. The southern tongue is related to Catalan. Occitan (including Provençal) was a major medieval language, but declined after the annexation of the South by Paris and survives as a range of dialects. In medieval Europe, the northern language enjoyed great prestige, while in the 17-19c Modern French was a language of international standing, especially in diplomacy and culture. In 1637, the Académie française was founded with a view to fixing the standard language and keeping le bon français (‘good French’, based on court usage and ‘the best writers’) as pure as possible. See ACADEMY. The French Revolution in the late 18c promoted French as the language of national unity, the speaking of Basque, Breton, Alsatian, Flemish, and Corsican, etc., being considered unpatriotic. The Jacobin ideal of one standard national language was pursued by the founders of the modern educational system in the 19c, extended to French colonies around the world, and has continued into the 20c.

Protective laws, activities, and groups


In the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts, King Francis I ordered the replacement of Latin by French as the language of law.


The Académie française was founded: see ACADEMY.


The Revolution linked the language to national unity and patriotism.


The Abbé Grégoire presented a report to the National Convention on the need and means to extirpate the patois and make standard French universal.


The Office de la langue française was formed by such linguists as A. Dauzat and F. Brunot. It disappeared after the German invasion, but was partially restored in 1957 as the Office du vocabulaire français, especially under pressure from Canadian francophones.


The Défense de la langue française was formed under the auspices of the Académie française.


René Etiemble published Parlez-vous franglais? (Paris: Gallimard): see FRANGLAIS.


The Haut Comité pour la défense et l'expansion de la langue française was formed, directly responsible to the Prime Minister of the Republic.


The Association pour le bon usage du français dans l'administration was formed, to regulate government language.


The Bas-Lauriol law was passed on the use of French only in advertising and commerce.


A government circular extended constraints to foreign exporters of goods destined for France.


Loi 101/Bill 101 was passed in Quebec, Canada, making French the sole official language of the province, limiting access to English-medium schools, and banning public signs in other languages.


In France, a decree was passed requiring the use in teaching and research of terms made official by specialist committees.


The French Haut Comité was replaced by the Commissariat général de la langue française, to assist private groups and members of the public in the pursuit of violations of the Bas-Lauriol law.


In France, the Loi Toubon (named for Jacques Toubon, Minister of Culture and Francophonie in the Balladur government) stipulates: (1) that all documents relating to goods and services (including contracts and media commercials) should be in French (or, in special cases, accompanied by explanations in French); (2) that the medium of education and of all documents of an educational nature is French.

Links with English

The Chanson de Roland, an epic poem about the Emperor Charlemagne's army in Spain in the 8c, was the first major literary link between Britain and France. The poem was sung by the Normans at the Battle of Hastings (1066) and the oldest surviving copy was discovered in Oxford in 1834. The first grammar of French was written in England, John Palsgrave's Lesclarcissement de la Langue Françoyse (1530). Borrowing in both directions has been continuous from the earliest times: French bateau from OE bat, Modern English navy from OF navie. The two languages came into close association in the mid-11c, especially through the Norman Conquest, after which NORMAN FRENCH was the socially and politically dominant language of England and a considerable influence in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. By the time French died out as a British language, it had greatly altered and enriched English, and the fashion of BORROWING from it continues to this day. Numerous conflicts, from the 14c Hundred Years War to the 18–19c colonial and revolutionary wars, did not prevent a mutual social and intellectual interest, accounting for Gallomania in Britain and Anglomania in France.

Because of its geographical position and cultural prestige, France has exported many words to its neighbours; of these, English has absorbed the highest proportion. As a result, hundreds of words have the same spellings in both languages, which also share a battery of Latin affixes. Before the Renaissance, prolonged contact with French had prepared English for an increased Latinization, just as French was itself re-Latinized. There is therefore a common NEO-LATIN technical vocabulary: French homicide (12c) antedates English homicide (14c), but English suicide is recorded earlier (1651) than French suicide (1739), and insecticide is recorded as almost simultaneous in both (French 1859, English 1866). However, the Latinization has gone further in English than re-Latinization in French: pedestrian and tepid are closer to Latin than piéton and tiède, and such words as abduct, connubial, equanimity, fulcrum, impervious, odium, and victor do not occur in French. On the other hand, many words borrowed into French from other Romance languages (especially ITALIAN) have entered English in a more or less French form: artisan, caprice, frigate, orange, picturesque, stance, tirade.

French in English

Medieval loans from French have given English much of the look of a Romance language. The movement of French words into English was eased by cognates already present in OE. Thus, OE munt, nefa, prud, rice, warian paved the way for mount, nephew, proud, rich, beware from OF.

A hybrid vocabulary

The ancient closeness of the two languages has had peculiar effects: a young English hare is a French leveret, a young English swan a French cygnet, and a small English axe is a French hatchet. An OE stem can be use with a French suffix (eatable, hindrance) or vice versa (faithful, gentleness). The English stool, originally a chair (OE stol), gave way to the Norman French chair, and was demoted in size and usage. The animals tended by the Saxon peasantry retained English names like calf and sheep, while their meat when eaten in the Norman castles became French veal and mutton. Because of the long presence of the language in England, many French fossils survive in the strata of English: for example, an s lost by French is preserved in bastard, beast, cost, custom, escape, establish, (e)state, false, honest, hostage, interest, master, paste, priest, scout, tempest. In addition, because of the French connection, English is sometimes a twofold language in which people can answer or respond and begin or commence to seek freedom or liberty. Such pairs are near-synonyms, sometimes expressing stylistic differences like kingdom/realm, sight/vision, and snake/serpent. Others still are further apart in meaning, such as ask/demand, bit/morsel, heel/talon, and illegible/unreadable: see BISOCIATION, FAUX AMI.

Calques and doublets

French LOAN TRANSLATIONS often lie beneath English expressions, as in flea-market/marché aux puces, ivory tower/tour d'ivoire, and third world/tiers monde. Romance word structure is still noticeable in centre of gravity, chief of state, and point of view. The word order is French in such forms as Governor-General, poet laureate, and treasure trove. Some idiomatic calques go back to OF (to bear ill will to porter male volonté) while others are from Modern French, such as in the last analysis (en dernière analyse) and it goes without saying (ça va sans dire). English contains many DOUBLETS of French provenance: constraint/constriction, custom/costume, frail/fragile, loyal/legal, marvel/miracle, poison/potion, sever/separate, straight/strict. In some cases, one of the elements does not exist in French (here the second of each pair): allow/allocate, count; compute, croissant/crescent, esteem/estimate, poor/pauper, royal/regal, sure/secure. In other cases, the same word may have been borrowed more than once, with different meanings and forms: catch/chase, chieftain/captain, corpse/corps, forge/fabricate, hostel/hospital/hotel, pocket/poke/pouch, ticket/etiquette, vanguard/avant-garde.

English in French

Borrowing from English into French has been widespread for two centuries. However, when such borrowing takes place, special usages can develop. Thus, the role of a word may become specialized, a French meeting being political rather than general and an English reunion being for people who have not met for a long time (not general, like French réunion). Expressions may even swap roles, such as savoir-faire in English and know-how in French.


Waves of English words have been borrowed since the 18c, especially in: politics (congrès, majorité, meeting, politicien, sinécure, vote), horse-racing (derby, outsider, steeplechase, sweepstake, turf), sport (baseball, basketball, football, goal, tennis), railways (bogie, condenseur, terminus, trolley, viaduc, wagon), aviation (cockpit, crash, jet, steward), medicine (catgut, pace-maker, scanner), and social life (bestseller, gangster, hot dog, leader, sandwich, strip-tease, western). On occasion, English words can be Gallicized by adapting their forms and changing PRONUNCIATION and ORTHOGRAPHY: boulingrin bowling green, contredanse country dance, paquebot packet boat, and redingote riding-coat. Borrowing of additional senses for existing French words also occurs: environnement (in the ecological sense), ‘conviction viscérale’, ‘retourner une lettre’, ‘delivrer une carte d'identité’, ‘engagement naval’. Réaliser and ignorer are now often used with their English meanings. Canadian French is especially open to such influences: ‘la ligne est engagée’. Pseudo-Anglicisms have also arisen: recordman recordholder, shake-hand handshake, tennisman tennis player, and such forms in -ing as footing (recently replaced by jogging), and lifting (face-lift). French dancing, parking, smoking are reduced forms of dancing hall, parking place, smoking jacket, like cargo, steeple, surf (from cargo vessel, steeplechase, and surf-riding).

Loan translations

CALQUES conceal the English origin of certain French words: cessez-le-feu ceasefire, franc-maçon freemason, gratte-ciel skyscraper, lavage de cerveau brain-washing, libre-service self-service, lune de miel honeymoon, prêt-à-porter ready-to-wear, and soucoupe volante flying saucer. However, native coinages expressing resistance to Anglicisms include baladeur Walkman, cadreur cameraman, logiciel software, ordinateur computer, and rentrée comeback. French lift was replaced by ascenseur, but only after the production of liftier liftman. The spread of the -ing suffix, however, has prevented doping, kidnapping, and parking from replacement by dopage, kidnappage, and parcage, and only in Quebec has weekend been overshadowed by fin de semaine. Loan translations also involve whole idiomatic expressions (such as donner le feu vert give the green light), especially in Canadian French (such as manquer le bateau miss the boat). As such, they can affect syntax (infuriating purists), as when adjectives are placed before rather than after nouns (such as I'actuel gouvernement, les éventuels problèmes, les possibles objections), and the passive voice is used with an unexpected verb (such as Il est supposé savoir, ‘He is supposed to know’, rather than Il est censé savoir).

The Anglo-Latinization of French

Few speakers of French are aware that faisabilité and indésirable come from feasibility and undesirable because these words are felt to be the normal derivatives of faisable and désirable. Deforestation and reforestation look so French that few complain about their use instead of deboisement and reboisement. Sentimental was first used in French by the translator of Sterne's A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768). It sounded as French as international, coined in 1780 by Jeremy Bentham. ‘Societé permissive’ is easily associated by French-speakers with permission. Words coined in English from Latin in the 19c were absorbed into French (exhaustif, sélectif, sélection, viaduc) and the process continues. Thus, crédible, in competition with croyable as a recent LOANWORD (1965), easily crept in because of its closeness to crédibilité. Until c. 1950, French forum referred only to Rome, but now has the English meaning ‘meeting-place for discussion, especially on television’. In such ways, French, the Trojan horse through which Latin entered the citadel of English, is being Latinized in its turn through English.



views updated May 14 2018

French1 / french/ • adj. of or relating to France or its people or language.• n. 1. the Romance language of France, also used in parts of Belgium, Switzerland, and Canada, in several countries of northern and western Africa and the Caribbean, and elsewhere.2. Brit. short for French vermouth.3. [as pl. n.] (the French) the people of France collectively.PHRASES: (if you'll) excuse (or pardon) my French inf. used to apologize for swearing.DERIVATIVES: French·ness n.


views updated May 18 2018

French Major language, spoken in France and parts of Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, Haiti, Africa and other areas. There are c.80–100 million French speakers worldwide. Descended from Latin, it is one of the Romance languages and part of the Indo-European family. It is one of the six official languages of the United Nations.

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