French language, Notre-Dame de Paris


Bienvenue – Welcome

French (français) belongs to the Romance branch of the Indo-European language family. Like all Romance languages, it developed from Vulgar Latin spoken by the Roman invaders. Before the Roman invasion of what is France today, the territory was inhabited by a Celtic people whom the Romans called Gauls. The language of the Gauls had little impact on French.

From the 3rd century on, Gaul was invaded by Germanic tribes whose languages had a profound effect on the Vulgar Latin of the region, especially on its vocabulary. In 1539, King Francis I made French the official language of administration and court proceedings in France, replacing Latin as the official written language of the country. Following a period of unification and standardization, the language spoken in the 17th-18th centuries became the basis of modern French. From the 17th century on, French enjoyed the status of being the Francemaplanguage of culture and diplomacy throughout the western world. European colonization brought French to the Americas, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia.


French is spoken in 53 countries, making it one of the most wide-spread languages of the world. It is estimated that the number of first- and second-language speakers of French worldwide is between 220 and 300 million people. It is an official, co-official or de facto national of 29 countries. Countries using French as either a first or a second language are located on four continents. Four of them are in Europe: France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Luxembourg. Two are in the Americas: Canada and Haiti. There are also two overseas departments of France: Martinique and Guadeloupe. The rest are former French colonies in Africa and in the islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. French is a major second language in Arabic-speaking Algeria, Tunis, and Morocco. The dispersion of French is due to the political, economic, scientific, and cultural influence of France. Countries in which French is spoken are listed below. Please note that some of the numbers are estimates and do not clearly show the breakdown between first- and second-language speakers.

France 66 million official language
Canada 7 million official language used in all domains, along with English
Belgium 4 million official language, along with Dutch and German
Switzerland 1,5 million 1st language and 2.5 million 2nd language speakers official language, along with German, Italian and Romansch
Algeria 16 million no official status
Italy (Aosta Valley) 95,000 official regional language, along with Italian and Slovenian
French Polynesia 184,000 1st language and 2nd language speakers official language, along with Tahitian
Gabon 1.24 million official language, the only language of formal education
Lebanon 1.9 million 1st language speakers official language along with Arabic
New Caledonia 53,000 official language
Réunion 2,400 1st language and 161,000 2nd language speakers official language
Equatorial Guinea 75,000-100,000 2nd language speakers official language along with Spanish; increasingly used for wider communication
Benin, Republic of the Congo,
Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti,Luxembourg,
Madagascar, Mauritius, Monaco, Tunisia
10,000 – 40,000 official or co-official language
Andorra, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Guadelupe, Mali, Martinique, Niger,
Rwanda, Seychelles,
under 10,000 official or co-official language
Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Cameroon,
Democratic Republic of the Congo
French Guiana, Guinea
no estimates available official or co-official language


In addition, there are a number of French-based Creoles spoken today mainly in the Caribbean, in the U.S., and on several islands in the Indian Ocean.They are listed below. Please note that these numbers may be actually higher.

Amapá Creole 25,000 Brazil
Guadeloupean Creole 848,000 Guadeloupe, Martinique
Guianese Creole 50,000 French Guiana
Haitian Creole 7,389,066 Haiti, U.S.
Louisiana Creole 60,000-80,000 U.S.
Indian Ocean
Morisyen Creole 604,000 Mauritius
Réunion Creole 600,000 Réunion
Seychellois Creole 72,7000 Seychelles



Click here on the MLA Interactive Language Map to find out where French is spoken in the US.




European French is usually divided into two major dialects which, in turn, subsume many regional varieties.

  • Langue d’oil
    Northern and central varieties of French, including what is today Belgium. One of the dialects of langue d’oil was françien which was spoken in Île de France. It became the basis of standard French. However, it did not become dominant in all of France, even after it became a major international language of culture and diplomacy.
  • Langue d’oc
    Southern varieties of French including dialects of Switzerland and the Val d’Aosta in Italy, closely linked to Catalan.



All Canadian French varieties differ from Standard French in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. Canadian French is usually divided into three varieties:



Africa has the largest population of French speakers in the world. African French varieties are spoken in 31 African countries with the number of first- and second-language speakers exceeding 100 million. All African French varieties differ from Standard French in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. They are usually divided into several groups.

  • Varieties of French spoken in Western, Central, and East Africa with an estimated 75 million first and second language speakers;
  • Varieties of French, known as Maghreb French, spoken in Northwest Africa with an estimated 36 million first and second language speakers;
  • Varieties of French spoken in the Indian Ocean (Réunion, Mauritius, and Seychelles) with an estimated 1.6 million first and second language speakers.




Although there are many varieties of spoken French, learners of French as a foreign language are usually taught a variety spoken by educated Parisians. Some of the main features of this variety are presented below.


Sound system


French has a rich vowel system. In addition to the oral vowels given below, there are four nasal vowels /ɛ, ̃œ̃, ã, ɔ̃).

  • /i/ = ee in beet
  • /e/ = ai in bait
  • /ɛ/ = e in bet
  • /y, ø, œ/ have no equivalents in English. They are pronounced with rounded lips.
  • /ə/ = u in bud
  • /a/ = a in bat
  • /u/ = oo in boot
  • /o/ = oa in boat
  • /ɔ/ = ough in bought
  • /ɑ/ = o in pop



French has a relatively uncomplicated consonant system which is presented below.

Stops voiceless
Fricatives voiceless
Affricates voiceless
  • /p, t, k/ are not aspirated, i.e., they are produced without a puff of air, as they are in English.
  • /ʃ/ = sh in shop
  • /ʒ/ = s in vision
  • /ɲ/ = first n in canyon
  • /ʁ/ has no equivalent in English



Stress in French words normally falls on the last syllable.



The grammar of French is historically based on the grammar of Latin. As a result, it shares many features with other Romance languages.


Nouns, adjectives, articles, and pronouns

French nouns have the following grammatical categories:

  • There are two grammatical genders (masculine and feminine) that are not predictable from the form of the noun.
  • There are two numbers (singular and plural).
  • Nouns are not marked for case.
  • Adjectives agree with nouns they modify in gender and number.
  • There is a definite and an indefinite article, each of which agrees with the noun in gender and number. Definite articles can combine with a number of prepositions, e.g., à + le = au; de + le = du ; à + les = aux; de + les = des.
  • Pronouns are marked for person, gender, and number. They are also inflected to indicate their role in the sentence, e.g., subject, direct object, indirect object.
  • French makes a distinction between the informal second person pronoun tu and the formal vous.



The Standard French counting system is partially vigesimal, i. e., it uses vingt ‘twenty’as a base for numbers 80-99, e.g., quatre-vingts ‘eighty’ literally ‘4 times 20’. This is comparable to the archaic English use of score ‘twenty’, as in fourscore ‘eighty’.



French verbs have the following grammatical categories:

  • There are three regular conjugations. In addition, there are many irregular verbs.
  • Verbs are marked for person (1st, 2nd, 3rd) and number (singular, plural).
  • Verbs agree with their subjects in person and number.
  • There are four simple tenses and five compound tenses. Compound tenses are formed using the auxiliary verbs être ‘to be’ or avoir ‘to have’.The latter is used to indicate the perfective aspect.
  • There are four moods: indicative, conditional, subjunctive, imperative.
  • There are two voices: active and passive. Passive constructions are formed using the auxiliary verb être ‘to be’ + past passive participle.
  • French has a two-part negation, e.g., je ne sais pas ‘I don’t know’, with ne indicating global negation and pas clarifying the type of negation.


Word order

The basic word order in French is Subject-Verb-Object, but a large number of other orders is possible to indicate topic and emphasis. Word order is further complicated by an interaction among compound verb constructions, object and adverbial pronouns, inversion, imperatives, adverbs, and negative structures. Most adjectives follow the noun, e.g., un chat noir ‘a black cat’.



French vocabulary is mostly Latin-based, e.g., frère ‘brother’ from Latin frater. As a result, it shares much of its basic vocabulary with other Romance languages. A study by Walter and Walter (1998) estimated that 12% of common French words found in a typical dictionary such as the Petit Larousse were borrowed from other languages. About 25% of these loanwords are fairly recent borrowings from English (e.g., le rostbif, le week-end). Other languages that have contributed to the French lexicon are Italian, ancient Germanic languages, Arabic, German Celtic, Spanish, Dutch, Greek, Persian and Sanskrit.

Below are some common phrases in French.

Hello Bonjour
Good bye Au revoir
Please S’il vous plaît
Thank you Merci
Sorry, excuse me Pardon, excusez-moi
Yes Oui
No Non
Man L’homme
Woman La femme

Below are numerals 1-10 in French.




The Latin alphabet was a natural choice for the scribes who started writing French texts starting in the 11th century, even though it was less than an ideal fit for a language whose sound system differed substantially from that of Latin. A significant number of changes in the sound system of French during the 14th-16th centuries caused a further divergence between spoken French and its written representation. Despite some attempts to reform French spelling, no major changes have been made over the last two centuries. The orthography of modern French has not changed since 1740.

The modern French alphabet is given below.

A a
B b
C c
D d
E e
F f
G g
H h
I i
J j
K k
L l
M m
N n
O o
P p
Q q
R r
S s
T t
U u
V v
W w
X x
Y y
Z z


  • There are three accent marks over vowels: acute over é; grave over á and é; cirumflex over â, ê, î, ô, û.
  • Diaeresis, or two dots over the vowel, shows that each vowel is pronounced separately as in Noël ‘Christmas.’
  • A cedilla placed below the letter ç indicates that it is pronounced as [s].
  • There are two ligatures: œ and æ, e.g., . œil ‘eye,’ bœuf ‘beef,’ et cætera ‘et cetera.’
  • w and k are used exclusively in loan words or foreign names.


Take a look at the text of Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Déclaration universelle des droits de l’homme
Article premiere
Tous les êtres humains naissent libres et égaux en dignité et en droits. Ils sont doués de raison et de conscience et doivent agir les uns envers les autres dans un esprit de fraternité.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Article 1
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.


Did You Know?

French words in English
English has borrowed many words from French. They are too numerous to list. Below is a short sampling of French loan words related to cooking, and those that occur in common usage.

Common usage

bon appétit
du jour
à la carte
à la mode

c’est la vie
déjà vu
en route
haute couture
par excellence



Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn French?
French is considered to be a Category I language in terms of difficulty for speakers of English.