Languages of France

Sep 2, 2010 by

In yesterday’s posting I mentioned that nation-states, which are typically conceived of as having “one nation, one language”, are rarely if ever so. And what better example of a nation-state than France! When I ask my students what language or languages are spoken in France, they say “French”. But as we’ll see today, the real answer is much more complex.

The Ethnologue lists 25 languages for France, of them two extinct. Here, we will leave aside three types of languages: (1) immigrant languages (including several varieties of Romani, the language of the Gypsies); (2) sign languages (in fact, French Sign Language is very important in the development of other sign languages such as ASL and deserves a posting of its own); and (3) cross-border languages (which spill across the border but are spoken more widely outside of France, including Basque, Catalan, Walloon and German).

With the exception of Basque (which is not an Indo-European language at all), the language most loosely related to French is Breton. It is spoken by some 500,000 people in Brittany; additional 1.2 million know Breton but do not regularly use it. The highest proportion of Breton speakers is found in the western parts of Brittany:

Breton is a Celtic language, but unlike what one might expect given that Celts came to the British Isles from the continent, Breton speakers are descendants of the Britons who migrated across the Channel during the Early Middle Ages. The closest relative of Breton is Cornish, itself an extinct language now, which was spoken in Cornwall until the late 1700s (the last fluent speaker of Cornish perished in 1777; but thanks to a revival movement that started in the 1922, about 300 speakers speak Cornish as of 2007). The following picture illustrates bilingual signage in the town of Quimper/Kemper:

Another language spoken in France that is only loosely related to French is Corsican (also known as Corsu, or Lingua corsa). Unlike Breton, which is a member of the Celtic branch of the Indo-European family, Corsican is a member of the Romance branch — like French — but it is much less closely related to French than Spanish, Portuguese or even Italian. Corsican is a member of the Southern branch of Romance, together with varieties of Sardinian, while French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian are members of the Italo-Western branch of Romance (and Romanian is a member of the Eastern, or Balkan, branch of Romance); see the chart below:

Corsican is spoken on the island of Corsica, which was acquired by France in 1768. Since the introduction of the French language in Corsican schools in 1853 and until very recently, the use of Corsican has been declining: in 1980 about 70% of the population had some command of the language, while just ten years later the percentage had declined to 50%, with only 10% using it as a first language. The French government reversed its non-supportive stand and began some strong measures to save the Corsican language. Whether these measures will succeed remains to be seen. Unsurprisingly, the use of Corsican is at its highest in connection with traditional activities, such as polyphonic singing and in other cultural groups (70-80% of those participating), and in hunting and fishing (60-70%); whereas in church it’s down to 11% and in night clubs 4%.

One famous Corsican is Napoleon Bonaparte, who, by all accounts, spoke with a marked Corsican accent. To a French ear, the Corsican accent sounds very much like Italian, although there are some striking differences between the languages: for example, in Italian the Latin nominative case ending -um became -o (e.g., the Latin annum ‘year’ became the Italian anno ‘year’), while in Corsican it became -u retaining the vowel, but dropping the -m (cf. the Corsican annu ‘year’). This is also illustrated by the Corsican words celu ‘heaven’ and regnu ‘reign, kingdom’ in the excerpt from the “Our Father” prayer (compare with the Italian cielo ‘sky, heaven’ and regno ‘reign, kingdom’):

Patre Nostru chì sì in celu,
ch’ellu sia santificatu u to nome;
ch’ellu venga u to regnu,
ch’ella sia fatta a to vuluntà,
in terra cum’è in celu.

In tomorrow’s posting we will look at the various regional linguistic varieties (the French term is patois) and will discuss the role of the Germanic-speaking Franks in forming today’s French.

Related Posts

Subscribe For Updates

We would love to have you back on Languages Of The World in the future. If you would like to receive updates of our newest posts, feel free to do so using any of your favorite methods below: