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La langue française

Number of native speakers

77 million native speakers with many more speaking it as a second language (150-220 million)

Official language in

France, Belgium, Switzerland, Monaco, Luxemburg, EU, Canada, Haiti, Vanuatu and 21 countries in Africa.

Minority language in

Italy, USA

Language of diaspora

Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, Lebanon, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Tunisia, Uruguay

40 letters (26 Latin + diacritic letters)
Grammatical cases
Language code
fr, fra, fre
Linguistic typology
inflectional , polysynthetic features in spoken language , SVO
Language family
Indo-European, Romance
Number of dialects
Several in Europe (different varieties in France, Switzerland, Belgium), a few in Canada and Louisiana, Africa, New Caledonia...

Longest word

(25 letters), 'anticonstitutionally'

Curious word or sentence

The words mean "without" and "doubt", but the whole expression actually means "probably" and not "undoubtedly".
The French word for "love" is masculine in the singular, but feminine in the plural.


French is spoken in 29 countries that make up the Francophonie. Therefore there are several varieties of French in Europe, Africa, Canada, the United States and Asia. In Europe, the varieties in Switzerland and Belgium differ from the standard spoken in France.

The largest number of native and second language French speakers is found in Africa (about 115 million in 31 African countries). The countries of the former French Colonial Empire (Senegal, Algeria, Gabon, Tunisia, Mauritania, Côte d’Ivoire etc.) often use French as a compromise between the local languages after becoming independent.

Several creole languages, such as Haitian, are lexically based on French.

Several international organizations such as the UN, WTO, NATO, Council of Europe, Red Cross – use French as an official language as does Vatican City. The Alliance Française has the mission to promote French language and culture in the world.

A map showing the languages and dialects of France and the border regions.

Source: Wikimedia Commons


French as a Romance language grew from Vulgar Latin, influenced by the Celtic language spoken in Gaul (now Northern France). Occitan was spoken in the southern part of the country.

  • 9 – 13th century

  • Old French

    The earliest text is the Oaths of Strasbourg (Serments de Strasbourg 842).

  • 14 – 15th century

  • Middle French

  • 16 – 17th century

  • Classical French

    Francis I made French the official language of administration in 1539 replacing Latin. Therefore, other languages in France were repressed or neglected.

  • from the 17th century

  • Modern French

French became an international language in Europe during the reign of Louis XIV (17th c.). It was the most important language of diplomacy from the 17th to the middle of the 20th century when English took over the role of international language.

Writing system and pronunciation

  • â
  • à
  • a
  • b
  • c
  • ç
  • d
  • é
  • è
  • ë
  • e
  • ê
  • f
  • g
  • h
  • î
  • i
  • ï
  • j
  • k
  • l
  • m
  • n
  • ô
  • o
  • œ
  • p
  • q
  • r
  • s
  • t
  • û
  • ù
  • u
  • ü
  • v
  • w
  • x
  • y
  • ÿ
  • z

French is written with 26 Latin letters, 14 diacritic letters (à â ç é è ê ë î ï ô ù û ü ÿ) and 2 ligatures (æ, œ).

The pronunciation of sounds is made with muscle tension. The last letter of the words is often silent. There is no h sound. The h at the beginning of the word is not pronounced: hôtel [otel] (hotel). The French uvular r is characteristic of the language.

The orthography is quite complicated because much more is written than is pronounced. Verb conjugation exists in written form but the pronunciation distinguishes only three out of six forms in the present. In the conjugation table all the singular and the third person plural have the same pronunciation.

Real French speech sounds are more complicated than the language learner would suppose because some vowels are dropped and groups of words are pronounced together as one:

Je ne le sais pas (I don't know it)


Standard French has up to 13 oral vowels and 4 nasal vowels. The so called schwa /ə/ whose pronunciation is similar to œ is often dropped (e muet). Normally, it is not pronounced at the end of the words as in porte, but it may be pronounced in poetry.

Letter Example Translation
a à patte, paw, there
a â image, pâté image, block
ai, ei, è chère, neige, faire dear, snow, make
ê rêve dream
é été summer
i livre book
œ, eu œil, jeune eye, young
eu, eû peu, jeûne few, fasting
e [ə] je I
o, au, eau mot, peau, beau word, skin, beautiful
o mort death
ou sous under
u but goal
The vowels a, o, u and i are pronounced nasalized when followed by n.
an dans in
on mon my
un brun brown
in vin wine

French has also diphthongs: oui (‘yes’), huit (‘eight’), roi (‘king’), louer (‘rent’), ciel (‘sky’).


Letter Example Translation
b beau beautiful
c, s, ç cent, sous, ça hundred, under, this
c, k, q cause, kilo, cinq cause, kilo, five
ch chaise chair
d dans in
f, ph fée, photo fairy, photo
g, j gens, journal people, journal
g garde guard
l lait milk
m mère mother
n non no
gn campagne campaign
p porte door
r rose rose
t triste sad
v ville town
x expansion expansion
z gazette newspaper

The French accent falls on the last syllable of words, but words that are pronounced together and which form a rhythmic unit (such as un petit enfant = ‘a small child’) only have a single stress. Consonants that are normally not pronounced are sometimes pronounced when followed by a vowel (that is the final t of petit is pronounced in the example above). This is known as liaison.


French has lost the complicated declensions and conjugations of Latin. There is a sign for plural nouns and adjectives, although it is often silent. Word order and prepositions are used to express syntactic relations. Auxiliary verbs are used in the expression of tenses and moods.

French has two genders (masculine article: le and feminine article: la), and the adjective which normally follows the noun (except some short and common ones), agrees with it in gender and number.


  • le livre vert
    the green book
  • la fleur verte
    the green flower


  • les livres verts
    the green books
  • les fleurs vertes
    the green flowers

Of these forms, only the article is pronounced differently in the singular and plural.

Some adjectives can have different meaning before and after the noun:

  • ta chambre propre
    your clean room
  • ta propre chambre
    your own room

The verbs have three groups of conjugations according the ending of the infinitive (-er, -ir, -re).

Present indicative
1st person je parle je finis je mets
2nd person tu parles tu finis tu mets
3rd person il parle elle finit il met
1st person nous parlons nous finissons nous mettons
2nd person vous parlez vous finissez vous mettez
3rd person ils parlent elles finissent ils mettent
1st person je parlais je finissais je mettais
2nd person tu parlais tu finissais tu mettais
3rd person il parlait elle finissait il mettait
1st person nous parlions nous finissions nous mettions
2nd person vous parliez vous finissiez vous mettiez
3rd person ils parlaient elles finissaient ils mettaient
Present perfect
1st person j’ai parlé j’ai fini j’ai mis
2nd person tu as parlé tu as fini tu as mis
3rd person il a parlé elle a fini il a mis
1st person nous avons parlé nous avons fini nous avons mis
2nd person vous avez parlé vous avez fini vous avez mis
3rd person ils ont parlé elles ont fini ils ont mis
1st person je parlerai je finirai je mettrai
2nd person tu parleras tu finiras tu mettras
3rd person il parlera elle finira il mettra
1st person nous parlerons nous finirons nous mettrons
2nd person vous parlerez vous finirez vous mettrez
3rd person ils parleront elles finiront ils mettront
Present conditional
1st person je parlerais je finirais je mettrais
2nd person tu parlerais tu finirais tu mettrais
3rd person il parlerait elle finirait il mettrait
1st person nous parlerions nous finirions nous mettrions
2nd person vous parleriez vous finiriez vous mettriez
3rd person ils parleraient elles finiraient ils mettraient
1st person
2nd person parle finis mets
3rd person
1st person parlons finissons mettons
2nd person parlez finissez mettez
3rd person

Word formation and lexicon

French doesn’t use compound words, but rather compound expression as:

  • machine à laver
    washing machine
  • prise de sang
    blood test

The numbers are based on the old Celtic system which uses 20 as a base number. Therefore 80 is quatre-vingts ('four twenties') and 95 is quatre-vingt-quinze ('four twenties fifteen'). Belgian and Swiss French (as well as some other varieties) now use some base ten numbers so that 95 in them is nonante-cinq (ninety-five).

Thematic words

Funny or odd traditional proverbs and idioms

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