Monday, December 24, 2012

Language Profile: French

Bonjour! This week's language profile is on French, the "language of love". French is a Romance language (perhaps that's where the "love" comes in) with over 67 million native speakers. By 2050, it is expected that there will be 650 million French speakers in the world, which would make up about 7% of the world's population!

French is an official language in 29 countries. You might already know that it's an official language in France, Switzerland, Belgium, Monaco, Canada and Haiti. However, the majority of the world's French speakers live in Africa. There are 31 francophone (that means "French-speaking") countries in Africa... clearly the French did well in their colonization efforts. African countries with French as an official language include Rwanda, Cameroon, Ivory Coast (or Côte d'Ivoire, as you may know it), Madagascar, Burkina Faso, Seychelles, and the always fun to pronounce Djibouti. Take a look at the map of Francophone countries below to get an idea of where it is spoken and its status in each area.

Dark blue - main language. Blue - official language.
Light blue - second language. Green - minority language.

From the 17th to the mid-20th century, French was the most important diplomatic language in the world. English came along to oust it from the position, but it is still used as a primary language of many important global organizations, including NATO, the International Olympic Committee, the World Trade Organization, Médecins Sans Frontières (aka Doctors Without Borders), the Red Cross, and last but certainly not least, the Eurovision Song Contest.

Without Eurovision, the world may never have known
the joy of Swedish pop group ABBA. This photo
is from a Japanese production of Mamma Mia!.

Since French is spoken over such a vast geographical area, it's not surprising that it boasts a multitude of distinct dialects. Québécois French is the most commonly spoken dialect in Canada, though there are other dialects such as Acadian French used in the country. There are many varieties of African French, since each region has different pronunciation quirks and local vocabulary from the influence of other languages in the area. There are also dialects specific to Louisiana, India, the Caribbean, Switzerland and Polynesia. Obviously, the dialects of French deserve a post of their own at some future date.

The French language has so many dialects!

French is written using Latin script, with the addition of four diacritics that are used on vowels, as well the cedilla which specifies the pronunciation of the consonant 'c'. Here's a quick overview:

l'accent aigu (the acute accent) - changes pronunciation of the letter 'e' from the normal /ə/ to /e/, as in école, meaning "school".

l'accent grave (the grave accent) - changes pronunciation of the letter 'e' from /ə/ to /ɛ/, as in the second 'e' in élève, meaning "student".

l'accent circonflexe (the circumflex) - shows that 'ê' is pronounced /ɛ/ as in forêt, meaning "forest". It also signifies that 'ô' is pronounced /o/ and 'â' is pronounced /ɑ/.

le tréma (the diaeresis) - shows that a vowel is pronounced separately from a preceding vowel and does not produce a schwa sound as in Noël, meaning "Christmas".

la cédille (the cedilla) - shows that the letter 'c' should be pronounced with the "soft" /s/ sound. The cedilla is only found on 'c' in front of "hard" vowels 'a', 'o' and 'u', where it would normally be pronounced /k/. Français, meaning "French" is a prime example of use of the cedilla.

It wouldn't be a post on French
without a photo of La Tour Eiffel.

The language also uses elision, the act of dropping a final vowel before another word that begins with a vowel. The missing vowel is then replaced with an apostrophe, as in j'ai "I have", which is from adding ai, a conjugation of avoir, to the word je, meaning I. French is fond of such grammatical structures that make the language sound more natural and beautiful. Another is liaison, which requires pronunciation of a word-final consonant before a vowel sound.

However, if there's one thing that differentiates French from other languages, it's probably the 'r' sound, which is a nightmare for people learning it as a second language. I was once told by a Spanish teacher that the Spanish 'r' sounds like a cat purring, while the French 'r' sounds like a cat hacking up a hairball. The sound is usually identified as the voiced uvular fricative [ʁ]. It's no surprise that it's difficult for native English speakers, since we have no uvular sounds in our phonological inventory. In order to produce the sound, you need to vibrate your vocal chords and have turbulent air flow while you articulate the sound with the very back of your tongue by your uvula. Sounds difficult, non?