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French language

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Pronunciation [fʁɑ̃sɛ]
Native to See below
Native speakers 75 million  (2007)
220 million L1 and L2 speakers (2010)
Language family
  • Italic
    • Romance
      • Western Romance
        • Gallo-Iberian
          • Gallo-Romance
            • Gallo-Rhaetian
              • Oïl
                • French
Early forms:
Old French
  • Middle French
    • French
Writing system Latin ( French alphabet)
French Braille
Official status
Official language in

Numerous international organisations
Regulated by Académie française (French Academy)
Language codes
ISO 639-1 fr
ISO 639-2 fre (B)
fra (T)
ISO 639-3 fra
Linguasphere 51-AAA-i
New-Map-Francophone World.PNG
  Regions where French is the main language
  Regions where it is an official language
  Regions where it is a second language
  Regions where it is a minority language

French (le français [lə fʁɑ̃sɛ] or la langue française [la lɑ̃ɡ fʁɑ̃sɛz]) is a Romance language spoken as a first language in France, the Romandy region in Switzerland, Wallonia and Brussels in Belgium, Monaco, the provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick ( Acadia region) in Canada, the U.S. state of Maine, the Acadiana region of the U.S. state of Louisiana, and by various communities elsewhere. Other speakers of French, who often speak it as a second language, are distributed throughout many parts of the world, the largest numbers of whom reside in Francophone Africa. In Africa, French is most commonly spoken in Gabon (where 80% report fluency), Mauritius (78%), Algeria (75%), Senegal and Côte d'Ivoire (70%). French is estimated as having 110 million native speakers and 190 million more second language speakers.

French is a descendant of the spoken Latin language of the Roman Empire, as are languages such as Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Romanian, Lombard, Catalan, Sicilian and Sardinian. Its closest relatives are the other langues d'oïl—languages historically spoken in northern France and Belgium, which French has largely supplanted. French was also influenced by native Celtic languages of Roman Gaul, and by the ( Germanic) Frankish language of the post-Roman Frankish invaders. Today, owing to France's past overseas expansion, there are numerous French-based creole languages, most notably Haitian.

It is an official language in 29 countries, most of which form la francophonie (in French), the community of French-speaking countries. It is an official language of all United Nations agencies and a large number of international organizations. According to the European Union, 129 million, or twenty-six percent of the Union's total population, can speak French, of whom 72 million are native speakers (65 million in France, 4.5 million in Belgium, plus 2.5 million in Switzerland, which is not part of the EU) and 69 million are second-language or foreign language speakers, thus making French the third language in the European Union that people state they are most able to speak, after English and German. Twenty percent of non-Francophone Europeans know how to speak French, totaling roughly 145.6 million people in Europe alone. As a result of extensive colonial ambitions of France and Belgium (at that time governed by a French-speaking elite), between the 17th and 20th centuries, French was introduced to the Americas, Africa, Polynesia, the Levant, Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean.

According to a demographic projection led by the Université Laval and the Réseau Démographie de l'Agence universitaire de la francophonie, French speakers will number approximately 500 million people in 2025 and 650 million people, or approximately 7% of the world's population by 2050.

Geographic distribution


French is the fourth-most widely spoken mother tongue in the European Union.

Legal status in France

According to the Constitution of France, French has been the official language since 1992 (although previous legal texts have made it official since 1539, see ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts). France mandates the use of French in official government publications, public education except in specific cases (though these dispositions are often ignored) and legal contracts; advertisements must bear a translation of foreign words. In addition to French, there are also a variety of regional languages and dialects. France has signed the European Charter for Regional Languages, but has not ratified it since that would go against its 1958 Constitution.


French is one of the four official languages of Switzerland (along with German, Italian and Romansh) and is spoken in the western part of Switzerland called Romandie, of which Geneva is the largest city. The language divisions in Switzerland do not coincide with political subdivisions and some cantons have bilingual status for example, cities such Biel/Bienne or cantons such as Valais-Fribourg-Berne. French is the native language of about 20% of the Swiss population and is spoken by 50.4% of the population.

Most of Swiss French is mutually compatible with the standard French spoken in France, but it is often used with small differences, such as those involving numbers after 69 and slight differences in other vocabulary terms.


Bilingual signs in Brussels.

In Belgium, French is the official language of Wallonia (excluding a part of the East Cantons, which are German-speaking) and one of the two official languages—along with Dutch—of the Brussels-Capital Region, where it is spoken by the majority of the population, though often not as their primary language. French and German are not official languages nor recognized minority languages in the Flemish Region, although along borders with the Walloon and Brussels-Capital regions, there are a dozen municipalities with language facilities for French speakers. A mirror situation exists for the Walloon Region with respect to the Dutch and German languages. In total, native French speakers make up about 40% of the country's population, while the remaining 60% speak Dutch as a first language. Of the latter, 59% claim French as a second or third language, meaning that about three quarters of the Belgian population can speak French.

Monaco and Andorra

Although Monégasque is the national language of the Principality of Monaco, French is the only official language, and French nationals make up some 47% of the population.

Catalan is the only official language of Andorra; however, French is commonly used because of the proximity to France and the fact that France is, with the Urgell's Bishop, part of the government. French nationals make up 7% of the population.

Knowledge of French in the European Union and candidate countries (Note that around 40% of Belgium's population are native French speakers, totaling 88% of the country's population.)


French is one of three official languages of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, alongside German and Luxembourgish, the natively spoken language of Luxembourg. French is primarily used for administrative purposes by the government, and is also the primary language used to converse with foreigners. Luxembourg's education system is trilingual: the first cycle of basic school is in Luxembourgish, before changing officially to German for most branches; while in secondary school, the language of instruction changes to French for some more branches like mathematics. At the Luxembourg University courses are offered in French, German and English.


French is also an official language in the small region of Aosta Valley, Italy. Though most non-Italophone people in the region speak Franco-Provençal, they use standard French to write, because the international recognition of Franco-Provençal as a separate language (as opposed to a dialect or patois of French) was quite recent.

The United Kingdom and the Channel Islands

French is a large minority language and immigrant language in the United Kingdom, with over 300,000 French-born people in the UK. It is also spoken by a large number of the African immigrants in the UK. It is also the most popular foreign language. According to a 2006 European Commission report, 23 percent of UK residents are able to carry on a conversation in French.

Modern and Middle English reflect a mixture of Oïl and Old English lexicons after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, when a Norman-speaking aristocracy took control of a population whose mother tongue was Germanic in origin. Due to the intertwined histories of England and continental possessions of the English Crown, many formal and legal words from Modern English have French roots. Therefore words such as buy and sell are of Germanic origin, purchase and vend are from Old French.

French is an official language in both Jersey and Guernsey. Both use French to some degree, mostly in an administrative or ceremonial capacity. Jersey Legal French is the standardized variety used in Jersey. However, Norman (in its local forms, Guernésiais and Jèrriais) is the historical vernacular of the islands.

North and South America


The "arrêt" signs (French for "stop") are used in Quebec while the international stop, which is also a valid French word, is used in France as well as other French-speaking countries and regions.

French is the second most common language in Canada, after English, and both are official languages at the federal level. French is the sole official language in the province of Quebec, being the mother tongue for some 7 million people, or almost 80.1% (2006 Census) of the province. About 95.0% of the people of Quebec speak French as either their first or second language, and for some as their third language. Quebec is also home to the city of Montreal, which is the world's second largest French speaking city, by number of first language speakers. New Brunswick, where about a third of the population is francophone, is the only officially bilingual province. French is also an official language in all of the territories ( Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Yukon). Out of the three, Yukon has slightly more French speakers at just under 4%. Portions of Eastern Ontario, Northeastern Ontario, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Alberta and Manitoba have sizable French minorities, and many provinces provide service in French for its linguistic minorities. Port au Port and surrounding spots are designated by law as a bilingual district (the unique Newfoundland French was formerly widely spoken in those areas). Smaller pockets of French speakers exist in all other provinces.

About 9,487,500 of Canadians speak French as their first language, or around 30% of the country, with 2,065,300 constituting secondary speakers. Due to the increased bilingual school programs and French immersion classes in English Canada, the portion of Canadians proficient in French has risen significantly in the past two decades, and is still rising.

The difference between French spoken in Quebec and French spoken in France is similar in degree to that between American and British English. In Quebec, where the majority of French-speaking Canadians live, the Office québécois de la langue française (English: Quebec Board of the French language) regulates Quebec French and ensures the Charter of the French Language (Bill 101 & 104) is respected.


French is one of Haiti's two official languages. It is the principal language of writing, school instruction, and administrative use. It is spoken by all educated Haitians and is used in the business sector. It is also used in ceremonial events such as weddings, graduations and church masses. About 10–15% of the country's population have French as their first language; the rest speak it as a secondary language in varying degrees of proficiency from basic level to fluent. The second official language is the recently standardized Haitian Creole, which virtually the entire population of Haiti speaks. Haitian Creole is one of the French-based creole languages, drawing the large majority of its vocabulary from French, with influences from West African languages, as well as several European languages. Haitian Creole is closely related to Louisiana Creole and other French creoles.

French overseas departments and territories in the Americas

French is also the official language in France's overseas departments and territories of French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint Barthélemy, St. Martin and Saint-Pierre et Miquelon.

United States

French language spread in the United States. Counties marked in yellow are those where 6–12% of the population speaks French at home; brown, 12–18%; red, over 18%. French-based creole languages are not included.

French is the third most-spoken language in the United States, after English and Spanish, and the second most-spoken in the states of Louisiana, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire.

Louisiana is home to many distinct dialects, collectively known as Louisiana French. Cajun French has the largest number of speakers, mostly living in Acadiana. According to the 2000 United States Census, there are over 194,000 people in Louisiana who speak French at home, the most of any state if Creole French is excluded. New England French, essentially a variant of Canadian French, is spoken in parts of New England. Missouri French was historically spoken in Missouri and Illinois (formerly known as Upper Louisiana), but is nearly extinct today.


The Portuguese language is heavily influenced by more than a millennium of perennial contact with several dialects of both Oïl (chiefly French after France became the major European power) and Occitan (chiefly Provençal around the troubadour apex in the Middle Ages, see Galician-Portuguese lyric), in lexicon (up to 15–20% in some estimates, at least 5000 word roots), phonology (chiefly among the European and more Europeanized Brazilian dialects) and orthography. After greater and continual Portuguese immigration, and Tupi influence, the status of French as a language of culture in the Western world for centuries and the presence of Swiss immigrants (sixth largest European group to Brazil) for a consirable span of time is popularly regarded to be the main source of difference between the group of dialects spoken in Florianópolis, Rio de Janeiro, Espírito Santo and surrounding regions, and those elsewhere in Brazil (it was also more indirectly influenced by French due to the larger Portuguese influence there and the stronger Francophile feel in the Portuguese culture—Portuguese and French influence are often confused). The learning of French is historically the most important and has always been strong among the westernized Lusophone high societies, and for a great span of time it was also a foreign language strong among the [middle class] general populaces of both Portugal and Brazil, only surpassed in the globalised postmodernity by English, in both, and more recently by Spanish, in the latter.

The French language was also briefly spoken in Brazil during the colonial attempts of France Antarctique and France équinoxiale at the 16th and 17th centuries respectively (the expulsing of early French colonists by the Portuguese culminated on the founding of the cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Luís respectively). Also, as mentioned above, the language was used by several communities of immigrants and expatriates in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, chiefly Swiss, but also some French and Belgians.

Today the Karipuna indigenous community (nearly 30,000 people) of Amapá in Northern Brazil speaks a French creole, the Lanc-Patuá, possibly related to the French Guiana Creole.


  Countries usually considered as Francophone Africa. These countries had a population of 355 million in 2012. Their population is projected to reach between 710 million and 791 million in 2050.
It's also the fastet growing language on the continent (in terms of official or foreign language).
  Countries sometimes considered as Francophone Africa
  Countries that are not Francophone but are Members or Observers of the OIF

A majority of the world's French-speaking population lives in Africa. According to the 2007 report by the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, an estimated 115 million African people spread across 31 Francophone African countries can speak French as either a first or a second language. This number does not include the people living in non-Francophone African countries who have learned French as a foreign language. Due to the rise of French in Africa, the total French-speaking population is expected to reach 700 million people in 2050.

French is mostly a second language in Africa, but it has become a first language in some urban areas, such as the region of Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire and in Libreville, Gabon. The classification of French as a second language in Francophone Africa is debatable because it is often the only language spoken and written in schools, administrations, radio, TV and the Internet. This prevalence of French is noticeable in popular music, in which French is often mixed with the language of the song. There is not a single African French, but multiple forms that diverged through contact with various indigenous African languages. In fact, the term African French is a misnomer, as forms are different from country to country, and the root of the French spoken in a particular country depends on its former colonial empire. French spoken in the Benin, for example, is closer to that spoken in France than to French spoken in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is rooted in Belgian French.

In the territories of the Indian Ocean, the French language is often spoken alongside French-derived creole languages, the major exception being Madagascar. There, a Malayo-Polynesian language ( Malagasy) is spoken alongside French.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the region where the French language is most likely to expand, because of the expansion of education and rapid demographic growth. It is also where the language has evolved the most in recent years. Some vernacular forms of French in Africa can be difficult to understand for French speakers from other countries, but written forms of the language are very closely related to those of the rest of the French-speaking world.

French is an official language in many African countries, most of them former French or Belgian colonies:

In addition, French is an administrative language and widely used, though not on an official basis, in Mauritius, where approximately 78% of the population speak French. French is also spoken in the Maghreb states:

  •  Algeria (see also languages of Algeria)
  •  Mauritania (see also languages of Mauritania)
  •  Morocco (see also languages of Morocco)
  •  Tunisia (see also languages of Tunisia)


Most urban Algerians have some working knowledge of French, and a high (though unknown) percentage speak it fluently.(about 80 percent) However, because of the country's colonial past, the predominance of French has long been politically problematic. Numerous reforms have been implemented in recent decades to improve the status of Arabic in relation to French, especially in education. For this reason, although Algeria is certainly one of the most Francophone of countries in the world outside of France, and has perhaps the largest number of French speakers, it does not participate in the Francophonie association.


Bilingual Arabic-French street sign in Alexandria, Egypt.

The official language in Egypt is literary Arabic, and it is mandatory in all schools. While English is the most commonly used second language in Egypt, French is known by some Egyptians. Many Egyptians learn English and French in addition to Arabic. Private schools have either English or French as the main language of instruction. Egypt participates in the Francophonie. There are two French-speaking universities in the country, the Université Française d'Égypte and the Université Senghor.

French overseas departments and territories in Africa

French is also the official language of Mayotte and Réunion, two overseas departments of France located in the southwest Indian Ocean.


Southeast Asia

French continues to be an administrative language in Laos and Cambodia although its influence has waned in recent years. In colonial Vietnam, the elites primarily spoke French, and many servants who worked in French households spoke a French creole known as " Tây Bồi" (now extinct). After French rule ended, South Vietnam continued to use French in administration, education and trade. Since the Fall of Saigon and the opening of a unified Vietnam's economy, French has gradually been effectively displaced as the main foreign language of choice by English. French nevertheless maintains its colonial legacy by being spoken as a second language by the elderly and elite populations and is presently being revived in higher education and continues to be a diplomatic language in Vietnam. The language was also spoken by the elite in the leased territory Guangzhouwan in southern China until the territory was returned. (See also: French Indochina)

Lebanon & Syria & Israel

A Lebanese "mille livres" (thousand-pound) bank note

Arabic is the official language of Lebanon, where a special law regulates the use of French. French is considered a second language by the Lebanese people and is used on bank notes (along with Arabic) and on official buildings. French is widely used by the Lebanese, especially for administrative purposes, and is taught in many schools as a secondary language along with Arabic and English. See further languages of Lebanon.

As in Lebanon, French was official in Syria until 1943. In contrast to the situation in Lebanon, the French language is less used, but it is still spoken to some degree by educated groups, both in the élite and in the middle-class. See further languages of Syria.

There are also a significant number of native and second-language French-speakers in Israel who trace their origins to the francocized Jewish communities of North Africa, (see Maghrebi Jews) and Romania. Today, about 10% of Israelis speak French, taught in the numerous French schools run by the French government and Catholic orders. See further: languages of Israel.


French has de jure official status in the Indian Union Territory of Puducherry (formerly known as Pondicherry), along with the regional languages Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. Some students of Tamil Nadu opt for French as their second or third language (usually behind English and Tamil). According to the French Institute of Pondicherry, French is however "very little spoken" in Puducherry.

French is commonly taught as a third language in secondary schools in most cities of Maharashtra, including Mumbai (Bombay), as part of the preparation for secondary school (X-SSC) and higher secondary school (XII-HSC) certificate examinations. Certain high-profile schools affiliated with the CBSE in the NCR offer French as an option as early as grade 4.

French is also taught in schools in Chandannagar (a former French colony in West Bengal). Students also have the option of having French as an additional subject in the secondary school (WBBSE) and higher secondary school (WBCHSE) certificate examinations.

Oceania and Australasia

French is an official language of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu where 45% of the population can speak French. In the French special collectivity of New Caledonia, 97% of the population can speak, read and write French, whereas only 1% have no knowledge of French. In French Polynesia, 95% of the population can speak, read and write French, whereas only 2% have no knowledge of French. In the French collectivity of Wallis and Futuna, 78% of the population can speak, read and write French, whereas 17% have no knowledge of French.


Dialects of the French language in the world
  • Acadian French
  • African French
  • Aostan French
  • Belgian French
  • Cambodian French
  • Canadian French
  • French-based creole languages
  • Guyana French
  • Indian French
  • Jersey Legal French
  • Lao French
  • Louisiana French
  • Maghreb French (North African French)
  • Meridional French
  • Metropolitan French
  • Missouri French
  • New Caledonian French
  • Newfoundland French
  • Quebec French
  • South East Asian French
  • Swiss French
  • Vietnamese French
  • West Indian French


French is a Romance language (meaning that it is descended primarily from Vulgar Latin) that evolved out of the Gallo-Romance dialects spoken in northern France.

French was the most important language of diplomacy and international relations from the 17th century to approximately the middle of the 20th century. English has now taken over that role, since following the Second World War, the US became the dominant global power. French remains one of the most important diplomatic languages, with the language being one of the working languages of NATO, the International Olympic Committee, the UN Secretariat, the Council of Europe, the International Court of Justice, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Organization of American States, European Commission, the Eurovision Song Contest the European Space Agency, World Trade Organisation and the North American Free Trade Agreement. It is also a working language in nonprofit organisations such as the Red Cross, Amnesty International, Médecins sans Frontières, or Médecins du Monde.


Although there are many French regional accents, foreign learners normally study only one version of the language, which has no commonly used special name.

  • There are 16 vowels in French, not all of which are used in every dialect: /a/, /ɑ/, /e/, /ɛ/, /ə/, /i/, /o/, /ɔ/, /y/, /u/, /œ/, /ø/, plus the nasalized vowels /ɑ̃/, /ɛ̃/, /ɔ̃/ and /œ̃/. In France, the vowels /ɑ/ and /œ̃/ are tending to be replaced by /a/ and /ɛ̃/ in many people's speech.
  • Voiced stops (i.e. /b d ɡ/) are typically produced fully voiced throughout.
  • Voiceless stops (i.e. /p t k/) are unaspirated.
  • Nasals: The velar nasal /ŋ/ can occur in final position in borrowed (usually English) words: parking, camping, swing. The palatal nasal /ɲ/ can occur in word initial position (e.g. gnon), but it is most frequently found in intervocalic, onset position or word-finally (e.g. montagne).
  • Fricatives: French has three pairs of homorganic fricatives distinguished by voicing, i.e. labiodental /f/~/v/, dental /s/~/z/, and palato-alveolar /ʃ/~/ʒ/. Notice that /s/~/z/ are dental, like the plosives /t/~/d/, and the nasal /n/.
  • French has one rhotic whose pronunciation varies considerably among speakers and phonetic contexts. In general it is described as a voiced uvular fricative as in [ʁu] roue, "wheel" . Vowels are often lengthened before this segment. It can be reduced to an approximant, particularly in final position (e.g. fort) or reduced to zero in some word-final positions. For other speakers, a uvular trill is also common, and an apical trill [r] occurs in some dialects.
  • Lateral and central approximants: The lateral approximant /l/ is unvelarised in both onset (lire) and coda position (il). In the onset, the central approximants [w], [ɥ], and [j] each correspond to a high vowel, /u/, /y/, and /i/ respectively. There are a few minimal pairs where the approximant and corresponding vowel contrast, but there are also many cases where they are in free variation. Contrasts between /j/ and /i/ occur in final position as in /pɛj/ paye, "pay", vs. /pɛi/ pays, "country".

French pronunciation follows strict rules based on spelling, but French spelling is often based more on history than phonology. The rules for pronunciation vary between dialects, but the standard rules are:

  • final consonants: Final single consonants, in particular s, x, z, t, d, n, g and m, are normally silent. (A consonant is considered "final" when no vowel follows it even if one or more consonants follow it.) The final letters c, f, k, q and l, however, are normally pronounced. The final r is usually silent when it follows an e in a word of two or more syllables, but is pronounced in other cases. The t is pronounced when it follows a c.
    • When the following word begins with a vowel, however, a silent consonant may once again be pronounced, to provide a liaison or "link" between the two words. Some liaisons are mandatory, for example the s in les amants or vous avez; some are optional, depending on dialect and register, for example the first s in deux cents euros or euros irlandais; and some are forbidden, for example the s in beaucoup d'hommes aiment. The t of et is never pronounced and the silent final consonant of a noun is only pronounced in the plural and in set phrases like pied-à-terre.
    • Doubling a final n and adding a silent e at the end of a word (e.g. chienchienne) makes it clearly pronounced. Doubling a final l and adding a silent e (e.g. gentilgentille) adds a [j] sound if the l is preceded by the letter i.
  • elision or vowel dropping: Some monosyllabic function words ending in a or e, such as je and que, drop their final vowel when placed before a word that begins with a vowel sound (thus avoiding a hiatus). The missing vowel is replaced by an apostrophe. (e.g. je ai is instead pronounced and spelled → j'ai). This gives, for example, the same pronunciation for l'homme qu'il a vu ("the man whom he saw") and l'homme qui l'a vu ("the man who saw him"). However, for Belgian French the sentences are pronounced differently; in the first sentence the syllable break is as "qu'il-a", while the second breaks as "qui-l'a". It can also be noted that, in Quebec French, the second example (l'homme qui l'a vu) is more emphasized on l'a vu.

Writing system


French is written with the 26 letters of the basic Latin script, with four diacritics appearing on vowels ( circumflex accent, acute accent, grave accent, diaeresis) and the cedilla appearing in ⟨ç⟩.

There are two ligatures, ⟨œ⟩ and ⟨æ⟩.


French spelling, like English spelling, tends to preserve obsolete pronunciation rules. This is mainly due to extreme phonetic changes since the Old French period, without a corresponding change in spelling (see Vocabulary below). Moreover, some conscious changes were made to restore Latin orthography:

  • Old French doit > French doigt "finger" (Latin digitus)
  • Old French pie > French pied "foot" (Latin pes (stem: ped-))

As a result, it can be difficult to predict the spelling of a word based on the sound. Final consonants are generally silent, except when the following word begins with a vowel. For example, all of these words end in a vowel sound: pied, aller, les, finit, beaux. The same words followed by a vowel, however, may sound the consonants, as they do in these examples: beaux-arts, les amis, pied-à-terre.

On the other hand, a given spelling usually leads to a predictable sound. In particular, a given vowel combination or diacritic predictably leads to one phoneme.

French writing, as with any language, is affected by the spoken language. In Old French, the plural for animal was animals. The /als/ sequence was unstable and was turned into a diphthong /aus/. This change was then reflected in the orthography: animaus. The us ending, very common in Latin, was then abbreviated by copists monks by the letter x, resulting in a written form animax. As the French language further evolved, the pronunciation of au turned into /o/ so that the u was reestablished in orthography for consistency, resulting in modern French animaux (pronounced first /animos/ before the final /s/ was dropped in contemporary French). The same is true for cheval pluralized as chevaux and many others. In addition, castel pl. castels became château pl. châteaux

  • Nasal: n and m. When n or m follows a vowel or diphthong, the n or m becomes silent and causes the preceding vowel to become nasalized (i.e. pronounced with the soft palate extended downward so as to allow part of the air to leave through the nostrils). Exceptions are when the n or m is doubled, or immediately followed by a vowel. The prefixes en- and em- are always nasalized. The rules are more complex than this but may vary between dialects.
  • Digraphs: French uses not only diacritics to specify its large range of vowel sounds and diphthongs, but also specific combinations of vowels, sometimes with following consonants, to show which sound is intended.
  • Gemination: Within words, double consonants are generally not pronounced as geminates in modern French (but geminates can be heard in the cinema or TV news from as recently as the 1970s, and in very refined elocution they may still occur). For example, illusion is pronounced [ilyzjɔ̃] and not [ilːyzjɔ̃]. But gemination does occur between words. For example, une info ("a news item" or "a piece of information") is pronounced [ynɛ̃fo], whereas une nympho ("a nymphomaniac") is pronounced [ynːɛ̃fo].
  • Accents are used sometimes for pronunciation, sometimes to distinguish similar words, and sometimes for etymology alone.
    • Accents that affect pronunciation
      • The acute accent (l'accent aigu), é (e.g. école—school), means that the vowel is pronounced /e/ instead of the default /ə/.
      • The grave accent (l'accent grave), è (e.g. élève—pupil) means that the vowel is pronounced /ɛ/ instead of the default /ə/.
      • The circumflex (l'accent circonflexe) ê (e.g. forêt—forest) shows that an e is pronounced /ɛ/ and that an ô is pronounced /o/. In standard French, it also signifies a pronunciation of /ɑ/ for the letter â, but this differentiation is disappearing. In the late 19th century, the circumflex was used in place of s after a vowel, where that letter s was not pronounced. Thus, forest became forêt and hospital became hôpital.
      • The diaeresis (le tréma) (e.g. naïf—naive, Noël—Christmas) as in English, specifies that this vowel is pronounced separately from the preceding one, not combined, and is not a schwa.
      • The cedilla (la cédille) ç (e.g. garçon—boy) means that the letter ç is pronounced /s/ in front of the back vowels a, o and u (c is otherwise /k/ before a back vowel). C is always pronounced /s/ in front of the front vowels e, i, and y, thus ç is never found in front of front vowels.
    • Accents with no pronunciation effect
      • The circumflex does not affect the pronunciation of the letters i or u, and in most dialects, a as well. It usually indicates that an s came after it long ago, as in île (isle, compare with English island). The explanation is that some words share the same orthography, and the circumflex is put here to spot the difference between the two words. For example, dites (you say) / dîtes (you said), or even du (of the) / (past for the verb devoir = must, have to, owe; in this case, the circumflex splits at the plural and the feminine).
      • All other accents are used only to distinguish similar words, as in the case of distinguishing the adverbs and ("there", "where") from the article la ("the" fem. sing.) and the conjunction ou ("or") respectively.

Some proposals exist to simplify the existing writing system, but they still fail to gather interest.


French grammar shares several notable features with most other Romance languages, including:

  • the loss of Latin's declensions
  • only two grammatical genders
  • the development of grammatical articles from Latin demonstratives
  • new tenses formed from auxiliaries

French declarative word order is subject–verb–object, although if the object is a pronoun, it precedes the verb. Some types of sentences allow for or require different word orders, in particular inversion of the subject and verb like "Parlez-vous français ?" when asking a question rather than just "Vous parlez français ?" Both questions mean the same thing, however, a rising inflection is always used on both of them whenever asking a question, especially on the second one. Specifically, the first translates into, "Do you speak French?" while the second one is literally just: "You speak French?"


The majority of French words derive from Vulgar Latin or were constructed from Latin or Greek roots. In many cases a single etymological root appears in French in a "popular" or native form, inherited from Vulgar Latin, and a learned form, borrowed later from Classical Latin. The following pairs consist of a native noun and a learned adjective:

  • brother: frère / fraternel < from Latin frater / fraternalis
  • finger: doigt / digital < from Latin digitus / digitalis
  • faith: foi / fidèle < from Latin fides / fidelis
  • eye: œil / oculaire < from Latin oculus / ocularis

There are also noun-noun and adjective-adjective pairs:

  • thing/cause: chose / cause < from Latin causa
  • cold: froid / frigide < from Latin frigidum

It can be difficult to identify the Latin source of native French words, because in the evolution from Vulgar Latin, unstressed syllables were severely reduced and the remaining vowels and consonants underwent significant modifications.

It is estimated that 12% (4,200) of common French words found in a typical dictionary such as the Petit Larousse or Micro-Robert Plus (35,000 words) are of foreign origin (where Greek and Latin learned words are not seen as foreign). About 25% (1,054) of these foreign words come from English and are fairly recent borrowings. The others are some 707 words from Italian, 550 from ancient Germanic languages, 481 from other Gallo-Romance languages, 215 from Arabic, 164 from German, 160 from Celtic languages, 159 from Spanish, 153 from Dutch, 112 from Persian and Sanskrit, 101 from Native American languages, 89 from other Asian languages, 56 from other Afro-Asiatic languages, 55 from Slavic languages and Baltic languages, 10 from Basque and 144 (about 3%) from other languages.


The French counting system is partially vigesimal: twenty (vingt) is used as a base number in the names of numbers from 60 to 99. The French word for 80 is quatre-vingts, literally "four twenties", and the word for 75 is soixante-quinze, literally "sixty-fifteen". This reform arose after the French Revolution to unify the different counting systems (mostly vigesimal near the coast, because of Celtic (via Breton) and Viking influences). This system is comparable to the archaic English use of score, as in "fourscore and seven" (87), or "threescore and ten" (70). In Old French (during the Middle Ages), all numbers from 30 to 99 could be said in either base 10 or base 20, e.g. vint et doze (twenty and twelve) for 32, dous vinz et diz (two twenties and ten) for 50, uitante for 80, or nonante for 90.

Belgian French, Swiss French and the French used in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi are different in this respect. In Belgium and Switzerland 70 and 90 are septante and nonante. In Switzerland, depending on the local dialect, 80 can be quatre-vingts (Geneva, Neuchâtel, Jura) or huitante (Vaud, Valais, Fribourg). Octante had been used in Switzerland in the past, but is now considered archaic. In Belgium and in its former African colonies, however, quatre-vingts is universally used.

It should also be noted that French, like most European languages, uses a period (also called a full stop) or a space to separate thousands where English uses a comma or (more recently) a space. The comma is used in French numbers as a decimal point: 2,5 = deux virgule cinq.

Cardinal numbers in French from 1 to 20 are as follows:

  • One: un/ une /œ̃/ (m) ~ /yn/ (f)
  • Two: deux /dø/
  • Three: trois /tʁwɑ/
  • Four: quatre /katʁ/
  • Five: cinq /sɛ̃k/
  • Six: six /sis/
  • Seven: sept /sɛt/
  • Eight: huit /ɥit/
  • Nine: neuf /nœf/
  • Ten: dix /dis/
  • Eleven: onze /ɔ̃z/
  • Twelve: douze /duz/
  • Thirteen: treize /tʁɛz/
  • Fourteen: quatorze /katɔʁz/
  • Fifteen: quinze /kɛ̃z/
  • Sixteen: seize /sɛz/
  • Seventeen: dix-sept /dissɛt/
  • Eighteen: dix-huit /diz‿ɥit/
  • Nineteen: dix-neuf /diznœf/
  • Twenty: vingt /vɛ̃/


The "Quebec" audio samples here are not necessarily from speakers of Quebec French, which has distinct regional pronunciations of certain words.

English French Quebec accent French accent
French Français [fʁãsɛ] [fʁɑ̃sɛ]
English Anglais [ãɡlɛ] [ɑ̃ɡlɛ]
Yes Oui (si when countering an assertion or a question expressed in the negative) [wi] [wi]
No Non [nõ] [nɔ̃]
Hello! Bonjour ! (formal) or Salut ! (informal) or "Allô" (Quebec French or when answering on the telephone) [bõʒuːʁ] [bɔ̃ʒuːʁ]
Good evening! Bonsoir ! [bõswɑːʁ] [bɔ̃swaːʁ]
Good night! Bonne nuit ! [bɔn nɥi] [bʌn nɥi]
Goodbye! Au revoir ! [ɔʁvwɑːʁ] [o ʁəvwaːʁ]
Have a nice day! Bonne journée ! [bɔn ʒʊʁne] [bʌn ʒuʁne]
Please/if you please S’il vous plaît (formal) or S’il te plaît (informal) [s‿ɪl vu plɛ] [s‿il vu plɛ]
Thank you Merci [mɛʁsi] [mɛʁsi]
You are welcome De rien (informal) or Ce n’est rien (informal) ("it is nothing") or Je vous en prie (formal) or Je t’en prie (informal) [də ʁjẽ] [dœ ʁjɛ̃]
I am sorry Pardon or Je suis désolé (if male) / Je suis désolée (if female) or Excuse-moi (informal) / Excusez-moi (formal) / "Je regrette" [paʁdõ] / [dezɔle] [paʁdɔ̃] / [dezole]
Who? Qui ? [ki] [ki]
What? Quoi ? (←informal; used as "What?" in English)) or Pardon ? (←formal; used the same as "Pardon ?" in English) [kwa] [kwa]
When? Quand ? [kã] [kɑ̃]
Where? Où ? [u] [u]
Why? Pourquoi ? [pʊʁkwa] [puʁkwa]
What is your name? Comment vous appelez-vous ? (formal) or Comment t’appelles-tu ? (informal) [kɔmã vuz‿aple vu], [kɔmã t‿apɛl t͡sy] [kɔmɑ̃ vuz‿aple vu], [kɔmɑ̃ t‿apɛl ty]
Because Parce que / Car [paʁskœ] [paʁsøkø]
Because of à cause de [a kou̯z də] [a koz də]
Therefore Donc [dõːk] [dɔ̃ːk]
Maybe Peut-être [pœt‿aɛ̯tʀ] [pøt‿ɛtʁ]
How? Comment ? [kɔmã] [kɔmɑ̃]
How much? Combien ? [kõbjẽ] [kɔ̃bjɛ̃]
I do not understand. Je ne comprends pas. [ʒœ nœ kõpʁã pɔ] [ʒø nø kɔ̃pʁɑ̃ pa]
Yes, I understand. Oui, je comprends. Except when responding to a negatively posed question, in which case Si is used preferentially over Oui [wi ʒœ kõpʁã] [wi ʒø kɔ̃pʁɑ̃]
I agree Je suis d’accord. D’accord can be used without je suis. [ʒə sɥi d‿akɑɔ̯ʁ] [ʒə sɥi d‿akɔːʁ]
Help! Au secours ! (à l’aide !) [o skuːʁ] [o søkuːʁ]
Can you help me please? Pouvez-vous m’aider s’il vous plaît ? / Pourriez-vous m’aider s’il vous plaît ? (formal) or Peux-tu m’aider s’il te plaît ? / Pourrais-tu m’aider s’il te plaît (informal) [puve vu m‿ɛːde s‿ɪl vu plɛ] [puve vu m‿ede s‿il vu plɛ]
Where are the toilets? Où sont les toilettes ? [u sõ lɛ twalɛt] [u sɔ̃ le twalɛt]
Do you speak English? Parlez-vous anglais ? / Est-ce que vous parlez anglais ? [ɛs kə vu paʁle ãɡlɛ] [paʁle vu ɑ̃ɡlɛ]
I do not speak French. Je ne parle pas français. [ʒə nə paʁl pɑ fʁãsɛ] [ʒə nə paʁl pɑ fʁɑ̃sɛ]
I do not know. Je ne sais pas. [ʒə (nə) se pɔ] [ʒə (nə) sɛ pɑ]
I know. Je sais. [ʒə se] [ʒə sɛ]
I am thirsty. J’ai soif. (literally, "I have thirst") [ʒ‿e swaf] [ʒ‿e swaf]
I am hungry. J’ai faim. (literally, "I have hunger") [ʒ‿e fẽ] [ʒ‿e fɛ̃]
How are you? / How are things going? / How is everything? Comment allez-vous? (formal) or Ça va? / Comment ça va ? (informal) [kɔmã t‿ale vu] [kɔmɑ̃ t‿ale vu]
I am (very) well / Things are going (very) well // Everything is (very) well Je vais (très) bien (formal) or Ça va (très) bien. / Tout va (très) bien (informal) [ʒə vɛ (tʁɛ) bjẽ] [ʒə vɛ (tʁɛ) bjɛ̃]
I am (very) bad / Things are (very) bad / Everything is (very) bad Je vais (très) mal (formal) or Ça va (très) mal / Tout va (très) mal (informal) [ʒə vɛ (tʁɛ) mal] [ʒə vɛ (tʁɛ) mal]
I am all right/so-so / Everything is all right/so-so Assez bien or Ça va comme ci, comme ça or simply Ça va.. (Sometimes said: « Couci, couça. », informal: "bof") i.e. « Comme ci, comme ça. ») [ase bjẽ] [ase bjɛ̃]
I am fine. Ça va bien. [sa vɔ bjẽ] [sa va bjɛ̃]
(How) can I help you? / (Do) you need help? / We need help! (Comment) pourrais-je vous aider? Avez-vous besoin d'aide? Nous avons besoin d'aide! [(kɔmã) puʁaɛ̯ʒ vuz‿ɛːde] [(kɔmɑ̃) puʁɛʒ vuz‿ede]
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