France’s national language, French, is one of the most spoken in the world. But did you know that between Metropolitan France and its overseas territories, there are, in total, 82 ‘languages of France’? In this post, we’ll take a look at languages spoken in France, which versions of French are spoken overseas and the state of so-called regional languages in France today.
French (français) – the language of France
France’s Constitution makes the nation’s language policy clear: La langue de la République est le français.
The language of the Republic is French.
Of course, this isn’t a particularly odd article to have in a constitution. There are plenty of countries that define their official, national, and even regional languages.
What might strike a person as odd is that this sentence was only added in 1992. Up until this point, Article Two of the French Constitution only defined the country’s flag, national anthem, slogan, and their principles.
Making French the only official language of Metropolitan France, then, leaves out the 81 other languages spoken across all the French territories, some of which have hundreds of thousands of speakers.
However, French is spoken by almost all the population of France and is the mother tongue of around 87% of the population.
When we take a look at the global reach of French, things become even more interesting.
Overview of French world wide
World wide, there are around 274 million French speakers, and approximately 77 million of these are native speakers. French is an official language in 29 countries, although many of these countries also have other official languages:
|Country||Official Languages (aside from French)|
|Benin||n/a (multiple national languages)|
|Central African Republic||Sango|
|DRC||n/a (multiple national languages)|
|Equatorial Guinea||Spanish, Portuguese|
|Republic of the Congo||n/a|
|Rwanda||Kinyarwanda, English, Swahili|
|Switzerland||German, Italian, Romansh|
French in Africa
The majority of the world’s French-speaking population lives in Africa, and French is the fastest growing language on the continent. Due to the fact that many countries in Africa also have high population growth rates, French is also one of the ten fastest growing languages in the world.
Of course, there is no single ‘African French’ that is spoken by everyone who lives there. Instead, there are multiple varieties of French that have diverged through contact with various indigenous African languages.
French in North America
In Canada, Quebecois French is the first language of 9.5 million people and is a second language for 2.07 million people. Combined, this makes up around 35% of the population.
There are also varieties of French that are spoken in the United States, such as in Louisiana, where there are around 150,000-200,000 speakers of Louisianan French. This variety of French has been influenced by Native American languages from the region, as well as by Spanish, English, and some African languages.
Four other languages spoken in France
1) Basque (euskara)
Basque is a language isolate (it is not related to any other language, as far as linguists can tell) and is spoken by around 750,000 people in the Basque Country. The Basque Country stretches across areas in France and Spain, and around 93% of these speakers are in the Spanish portion.
As Basque is the only surviving language isolate in Europe, it is suspected that it arrived before the Romance and Celtic languages. Basque grammar is still very different to the languages that surround it, but due to contact with Romance language speakers over centuries, around 40% of its vocabulary is now borrowed from these languages.
In the Basque Autonomous Community (Spain), Basque is considered to be an official language, but this does not apply in the French portion of the Basque Country.
There have been Basque pidgins and other languages that have derived from Basque.
One example is an Icelandic-Basque pidgin that was spoken in the 16th century. Basque sailors used this language when they made contact with people from Iceland. Similarly, there was an Algonquian-Basque pidgin that came from contact between Basque whalers and the Algonquian people.
There is also a language called Erromintxela. This is spoken by a group of Romani who live in the Basque Country. They are the descendants of Kalderesh Romani who entered the Basque Country via France. Most vocabulary in this language comes from Kalderesh Romani, but it uses Basque grammar. However, there are perhaps only 1,000 speakers remaining today.
2) Breton (brezhoneg)
We have a post all about the Breton language here, but since it’s spoken in France, we wanted to explore it a little in this one, too.
Breton is a Celtic language spoken by around 200,000 people in Brittany. It is closely related to Cornish and Welsh, and more distantly related to Scottish Gaelic, Irish, and Manx. Although around half the population of Lower Brittany only spoke Breton at the beginning of the 20th century, it is likely there are no monolingual speakers remaining today.
Parents have only been legally allowed to give their children Breton names since 1993. Before this, parents had to choose from a list of acceptable first names. There have still been issues since this time, however, where names that contain tildes or other diacritics (accents, etc.) that are not usually used in French are occasionally rejected.
Here are some examples of some Breton names: Fañch, Ioañ, Kristoc’h, Conwoion, Ahez, Berc’hed, Nolwen, Yuna.
3) Alsatian (Elsässisch)
Alsatian is a Germanic language spoken in Alsace by around 900,000 people. Around 43% of the adult population of Alsace speak Alsatian, but its use is declining among the younger population. It is closely related to other Alemannic varieties, such as Swiss German and Swabian.
There is a dialect of Alsatian German that is spoken in the United States by the Swiss Amish. Approximately 7,000 speakers use it and they primarily live in Allen County, Indiana.
As with other languages, Alsatian has been influenced by the languages and dialects it has come into contact with. There are many Alsatian words of Yiddish origin, as well as words borrowed and adapted from French and English.
4) Occitan (occitan, lenga d’òc)
Occitan is estimated to be spoken by up to 800,000 people across France, Spain, and Italy. It is very closely related to Catalan, to the extent that Catalan was considered a dialect of Occitan up until the end of the 19th century.
The name Occitan comes from the term lenga d’òc, with òc being the Occitan word for ‘yes’.
One of the oldest written fragments of the language dates back to 960, but there is still no single written standard of Occitan today. All its regional varieties have their own written forms. Like the other languages in this post (with the exception of French), Occitan has no official status in France, despite the fact that most people who speak it live there.
There are considered to be six dialects of Occitan. Four of these (Provençal, Auvergnat, Limousin, and Languedocien) are severely endangered. The remaining two (Gascon and Vivaro-Alpine) are considered to be definitely endangered. Like Breton, it is unlikely there are any monolingual Occitan speakers who remain today.
The status of regional languages in France
Although France has signed the European Charter for Regional Minority Languages – and considers some of the languages we’ve looked at here today to be recognised regional or minority languages – they have never ratified it. This, along with the fact that French is the only official language listed in France’s constitution, puts these regional and minority languages at a severe disadvantage, particularly when it comes to governmental support.
This is all despite the fact that at the time of the French Revolution, it is estimated that only half of the population of France could speak French. As late as 1871, French was the native language of only a quarter of the population of the country.
Many of these languages have existed in the area that is now known as the French Republic for far longer than French has, and these are communities that are still trying hard to promote and preserve their languages. However, the lack of support from the French government makes this more difficult, and it is unclear for how long many of them will still be spoken in future.
Hopefully there will be policies enacted in future that allow for more support and promotion of the wide variety of regional and minority languages that exist in France.
In the meantime, there are ways you can support these different languages. Helping to support and promote speakers of these languages and efforts they are making to preserve them is always useful. You can also share information about the languages, or try learning a little yourself! You can learn Basque, Breton, or even Canadian French by playing games and having fun. Give the app a try and see how much you can learn!