Overview of the French Language

In addition to being the official language of France, French is also the official language of Haiti, Luxembourg, and more than fifteen countries in Africa. The French language is one of the official languages in Canada, Belgium, and Switzerland, plus it is considered an unofficial second language in many countries such as Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. French is also one of the six official languages of the United Nations. In addition to the millions of people who speak French as their native language, many people around the world learn French in school.

The French language that exists today is the result of a long and complex evolution. Ancient France was invaded by different ethnic and linguistic groups: Celts, Greeks, Romans, Franks and other Germanic tribes, and Arabs. The name "France" actually comes from the name of the Germanic tribe, the Franks, who entered France during late antiquity and gradually became the dominant people. They adopted the late form of Latin that was spoken in the country at the time, but added many of their own words and changed some of the Latin forms to resemble their own more closely.

French Vocabulary

People who speak French today can not understand the early forms of French spoken before the 12th century or so without specialized study. Over the years, as different peoples entered the country, the words and grammatical structures evolved to fit the needs and patterns of the developing French language. Two examples: the Latin for "farmer" was "agricola"; the French is now agriculteur. The Latin for "(they) are" was "sunt"; the conjugated French verb has become sont.

French vocabulary has contributed many words and phrases to the English language. For example, hors d'oeuvre, en route, rendezvous, and R.S.V.P. all come from French.

As you are learning French, you may find it comforting to recognize some French words. However, although French and English share many words and expressions, don't assume that a French vocabulary word always means what you expect it to mean in English. For example, the French word comment doesn't mean "comment." It means "how." And demander doesn't mean "to demand." It means "to ask." A person who is sympathique is not sympathetic-- he's nice.

Formal and Informal Address in French

English speakers who are learning French may find the concept of formal and informal address to be particularly interesting. When you speak French to an older person, or someone you don't know very well, you should use the formal vous form of address. When you speak French to a child, a good friend, or a family member, you can use the informal tu form of address. Did you know that the French address their pets as tu? It's true! Pets are very highly regarded in France and are treated as part of the family. It's not unusual to see a French person go just about everywhere with the family dog-- even to a restaurant!