Whenever I hear French spoken as I approve, I find myself quietly falling in love.

EDWARD BULWER-LYTTON (1803-73)

French

SHUTTERSTOCK

People Of Few Words


It is practically impossible to calculate how many words there are in any language (the number varies depending on whether you include technical terms, slang, obsolete words or foreign imports), but using a conservative estimate based on the Oxford English Dictionary’s second edition, there are about 600,000 English words, of which perhaps half are used regularly. Pure French, in comparison, has a total pool of about 276,000 with fewer than 100,000 in regular use.
 
More French citizens speak English than the other way round. Only 23% of Brits claim to be able to hold a conversation in French (that’s about 14 million) whereas 36% of the French claim the same for their English (23 million). Almost two-thirds of Brits speak no other language (only the Irish are worse) but half the French only speak French. The next most popular language in both France and the UK is German, but fewer than 1 in 10 speak it in either country.

French is the second language in Louisiana, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire.

French in France


In 1880, about eight million people in France spoke French as a first language; 32 million didn’t, and of those that did, fewer than half could write it properly. 53 of the 89 départements were non-French speaking. The language of the revolution, la Liberté and the Academie Francaise was a minority language in France until well into the 20th century. As well as the big regional language groups: Occitan, Alsatian, Basque, Breton, Francoprovencal, and Flemish (which remain the first languages for up to 10% of the French population today), 19th-century France sustained about 55 major dialects and hundreds of sub-dialects or patois.
 
Le bon français (correct French) had its origins in Latin and was established by the 9th century, when the two main dialects evolved on either side of the Loire. To the north was the langue d’öil, to the south, the langue d’oc (i.e. those who pronounce ‘yes’ as ‘oui’ and those who say it as ‘oc’ – a bit like the Trent forming a barrier between ‘aye’ and ‘yes’. It was the langue d’öil specifically that was spoken in Paris, which became the official language of court and the law in 1539.
 
Even though the Revolution declared war on patois (non-standard language) and imposed a département system that undermined the ancient regional identities, the accounts of 19th century travellers and officials from rural France read more like the adventures of explorers in newly acquired colonies. As late as 1959, an entirely new language was discovered in a Pyrenean village called Aas. Used by local shepherds, it mostly involved ear-splitting whistles, audible up to two miles away but flexible enough to communicate the salient contents of a newspaper. It was used in the Second World War to help smuggle refugees into Spain.
 
French, like English in Ireland, was eventually introduced by force, through education, where patois was strictly banned. Anyone speaking it would be given a stick, which was then passed to the next offender. At the end of the day, the child with the stick was beaten and forced to clean the toilets.

Despite the efforts of the Académie Française to stem the tide, everyday French acquires over 20,000 new words a year.

STEVE MARTIN

Boy, those French! They have a different word for everything.

In the US, 30% of foreign books that are read and half of the foreign films watched in are in French

French is the official language of Switzerland, Canada, Ivory Coast, Luxembourg, Monaco, Congo and Niger.

Double Entendre


French may be the language of love but it’s hard to kiss in French, as baiser can also mean something ruder and embrasser really means to embrace. As for love, aimer also means ‘to like’ which is rather feeble. Imagine an intimate dinner: ‘Do you love me?’ ‘Oui, je t’aime.’ ‘Is the duck good?’ ‘Oui, je l’aime.’ 

The British often impute sauciness to the French where none is intended. No one uses the phrase double entendre in France (it literally means ‘to hear double’). They’d probably rather say double sens if they’d actually noticed what was going on. And even ooh la la! (that touchstone of Gallic naughtiness) has no such connotations in France, when it might be used as ‘Crikey, that was a close shave’ (accompanied by a sharp intake of breath and a downward flicking of the hand).

Borrowed French


Despite the efforts of the Academie Francaise to replace all imports with French equivalents (e.g. courriel for email, or vacancelle for weekend), les mots Franglais are here to stay:

The obvious:
Le weekend.
Le marketing.
Le baby boom.
Un look.
Un parking (car park).

The somehow wrong:
Le talkie-walkie – walkie-talkie.
Un relooking – makeover.
Le footing – jogging.
Un training – track suit.
Un egghead – an idiot.
Un jerk – an excellent dancer.
 
Some of these wilful mistranslations have been attributed to the phenomenon of sesquilingualism, the mastery of one-and-a-half languages (from the Latin sesqui meaningone and a half’). The theory runs that where the half language is perceived as ‘cool’, it gets scattered into the other to make the speaker look sophisticated and progressive, without close attention to sense.
 

French Language Today


French is the 18th most spoken language in the world; well behind Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean. About 350 million people speak French, but only one-third of them are native speakers. By contrast, there are 375 million native English speakers and over one billion speak it as a second language.
 
French is Europe’s second most-popular second language after English (although almost three times as many Europeans speak some English). French’s second-ranking, second-language status is increasingly under threat, as many of the newer member states, such as Slovakia and Hungary prefer to learn German.

In French, avocat means both 'lawyer' and 'avocado'.

For 300 years, from the 12th to the 15th century, England’s official language was French.

The French company Bich changed its name to Bic to stop people in English-speaking countries pronouncing it 'bitch'.

French has no word for ‘shallow’.