In our new series this year, Language of the Month, we are looking at twelve of the world’s nearly 6000 fascinating languages, one each month. Join us on this trip around the globe and discover facts, trivia and insider information about some awesome languages!
Language family: Romance (part of the Indo-European family)
Number of speakers: 76 million native speakers
Writing system: Latin
Official language in: 29 countries
HISTORY OF THE LANGUAGE
Just like Italian, French also has its roots in Vulgar Latin, however, it has also soaked in some Gaulish, Frankish, Norman, Dutch and Low German influences throughout the centuries.
In the 17th century, the French Academy (Académie française) was founded by Cardinal Richelieu (or le Cardinal de Richelieu as the French call him) for the purification and preservation of the language. The council exists to this day and ensures that French doesn’t get flooded by foreign expressions, or let grammatical standards slip. For example, you will find more and more expressions in many languages that come from English, such as IT-related terms, and yet French has its own versions for these which the French Academy actively promotes. (A good example is logiciel which means software.)
French is the official language of 29 countries on four continents and some form of it (for example various creole languages) is spoken in many more. It is a lingua franca in many African countries and the chosen foreign language to study for many pupils around the world. (It is said to be the second most-studied language after English.)
Francophones are very proud of their language; it even has its own day: 20 March is International Francophonie Day (La Journée internationale de la Francophonie) when we celebrate the language and culture of French speakers.
My name is… Je m’appelle…
Please S’il vous plaît
Thank you Merci
WHAT OUR LINGUISTS SAY…
“I would describe the French language as a romantic yet powerful and influential language,” says Louise, one of our French to English translators. “It is romantic in that it is a Romance language, descending from Latin. Yet it is powerful and influential as it is used in diplomacy and is one of the official languages of the United Nations, the European Union, NATO and many other international organisations. To someone who has never heard it I would say it is a very soft, gentle language as it does not tend to have any harsh sounds. It is a language that flows easily.”
Isabelle, our French colleague from our Editorial Team agrees with Louise about the gentleness of the language: “I would say that French sounds nice when it is spoken. There are numerous regional accents, some very melodic, others sounding more solemn, but all kind to the ear. Usually, French people prefer their consonants to be spoken softly which is a major difference from English RP: Mon père, il est pompier à Perpignan (= My father is a firefighter in Perpignan) is a joke French children find hilarious when the sentence is pronounced with explosive ps. There is one major exception to this: the letter r is guttural in some dialects such as Parisian: on y roule les rs. (= we roll our rs).”
Françoise, one of our English to French translators adds that although French might sound “pleasant, harmonious, soft” to the ears unfamiliar with the language, “it is a difficult language that you have to ‘tame’, i.e. learn and know all the finesse.”
First of all, when learning French, you need to familiarise yourself with “the infamous tense sequencing,” which, according to Françoise, can “become a nightmare for those who don’t know them well.” Then you’ll have to deal with the so-called faux amis, or false friends in English. “These are words that look identical or similar in both languages but have completely different meanings,” explains Louise. “An example is ancien in French meaning former whereas in English it tends to be used in terms of ancient.” It’s not surprising, however, that there are so many similar words as the two languages have influenced each other for centuries, adds Isabelle. There are also phonological challenges for English speakers who take up French. As Isabelle comments, “it is said that the two languages only have one sound in common: the /i/ as in ability and ami.” Françoise points out another difference between English and French that concerns vocabulary: “English can invent words without any problem. In French, it does (= must) not happen.”
But it’s not all sweat and suffering for language learners! French is a beautiful language with some very unique expressions that are true delicacies for the linguistic connoisseur. Françoise’s favourite expression is Qui vole un œuf vole un bœuf. This was used by a teacher in her primary school, meaning Once a thief, always a thief or literally, Who steals an egg has great chances to steal a bull one day. She likes the comparison between an egg and a bull and the perfect rhyme. She might never have the opportunity to place it in a translation, but it is still one of her favourite expressions. Isabelle mentions several lovely metaphoric phrases:
du dernier cri literally latest scream = latest fashion
vendre la mêche literally to sell the wick = to let the cat out of the bag (intentional) or spill the beans (unintentional)
C’est pas tes oignons ! literally These are not your onions! = Mind your own business
les bras m’en tombent literally my arms are falling off = I am flabbergasted
coûter les yeux de la tête literally to cost the eyes in your face = to cost an arm and a leg
She also shares a remark attributed to King Louis XV, who supposedly said Après moi, le déluge literally After me, the flood which is understood as predicting the French revolution and can be translated as Once I am gone, all hell could break loose for all I care.
One of Louise’s favourite French phrases is être bien dans sa peau (= to be good in one’s own skin) which means to be at ease with oneself. Isn’t that one of the best feelings in the world?
Do you have any favourite French expressions or words? Let us know in the comments below!
If you have any questions about French or translations in general, or have a translation request, don’t hesitate to get in touch by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone on 01223 356 733.