Languages Spoken in France
French is recognized as the official language of France, but there are, in fact, many regional languages that have been spoken within France’s borders for at least as long, if not longer than French. In this article, let's find out how many languages are spoken in France.
Within the Metropolitan French area alone, there are many languages and related dialects that reflect the populations that developed in this region before France became l’Hexagone. Most of these languages, including French, are of Indo-European origin, having developed from a large, widespread family of languages ranging from Italic to Indo-Iranian that all have origins in a Proto-Indo-European ancestor. Although many of France’s regional languages developed as Romance languages from Vulgar Latin, they also include languages of Germanic and Celtic origin. In addition, the Basque language is also spoken within France’s borders and holds the unique position of being a language-isolate, one that predates the arrival of Indo-European languages.
The French government website lists the following as regional languages of Metropolitan France: “basque, breton, catalan, corse, dialectes allemands d’Alsace et de Moselle (alsacien et francique mosellan), flamand occidental, francoprovençal, langues d’oïl (bourguignon-morvandiau, champenois, franc-comtois, gallo, lorrain, normand, picard, poitevin-saintongeais (poitevin, saintongeais), wallon), occitan ou langue d’oc (gascon, languedocien, provençal, auvergnat, limousin, vivaro-alpin), parlers liguriens”. As you can see, this list includes languages that are not restricted to the borders of Metropolitan France, such as Catalan, which has official status in parts of Spain and Italy, and West Flemish, a dialect of the Dutch language that is spoken in Belgium and the Netherlands.
French became recognized as a lingua franca of France in 1539 by the Ordonnance de Villiers-Cotterêts, Articles 110 and 111, which called for the use of French in legal acts and official legislation. Illustrated as a measure set forth to avoid linguistic confusion, this move represented a shift from the use of Latin for official documents and decrees. French was again specified as the official language of France in a 1992 amendment to the constitution of the Cinquième république, whose second article designates French as the primary language of communication in French government and public communications. The status of France’s regional languages has been more precarious, as these have often been left aside in favor of a single widespread lingua franca, and have undergone repression in public educational institutions, as well as setbacks related to two world wars occurring during the first half of the twentieth century. Yet certain regional languages have also seen a revival, connected to educational initiatives as well as to a strengthening sense of regional identity.
The Romance languages spoken in different regions of France can be divided into three geographic subgroups: langues d’oïl, occitan (langue d’oc), and franco-provençal. The words oïl and oc are ways of saying oui in the langues d’oïl and occitan, also called langue d’oc, and are featured in the names given to these languages, as well as to the former southern province of France called Languedoc. The most widely-spoken oïl language is French, whose linguistic dominance developed during the French Revolution and which has been exported to other parts of the world where France has expanded its borders.
Within the borders of Metropolitan France, other Romance languages have gained a foothold, including Catalan, or Català, whose pronunciation and writing indicate certain similarities to both French and Spanish. Spoken in the Pyrenées-Orientales department of France, Catalan has experienced both expansion and decline in the Mediterranean area. Used as an official language in Sicily and Sardinia in the Early Modern period, it saw a decline in favor of the more dominant Italian, Spanish, and French languages in subsequent eras. It currently holds official status in the autonomous Spanish communities of Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, and Valencia, and semi-official status in the Italian commune of Alghero. It is the official language of the Principality of Andorra.
The use of Catalan has been prominent in the struggle over Catalan independence from Spain, and was a featured part of the former French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls’ 2018 bid for mayor of Barcelona, the capital city of Catalonia. Being of Catalan descent on his father’s side and able to speak the language, Valls hoped to appeal to diverse sides of the political spectrum in his efforts to stem the tide toward Catalan independence, following a controversial referendum in Catalonia in which citizens of the region voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence. This most recent resurgence of the movement for independence reflects an ongoing struggle over Catalan autonomy, emerging in political campaigns as early as the 19th century. An appeal for cultural and linguistic autonomy appears in Cédric Klapisch’s 2002 film L’Auberge espagnole, in which a professor of economics in Barcelona insists on giving his course in the Catalan language.
Germanic languages are also prominent within Metropolitan France’s borders, with Alsatian, or Elsässerditsch, being the second-most spoken regional language in France, after Occitan. Spoken in France’s Alsace region, it shares many common characteristics with German and is indeed considered mutually intelligible with the local Basel German dialect spoken across the border in Basel, Switzerland. The Alsace region has been handed back and forth between France and Germany four times over the past century and a half and the influences of both French and German are apparent in the language. As with many of the regional languages in France, use of Alsatian diminished during the twentieth century, with use of Germanic languages in schools forbidden in France after 1945, but it continues to be spoken and is part of regional educational programs. Alsatians have promoted Alsatian language instruction in schools and continue the traditions and customs that are unique to their part of the world. The older generation in particular communicates in Alsatian for everyday activities, such as shopping at the market and gathering with friends and family.
Celtic languages are languages that experienced periods of expansion in Western Europe in pre-Roman and Roman times and are currently spoken primarily in the British Isles, Ireland, and Brittany. The Breton language, or Brezhoneg, took hold in Brittany in the fifth century, having traveled from the north, and has gone through periods of decline and expansion to the present day. It shares basic vocabulary with Welsh and Cornish, but has a distinct literary tradition from these languages dating from the 15th century, partly due to the French influence on Breton as opposed to the English influence on Welsh and Cornish. Currently, Breton is offered in schools in Brittany, and institutions such as the Diwan school have been established to promote the Breton language. The Office public de la langue bretonne is a public institution with state and regional funding that completes research, collects data, and promotes instruction and use of Breton in everyday life. In addition to educational and social initiatives by advocates for Breton, the language is also used for certain public works, such as the Brest tramway, located in Brest, Brittany, that has the distinction of being trilingual, as it uses Breton, French, and English in its navigation. It is also common to see bilingual street signs in Brittany in both Breton and French.
The Basque language, also called Euskara, predates the advent of Latin languages in the region and even precedes the presence of Indo-European languages. It is spoken in the Basque region, a region in the Pyrenées Mountains that spans the Franco-Spanish border. Basque is officially recognized in Spain, as Article 3 of the Spanish Constitution of 1978 allows autonomous communities to provide a co-official language status for languages besides Spanish. Various theories of the development of the Basque language exist, along with efforts to find its connection to other languages. These include a genetic connection between Basque and Iberian (an ancient language, no longer spoken, found in inscriptions on the eastern coast of Spain and the southern coast of France), a relationship between Basque and languages of the Caucasus, and the development of Basque from the north-western African language, Dogon. Although searches for the relationship between Basque and other languages remains inconclusive, one characteristic that is widely agreed upon is that it is considered one of the oldest languages living today.
Status of Regional Languages in France
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), categorizes world languages that are less widely spoken according to their levels of endangerment. These are: Vulnerable, Definitely Endangered, Severely Endangered, Critically Endangered, and Extinct. Of the languages discussed above, all of the non-Romance varieties appear in one of these categories, with Basque and Alsatian (as an Alemannic language) considered Vulnerable, and Breton considered Severely Endangered. Although France is a signatory of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, a European Treaty adopted in 1992 whose goal is to protect and promote historical regional and minority languages in Europe, it has not ratified the law.
While France works hard to promote the French language, even establishing the regulating body of the Académie Française in 1635 to protect and promote it, its relationship to its own regional languages seems to be more complex. Attachment to a specific regional language can be seen as a desire for more autonomy and eventual independence, as seen with the 2016 speech given by Jean-Guy Talamoni, the newly elected president of the Corsican Assembly, which was entirely in the Corsican language, or Corsu. Yet the revival of regional languages also reveals a connection to France’s history, one of the core elements of the French educational curriculum, whose significance is apparent on the abundance of commemorative street signs, edifices, and monuments found in France. Regional languages in France join other minority languages around the world in being vulnerable to extinction within the next hundred years, another projection made by UNESCO. It remains a time-sensitive challenge to see whether or not efforts to stall the extinction of half of the world’s languages, which number over 7,000, will be successful or not.
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