Have you heard the term “lingua franca”? It designates a common language, one that is spoken by enough people that it is the accepted diplomatic language. These days, the lingua franca is English.
However, lingua franca actually means “French language”.
We hear a lot about the British Empire, but tend to forget that France had an impressive colonial empire as well. It centred more around Africa and some parts of South America and various Oceanic islands, but it was large enough that, for a time, French was the language of choice when meeting with someone from another nationality.
Here are some interesting facts about France and it’s official language.
When we think of French-speakers, we think of the modern Hexagon, of Paris, of baguette and little cafés and stone-walled houses. But there are other places in Europe where French is an official language.
Belgium did not become its own country until 1839, when the Netherlands split into the current country of Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. This wasn’t long after the Netherlands had seceded from France in 1814 (it became a part of France after the French revolution.)
That whole area had spent most of its history oscillating between various powers, its population a mix speaking Dutch, French and German.
Belgium is split between a Dutch-speaking area in the North (Flanders) and a French-speaking area in the South (Wallonia). Both Dutch and French are official languages.
Belgian French is very similar to the language spoken in France, with a few variations. The most obvious is how they handle the numbers 80 and 90, calling them octante and nonante instead of quatre-vingts and quatre-vingt-dix. Belgium is famous as the home of Tintin creator Hergé and the creator of chips.
Wedged between Germany, France and Belgium, Luxembourg is one of several tiny sovereign nations in Europe, with a population of 576,249.
Luxembourg has a long history, with the first Count going back to 963 AD. At one time it commanded a fairly large territory; it was part of the Holy Roman Empire for some time, with several of the Emperors coming from there. It eventually became part of the Netherlands, changing hands along with Belgium. During the Belgian Rebellion of 1839, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg became an independent state.
Its official languages are French, German and Luxembourgish (a language closely related to German – some consider it a dialect, some a language in its own right). It is one of the three capitals of the European Union.
The Principality of Monaco is a second microstate to have French as one of its official languages. Situated along the French Riviera on the Mediterranean coast, its monarchy goes back to the 13th century. French is the main language spoken by its 38, 400 inhabitants next to Monégasque, the local language.
Of the remaining two microstates of Europe, Lichtenstein is primarily German-speaking but Andorra has a large percentage of French-speakers among its population, though its official language is Catalan. And then there is the Vatican.
The Vatican may not have a large French-speaking population, but French is one of its officia languages for diplomacy.
Switzerland has three official languages: French, Swiss German and Italian. Switzerland was a loose confederation of states within the Holy Roman Empire since the Middle Ages; it gained its independence in 1648.
Most inhabitants in Switzerland are bilingual, learning at least one of the other languages in school. French is mostly spoken in the West, with about 20% of the Swiss population being francophone.
The island of Sark is part of Guernsey. Some of its inhabitants still speak a variation of the French dialect spoken in Normandy. Photo credit: James.Stringer on VisualHunt.com
A little closer to home, the Channel island groups of Guernsey and Jersey have a fairly large French-speaking population. They are Crown dependencies just off the coast of Normandy and not an official part of the European Union. English is the official language, but a local dialect of Norman (the French spoken in Normandy), Sercquiais, is spoken on Sark.
Throughout French history, there were two waves of colonial expansion. The first established colonies in the Americas, of which very few survived the aftermath of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s monetary needs. The second wave did not start until after 1830 but soon became one of the largest in the world.
After wars in Vietnam and Algeria, most of the colonies were de-colonised fairly peacefully during the sixties. Many of them were on the continent of Africa, and an echo remains of the old colonial power where French remains an official language.
At the height of its colonial expansion, France occupied a good part of northern West Africa, reaching fairly deep into Central Africa. It all began with trading posts along the shore of what is now Senegal, starting 1624. Then, in the 19th century, the French began expanding their holdings, following the Senegal river and establishing trade in gum arabic, peanuts and slaves, though the French slave trade was never as extensive as the Portuguese or Dutch.
Here is a list of West African countries where French is still an official language or is at least spoken by a large segment of the population:
But francophone Africa is not limited to the West. A small group of countries in East Africa and some of the islands situated in the Indian Ocean (of which Madagascar is the largest) are French-speaking. Here is the list of countries in East Africa that speak French:
Of the islands in the Indian Ocean, just off the African continent mainland, the following remain primarily French-speaking:
French is still spoken on Madagascar, even though it has been independent since 1960. Photo credit: David Darricau on VisualHunt
Many North African countries remain strongly francophone, and French may be an administrative (though not an official) language – for example in Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia. The Lebanon is also strongly francophone.
France once had extensive territories in the Americas, which it lost at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century. Their occupiers left traces in these regions in the form of the French language, still spoken there today.
Haiti is a sovereign nation in the Caribbean on the western end of the island of Hispaniola (the rest of the island is occupied by the Dominican Republic.) Though first claimed by Spain, many French settled on the western end of the island. In 1625 their land was ceded to the French who imported African slaves to work on sugar plantations there. Haiti was on of the first of the French colonies to gain independence, as Charles X recognised Haiti as a sovereign nation in 1825 (though it was not the end of their worries). Haiti is one of the founding members of the United Nations.
Its two official languages are French and Haitian Creole.
Parts of Canada was claimed by France in 1534 by explorer Jacques Cartier. This colony was never as lucrative as some of the others, and the territory of New France was ceded to the British in 1763 after the Seven Year’s War. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 gave the newly-created (and renamed) colony of Québec a number of administrative liberties and a certain autonomy. This created tensions in the 13 colonies to the south that was one of the factors in the American bid for independence.
French is an official language throughout the Québec province. Photo credit: simplethrill on Visualhunt
Canada became independent from Britain in several steps, but through all of that Québec retained its cultural identity and Québécois, the French dialect spoken there, is a recognised official language. There are also fairly large francophone communities in New Brunswick, Ontario and Manitoba.
After the sale of the Louisiana Territory to the freshly-minted United States in 1803, a large swathe of land west of the Mississippi changed hands. The area is now English-speaking, but there are still some pockets where a form of French is spoken, called either Louisana French or Creole French. You can hear it spoken on YouTube, for example in this video. Like many Creole languages, verb forms tend towards the composite forms (and some special conjugations), and greater use of the words “quoi” and “que”.
Click here to learn 10 fun facts about France.
Most of the French-speaking islands in the Pacific are still a part of France. However, Vanuatu, a Melanesian archipelago claimed by the French in 1880, became independent a hundred years later. French is still an official language next to English and Bislama, a pidgin language particular to Vanuatu (there is not one native language in Vanuatu, but over a hundred, which is why a pidgin is the official language.)
Though France never got the foothold in India that the British Empire managed to establish, it did control several regions of India for a time, formerly known as Pondichéry, Karikal, Mahé and Yanaon. In 1962 all four districts officially became a part of India as the union territory of Puducherry. The same happened for a second region called Chantannagar. French is an official language in these regions.
In addition, many regions around the world still have French as their mother tongue because they are still an official part of France. France named them the DOM-TOM. This stands for Départements d’Outre-Mer – Territoires d’Outre-Mer (Overseas départements – overseas territories). While the DOM have exactly the same status as the départements (administrative districts) on the Continent, the TOM have a somewhat inferior status with no voting rights except in local elections. In 2007, the COM (Overseas Collectivities) were created to replace the antiquated TOM status. The COMs are represented in the French Parliament but are not an integral part of France, retaining a certain autonomy. For example, of the COMS only St. Martin is part of the European Union, and only the Atlantic COMS use the Euro.
The following regions abroad are considered French départements:
In 2003, the last of the TOMs became COMs (St- Pierre-et-Miquelon, French Polynesia, Wallis-and-Fortuna and Mayotte), with the exception of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands, comprising uninhabited islands in the Southern Indian Ocean and around Madagascar, as well as the French claim to Antarctica, the Terre Adélie. None have a permanent population, but most of the researchers etc. to visit them speak French; they are administered by a Préfet.
The Collectivités D’Outre-Mer each have a slightly different status. They are semi-independent, but all still have French as one of their official languages. They are:
Clipperton Island is the most isolated place on the planet, and currently uninhabited. But when someone does visit, he or she speaks French. Photo credit: EVS-Islands on VisualHunt
Then there is the Île Clipperton, a small island about a thousand kilometres west of the coast of Mexico. It is considered the most isolated place on the planet. This atoll is administered directly by the Overseas Minister. It was once exploited for phosphate and guano, but both are now exhausted and the atoll is uninhabited.