About a year and a half ago, I was walking the streets of Paris, lost. It was my first time to France and I was in Arrondissment 16, the same district where the Musee du Vin was located. I was freaking out, because I was to meet my friend at an apartment we were staying in; I had forgot to wrote down his phone number when I left the States.
I asked many different people for directions to find Rue Charles de Gaulle, from random ladies eating at a cafe to a cyclist, who tired for about 20 minutes and gave up. But every time I attempted to speak French, I could only mutter a “Je suis” or a droite. While I asked two servicemen who were finally able to help me, I apparently had butchered the language so badly that a passerby literally stopped and stared at me. How had my French, a language I studied when I was younger, gotten so terrible?
As you can see, French has a special place in my heart. Why did I decide to learn it and then ditch it when it counted? I don’t know. But for some reason, I’m deciding to give it another shot.
French is used pretty much everywhere by about 265 million speakers, making it the one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. Beyond its birthplace, it is used a great deal in many parts of Africa and southern Asia, Belgium, Luxembourg, in the Caribbean and Canada.
REGIONAL HISTORY: French is a descendant of Vulgar Latin, a language that was spoken in the Roman Empire, which is also the mother of most Romance languages. Starting in the 200s AD, Gaul (what France was called at the time) was invaded by a bunch of different Germanic tribes, most notably the Franks. It is from their language from which français (French for French) derives; the arrival of the Franks also had a big effect on Latin. A group of Romance languages spoken in the northern region, known as “oil languages” are referred to as Old French.
French first appeared in the Strasbourg Oaths in 842 AD. During the middle ages, French was being bombarded with new words from Viking, Celtic, Norman and even Arab invaders, adding lots of new words. French became the official language in the country in 1539 by King Francis I, and soon it was to become the preferred language of the arts, literature and aristocracy. One important thing that happened a century later was the establishment of the Académie français, an institution created for the sake of preserving the French language. The academy is still operating to this date.
France was one of the most powerful countries in Europe for several centuries, causing the language to spread to other parts of Europe (and by this time being used by everyone, not just the rich) and, through exploration, to settlements and colonies in the Americas, Africa and Asia. The lingering influence of French in these regions led to the creation of the Francophonie, or a community of French-speaking nations that currently includes 56 members.
WRITING SYSTEM: French uses a Latin alphabet that is exactly the same as English’s. The main difference is that French has four diacritics or marks that goes over vowels and a consonant: the grave accent (`), acute accent (`), circumflex (^) and cedilla (¸). The first three mainly change the sound of e and a, while the cedilla is only used under the c to make it soft (like in français). With exception of the h, which is silent, the consonants sound mostly the same as in English. Here’s what I found from Smartphrases concerning the vowels:
a – ea as in heart
â – a as in above
e – an “uh” sound
é – a as in day
è, ê – a as in above
i – e as in me
o – o as in more
u – u as in cue
French sometimes uses the letters œ (oe, similar to “eu” in French) and æ (ae, similar to a in cat), but these are not part of the alphabet.
One important thing to note is that the last consonant in French words is never pronounced, except if the last letter is C, F, L or R or the first letter in a following word is a vowel or h. For example grand (big) would just sound like “grawhn” while grand homme (big man) would sound like “grawhn DOME.”
This also happens for nouns that begin with a vowel or h when used with their articles le, la, les (the), except that the first vowel is eliminated and replaced with an apostrophe. For example, le homme becomes l’homme (the first e is removed).
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: This is really a review, as noted in the first post, but I’m not sure what to think. One issue (that may have led to my ennui and eventual departure) came from French’s pronunciation and lexical similarity with English (about 30 percent), which really throws me off. Sometimes when I speak it, I always feel the need to hesitate before proceeding, as I worry that I have mispronounced something.
When I was in Paris, the French I heard had lots of throaty “ooh”, “euhhh” and r sounds. I am able to mimic this, but it takes effort to do it effortlessly. I also am curious about regional varieties of French this time around, not just the ones spoken in France.
I will leave you with France’s most famous singer, Edith Piaf, with the classic “Non, je ne regrette rien.”