French

French Language

French is an Indo-European language influenced primarily by Latin and several Celtic languages. It is the official language of France and 28 additional countries. Approximately 75 million people worldwide speak French as a primary or first language, and about 212 million people speak French fluenty and use it on a daily basis.

Africa is the continent with the largest number of French speakers. 

Phonology

Standard French phonology, based on the Parisian dialect, is well-known for its use of the uvular trill /ʀ/, nasal vowels, and two phonological processes, liaison and elision, which affect word-final sounds.

African French speakers are more likely to use the aveolar /r/ or the uvular fricative /ʁ/ as opposed to the uvular    /ʀ/. It is important to note that the phonological production of French in Africa varies widely by region, and one may need to research the specific dialect spoken by a client from a French-speaking African country. 

Consonant Phonemes

Listed below are the consonant phonemes of French. In the cells where two phonemes are listed, the first phoneme is voiced, the second is voiceless.

Many of the consonant sounds of French are similar to English, with a few exceptions:

  • The phoneme /ɹ/ is produced at the uvular level and may occur as an approximant or fricative. 
  • The velar nasal /ŋ/ is not considered a native phoneme of French, though it occurs in words borrowed from other languages that have been incorporated into French. It is often substituted with the prenasalized /ɲ/, a phoneme that is not native to English phonology. 
  • The phoneme /w/ and cluster /kw/ are not native to French but have been incorporated from loan words borrowed from other languages.
  • The phoneme /h/ is not pronounced in French.
  • Pronunciation of certain French consonants vary depending on the vowels that they precede or follow and their placement in a word.


Vowel Phonemes

Standard French includes up to thirteen oral vowels and four nasalized vowels that are grouped by levels of openness, four of which rarely occur in English phonology.

Phonological Processes

Liaison and elision are two phonological processes common to Standard French that affect word-final sounds. In liaison, the final consonants of word are only pronounced when the following word begins with a vowel, except when the final consonant is /k/. In elision, the final vowel of many monosyllabic function words is not pronounced when the following word begins with a vowel.

  • Liaison - In les amies (the friends), the s in les is pronounced, but the s in amies is not
  • Elision - le + arbre = l’arbre (the tree) – the e in le is dropped (elided) and not pronounced
Language Structure

The French sentence structure is similar to that of English in that formation generally follows the Subject-Verb-Object word order, except when the object is a pronoun, in which case it precedes the verb. French is a moderately inflected language, meaning that the form of a given word is changed to express different grammatical categories. Below are some common inflections:

  • Nouns, pronouns, and adjectives are inflected for number (singular or plural) and gender (masculine or feminine)
    • Le/un (the/a) is used to denote a singular masculine noun, as in un livre (a book)
    • La/une (the/a) is used to denote a singular feminine noun, as in la chaise (the chair)
    • Plurality is expressed by using les or des and adding an s or x to the end the plural word, unless a word ends in one of those letters
    • Le chat (the cat) becomes les chats (the cats), but le corps (the body) becomes les corps (the bodies)
    • Le chapeau (the hat) becomes les chapeaux (the hats), but le prix (the price) becomes les prix (the prices)
  • Personal pronouns are inflected for grammatical person (reference to the person in the speaking event), number, gender, and grammatical case (depending on grammatical function in the sentence).
  • Verbs are inflected for mood (indicative, subjunctive, imperative, infinitive, conditional), tense(present, past, imperfect, future), and the grammatical person and number of subjects in a sentence

Other common structural features of the French language:

  • Articles and determiners usually occur before nouns
    • Masculine: le, un (the)
    • Feminine: la, une (a)
    • Plural: les, des
  • Adjectives usually occur after nouns, with a few exceptions involving the categories of age, beauty, goodness, and size, which occur before nouns
    • le chien noir (the black dog) versus le bon chien (the good dog)
  • Adverbs occur next to the word they modify, except those referencing time, which may also occur at the beginning or end of a sentence
    • Je parle bien le français (I speak French well) – in this case, “well” is modifying the verb “speak”, so they occur together in the sentence
  • Prepositions occur in front of nouns to specify the relationships between that noun and the verb, adjective, or other noun that precedes it 
    • Je vais á la bibliothèque (I’m going to the library)
    • Le livre rouge est à côté du livre bleu (The red book is next to the blue book)
  • Negation is generally established in a sentence by attaching the particle ne to a verb and following with a negative adverb, such as pas (not) or jamais (never)
    • Je ne comprends pas (I don't understand) – the particle ne precedes the verb comprends and is followed by the negative adverb pas
    • Je ne regardes jamais la télévision (I never watch television) – the particle ne precedes the verb regardes and is followed by the negative adverb jamais

*For detailed information about the differences between French and English, check out: About.com - Differences Between French and English

Writing

The French alphabet consists of the same 26 letters as the English alphabet plus letters involving 5 diacritics that affect pronunciation:

  • é – acute accent
  • è, à, ù – grave accent
  • ç – cedilla
  • â, ê, î, ô, û – circumflex
  • ë, ï, ü – diaeresis