French is a Romance language spoken around the world by around 80 million people as first language, by 190 million as second language, and by about another 200 million people as an acquired tongue, with significant speakers in 54 countries. Most native speakers of the language live in France, where the language originated. Most of the rest live in Canada, Belgium, Switzerland, Francophone Africa, Luxembourg, and Monaco.
It is an official language in 29 countries, most of which form what is called, in French, La Francophonie, the community of French-speaking nations. It is an official language of all United Nations agencies and a large number of international organizations. According to the European Union, 129 million (26% of the 497,198,740) people in 27 member states speak French, of which 65 million (12%) are native speakers and 69 million (14%) claim to speak it as a second language, which makes it the third most spoken second language in the Union, after English and German. In addition, prior to the ascension of English in the early 20th century, French served as the preeminent language of diplomacy among European and colonial powers as well as a lingua franca among the educated classes of Europe.
From the 17th to the 19th centuries, France was the leading power of Europe; thanks to this, together with the influence of the Enlightenment, French was the lingua franca of educated Europe, especially with regards to the arts, literature, and diplomacy; monarchs like Frederick II of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia could both speak and write in French.
French dialects developed from the Vulgar Latin which was brought to Northern with the Roman conquest in the 1st century B.C. . The history of French language is divided into 6 main periods:
- Gallo-Romance (5th-8th centuries). The Vulgar Latin in Gaul has developed specific features that made it distinct from the Latin spoken in the other regions of the Roman empire. The are a good example of its phonetics and vocabulary.
- Old French (9th-13th centuries). The dialects of Northern Gaul developed into separate language (Langue d'oil, see below) with a grammar of its own. The first written materials in it date from the Strasbourg Oaths of 842. The Old French literature flourished since the 10th century. French in this period was already taught in the neighboring countries (especially in Germany). In 11th-13th centuries it was the dominant language of the English administration. It was, also, the language of the crusaders in the Levantine countries.
- Middle French (14th-15th centuries). This period was marked by changes both in the pronunciation and in the grammar. A common literary language, based on the dialect of Île de France, was promoted by the writers. French was replacing Latin in the texts of the public administration in France.
- Early Modern French (16th century). The aim of the writers of this period, as is the case of the poets of La Pléiade, was to elevate the French language to the level of as a medium for literary expression, In 1539 proclaimed French official language of the public administration. Since that period the government was always involved in the development and the standardization of the language.
- Classical Modern French (17th-18th century). In this period were fixed the main grammar convention of the modern French. By then it was used as an international language throughout Europe and even in the administrative correspondence of countries as Germany. With the colonial expansion of France French spread to America (Canada, Louisiana, the Caribbean islands etc.).
- Contemporary Modern French (since 19th century). The contemporary pronunciation of the standard language was fixed in that period, namely between 1789 and 1918. French was established as an official language in the French and Belgian colonial possessions in Africa.
France has been home to many world-famous artists. In the last half of the nineteenth century, one group of artists, known as the Impressionists, created an impression of scene using quick dabs and strokes of color to capture their subject in the changing sunlight. This inspired many new artists to experiment with their own styles. The famous French artists include Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Eduardo Manet, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, and Armand Guillaumin.
The magnificent buildings of all ages and styles throughout France also reveal its artistry. Some of France’s most impressive buildings are its cathedrals. Two of the France’s best-known cathedrals are Notre Dame, in the heart of Paris, and Chartres, southwest of Paris. The stonewalls of Notre Dame are decorated with rows of statues and gargoyles. The Chartres cathedral, rebuilt after a fire around 1200, flaunts 3000 square meters of stained-glass windows.
French literature also profoundly influenced Western cultural development. Victor Hugo wrote the classic novels Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables in the 1800s. Alexandre Dumas was another important writer of this time. Honore de Balzac was a ‘prodigious realist author’. Other famous French writers include Guy de Maupassant, Charles Baudelaire, and Gustave Flaubert.
French people are proud of France’s contributions in philosophy. Rene Descartes, who lived in the 1600s, was one of the most influential philosophers in human history and is sometimes called the founder of modern philosophy. In his book, Discourse on Method, Descartes outlined his skepticism and his method for inquiring into the truth. He introduced his famous phrase, “Cogito Ergo Sum” (I think, therefore I am). He was a major inspiration for the Enlightenment of eighteenth century Europe. Later French philosophers include Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus.
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