France has a particular relationship with the French language.
It is at the top of the constitution, article two, where, when outlining the sovereignty of the Republic, the first paragraph states: “The language of the Republic shall be French.”
This means that French is the only official language in the country, even though around 40 different language groups exist in the mainland and many more overseas.
French was imposed in 1539
The most widely-spoken langues régionales in the mainland are Alsatian, Occitan and Breton, though there are many dialects of Occitan, which some consider distinct languages.
Some languages evolved from Latin along with French, while others such as Breton or Basque have very different roots.
The domination of French was imposed in 1539 by the edict of Villers-Cotterêts which made it the official language of the courts and administration.
Historians say that for a good 350 years, most people still used regional languages at home and in the village but French to deal with the state.
It was after the arrival of railways and state education in the late 19th century that regional languages went into decline.
Soldiers did not understand orders in French
After World War One, the state promoted French.
There are still older people who will tell you the first French they spoke was at school and they were punished if they spoke their home language there.
One reason, it is said, is that the army was shocked to find that French orders were not always understood by soldiers conscripted to fight.
The constitution has been revised over the years, and in 2008, the langues régionales made it in under article 75, paragraph one, where it states:
“Regional languages are part of the heritage of France.”
Even so, associations working to promote their use are not high on funding lists.
Regional languages have become political
Having Breton recognised as an official language in Brittany has become a rallying cry for nationalists but after years of campaigning they are not much closer to this goal.
Around 120,000 children learn a regional language at school each year.
In 2021, France’s highest constitutional authority ruled that ‘immersive teaching’ of regional languages (maths or history lessons in Breton, for example) was unconstitutional but the government later said it was acceptable.
North and south divide oversimplifies the languages spoken
It is generally said that as the Latin spoken in France evolved it broadly divided into two main categories: the langue d’oïl (an early form of oui) in the north, from which modern French and some of the northern regional languages derive, and the langue d’oc in the south.
The reality is a bit more complex, as shown by local radio broadcasts in Limousin from Limoges.
They are understood in north Dordogne but by the time you reach Périgueux in the centre of the department, people do not understand.
Limousin is spoken across the north of Dordogne, Haute Vienne, and Correze, while in Périgueux the local language is Languedocian, which is different, even though they both fall under the langue d’oc category.
Languedocian has a swathe from south Dordogne through to Montpellier, though in the far south-west towards the Atlantic it is replaced by Gascon, Béarnese and Basque.
Plays and fêtes celebrate regional languages
Many French people say they do not speak or understand the regional languages spoken by their grandparents but some linguists doubt this.
One French television programme showed a mother from Alsace telling the interviewer that she did not speak or understand Alsatian, then turning to her baby’s cot and speaking Alsatian baby talk to her child entirely unconsciously.
For other French people, regional languages are a source of pride – for example, there are theatre groups and fêtes celebrating Saintongeais, where you will be told that this has been identified as probably the closest living language to the Latin the Romans spoke.
Archaeological discoveries show that Saintes in Charente-Maritime had a population of at least 20,000 during the time of the Roman Empire and was probably the most important French city after Lyon.
Food holds clues to local languages
Most visitors are unlikely to hear regional languages being spoken but might well come across certain words from them being dropped into the local French along with other usages specific to the area.
This can include food specialities, such as pan bagnat (a sandwich whose name means ‘soaking bread’ in Niçois) or the charmingly-named gnocchi called merda de can (dog poop), also from Nice.
Other words from regional languages sometimes used by local speakers of French include pitchoun (Provençal for ‘child’) or schlouk (Alsatian for a mouthful of a drink).
A well-known example of regional French, meanwhile, is chocolatine, used in the south west for pain au chocolat.
Regional accents have their roots in old languages
Regional languages also leave their trace in accents.
Former prime minister Jean Castex has a mild southern accent, where, for example, the ‘o’ in rose is pronounced as in ‘lock’, instead of ‘oh’.
This makes him a rarity among high-ranking French officials, who usually adopt an ‘academic Parisian’ accent as soon as they can.
Many southern speakers also change the vowel sound in words like vin and pain, so they sound more like ‘veng’ and ‘peng’ and have what is often described as a ‘singing’ quality to the tone of their voice.
Working-class Parisian, in contrast, has a more rough-and-ready sound, very different from middle-class Parisian.
The comedian Coluche used to play up this accent in his sketches.
It can be tricky for non-native speakers to identify accents but they are a source of amusement to many French people, even if it is not politically correct to laugh at them.
Hit film Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis had audiences rolling in the aisles partly because of the northern Ch’ti accent, and jokes about Belgians are frequently told in exaggerated Walloon accents.
Our thanks to artist Perry Taylor for his image to accompany this article, which was published in the August edition of our newspaper as our 'Make sense of...' feature.