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Overview: French is not only the native tongue of a major European country, but belongs to one of the most successful colonial nations in history. It is therefore spoken throughout the world, most notably in Canada and throughout western, northern and central Africa. Some former colonies, such as Tunisia, actively attempt to discourage the use of French as a relic of their conquered past–others, such as the Canadian province of Quebec, have deeply integrated the French language into their attitude and way of life. In the post-colonial era, the biggest international promoter of French is an independent organization called the Alliance française (or French Union), which maintains branches in nearly every corner of the world.
French is one of the top three most commonly spoken languages in Europe, and sees heavy use at most international agencies. Centuries ago, French was the common tongue, or lingua franca, of international affairs and high-class intellectualism around the world. Wealthy people in places such as England, Germany, and the United States were almost all versed in French and steeped themselves as much as possible in the fashion trends and literature of Paris.
Roots of the language: A proto-language that would later become French first evolved in the region of Gaul, an area of Europe than encompassed modern-day France and parts of several neighboring countries during the time of the Romans. The people that lived there spoke multiple varieties of Celtic languages, many of which have been lost to time. Once the Romans added Gaul to their empire, the Latin they spoke became the basis of a new language in the conquered territory, mirroring the circumstances of Spain and Portugal. French is thus one of the Romance languages, although it has been influenced over the centuries by neighboring non-Romance languages such as English, Dutch, German and even Arabic.
The French language changed dramatically after the Renaissance era, as their colonial empire grew to encompass most of Africa and much of Asia and North America. Within the colonies, spoken French was deeply influenced by the local indigenous dialects, resulting in creoles that are often still spoken today. Canadian French, for instance, shows signs of mixing with Native American words, as well as English words from nearby British and American settlers. Canadian French is an extremely important language in Canada, and is in fact the sole official language of the province of Quebec (where residents speak French as a matter of regional identity).
French as spoken in the former colonies of the Far East was also influenced by native tongues, but its use has been on the wane in Asia for nearly a century. Post-colonial Africa, on the other hand, is the area of the world that has retained the most French, although it has evolved considerably there over the centuries. When all the dialects and creoles are counted together, Africa is by far the continent with the most French speakers in terms of absolute numbers.
Language characteristics: French is a language with many nasally pronounced sounds, and has a large number of vowels at sixteen. Like most other Romance languages, it has two genders: feminine and masculine, with the vast majority of nouns falling into one category or the other. French is easy to pronounce based on its spelling, as there are few exceptions to the pronunciation rules (the spelling rules, however, are a different story). The French language as a whole is regulated by an official body known as L’Académie française, or the French Academy. This organization is the final word on what is or is not “proper” French, even to the point of affecting national law in France, although people frequently ignore its proclamations in favor of their local dialects.
Written form: Like most other European languages, French uses the 26-letter Latin alphabet, along with occasional additions to represent specific sounds. As hinted above, the spelling of French words is based on myriad–and often outdated–backgrounds, so that the same sound in French might be represented by several different spelling combinations (a similar situation to that of English). Still, literary French is held in high regard both in France and throughout the Western world. The lexicon of French poetry and literature is massive, and for hundreds of years has been extremely influential upon other written works in Europe and elsewhere.