France’s Many Languages

March 10, 2012 7:36 am2 commentsViews: 14
France's Many Languages by Street Talk Savvy

the beautiful region of Franche Comte

France’s many languages

These days France is a somewhat monolingual country when it comes to native languages.  But as far back as the French Revolution,

France was probably the most linguistically diverse country in all of Europe.

And it wasn’t just languages, that were related to Latin. Along all its borders, neighbouring languages and dialects had spilled into its territory and was spoken by the majority of the people within that region.

At the forefront of France’s written standard literature were Occitan and Metropolitan French. Neither of the 2 languages were dialects of each other, rather 2 completely distinct languages.  To the French the languages were called Langued’oc and Langues d’Oïl, which are the tongue of those that say “Oc” for yes and those that say “Oïl” for yes.

English: Occitan and French language street si...

A street sign in Toulouse/Tolosa a former Occitan speaking city- Image via Wikipedia

English: Ad in Occitan about chocolate Occitan...

Chocolate advertisement in Occitan- Image via Wikipedia

At one time Occitan was a more important written language than Metropolitan French. The Pope in exile was garrisoned in Avignon and many Papal documents were written in Occitan. As well Occitan had a larger literary library at the time than Metropolitan French.

But in the end as is usual, the language of the capital, usually the larger city won out. Parisian or Langue d’Oïl became the standard in France, and slowly efforts were made to push the other languages and dialects so far into the background, that they are hardly spoken today.

The best example of this is the German dialect of Alsatian. Unlike any other language within France, it was alive and thriving before the war, within German borders. But when it became part of France, it was forbidden to speak Alsatian. These days you can hear some of the older people speak it, but even the children of pure Alsatian blood can’t speak a word of it or High German.

The other dialects have been under pressure to conform for much longer time, and some virtually are not spoken at all a few of these are not related to Latin at all. Some of this is due to France’s expanding borders where the natives used to speak their local dialect.

These languages are:

  • Flemish- this is the Dutch dialect spoken mostly in Flanders in Belgium, but historically it was in the far north-west corner of France bordering Flanders
  • Niçart or  Nissard- Nice, for quite a long time Nice belonged to Italian speaking monarchs, being in the far south-east corner of France. It was the home and language of Giuseppe Garibaldi- the unifier of Italy. He called it an Italian dialect heavily influenced by Occitan. It is now no longer spoken.
  • Alsatian German- a German dialect, historically France and Germany have tussled over this region for many centuries. Since the end of WWII it belongs to France
  • Basque- A language of no known origin, found in the south-west corner of France, and over the border in Spain. The Spanish Basques would like to form a Basque homeland. Basque like Gascon Occitan, it had a big effect on the Spanish language in exile
  • Occitan dialects- Gascon, Provençal, Langued’oc. This language is related to Catalan and no other language, and was spoken in the whole of southern France. From the Atlantic to the Italian border. It has influenced Catalan. The Gascon dialect, heavily influenced the Spanish language while it was in exile under Moorish rule.

    Carte de l'occitan

    Occitan dialect area- Image via Wikipedia

  • Catalan- spoken in the corner of France with Spain and most of the Mediterranean Spain. It has official status being the language of Andorra, and the former Kingdom’s that were once Catalonia.
  • Corsican- an Italian dialect spoken on the island of Corsica from where Napoleon Bonaparte came from. Corsicans are fiercely independent, and would like one day to be free from French rule.
    Français : Drapeau de la Corse Corsu: Bandera ...

    The Moors Head- symbol of Corsica- Image via Wikipedia


  • Breton- this is a celtic dialect, formerly spoken in Brittany, the westernmost part of France, and was nearly extinct, but now in revival stage. It is not related to Gallic Celtic rather, came from the British Celtic, which is similar to Welsh or Cornish Celtic. The refugees from Anglo-Saxon expansion, jump on boats and lived comfortably in France.
  • Lorraine Franconian-a German dialect, supposedly the 3rd most spoken dialect in France, but unlike Alsace, has always lived within French borders, so it is doubtful as widely known or spoken as some other dialects


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  • joseph Callahan

    Breton was spoken by almost everyone in Brittany born before 1955 or 1960. It is still very alive in many areas.
    Alsatian is still spoken by most rural Alsatians.
    Gascon did not come under Spanish influence; it is merely part of a language continuum that extends, in some ways, to Castilian.
    Nissard is still spoken by many people born there.
    None of these are really dialects; they’re other languages that had the bad luck to be included within the borders of the French state. French dialects are almost dead, particularly since after WWII. Probably the most alive are those of Morvan and the Marais of Vendee/Brittany.

  • Thanks for your input. I didn’t know about Breton.
    I do know about Alsatian, as my uncles and aunties still speak it, but they did tell me it was forbidden to speak it. Consequently, my cousins can’t speak any form of German.
    As mentioned with the Gascon, it was the only link the Cantabrian Spaniards had to Latin language when isolated by the Moors, consequently this Occitan dialect had a great effect on the Spanish language.
    According to most websites, Nissard is extinct. Is what your referring to another type of Piemontese dialect?
    Thanks for your response

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