French (or français) is a Romance language of the Indo-European family. It is spoken by about 128 million people around the world, both native and bilingual speakers, and listed as the official language of 29 countries. Most native speakers are in France, with the rest being in Canada, Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and several African countries. Furthermore, an additional 72 million people worldwide are members of the large Francophone community on account of their limited knowledge of the French. In the Canadian province of Québec, French is spoken by 80% of the population. The local government has adopted a series of measures aimed at preserving the language in administration, education and business. It is also one of the two official languages of the provinces of Ontario, Manitoba and New Brunswick. Important preservation efforts are also in progress in the U.S. states of Louisiana and Maine. French is also the official idiom of Haiti, though predominantly spoken by upper social strata. It is in Africa, however, that the largest segment of the Francophone community can be found. The Organisation international de la Francophonie estimates that about 115 million people across 31 African countries speak French as either their first or second language. French is indeed the official language in Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Guinea, Madagascar, Mali, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Seychelles, and Togo. French is also listed as an administrative language of Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritius, Laos and Cambodia.
The linguistic evolution of French is divided into three major periods: Old French (up to around 1300); Middle French (14th through 17th centuries); and Classical or Modern French (17th century to today). The oldest document in Old French is the Oath of Strasbourg of 832 A.D. With so many speakers around the world, it is impossible to speak of a single, pure French language. Standard French, also called Metropolitan French, is spoken in the Paris area; there are many regional varieties, such as Meridional French. Outside of France, for example, it is possible to find Belgian, Swiss, Quebec, and Acadian French. Not surprisingly, several linguistic institutions are tasked with setting, monitoring and upholding the standards of the French language: the Académie Française in France, the Office québécois de la langue française in Canada, the Conseil pour le development du français en Louisiane in the United States.
French utilizes the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet, in addition to five diacritics and two ligatures (æ and œ.). Most French lexicon comes from Vulgar Latin, as well as Latin and Greek words. It is estimated that about 12% of common French words also derive from Italian, German, Spanish, Dutch, Persian, Sanskrit, Arabic, as well as Slavic, Baltic, Asian languages.
French literature is understood to be literary production written in French, especially by citizens of France, or even by non-French speaking expatriates who live in French. Literary production by citizens of other French-speaking countries is generally referred to as Francophone literature. Noteworthy is the literary production in regional languages, which underwent a revival in the course of the 19th century. Especially influential on modern world literature have been literary movements like symbolism, naturalism, surrealism, existentialism, and the “Theater of the Absurd.”
To this day, French authors have been awarded more Nobel Prizes for Literature than any other country, from Sully Prudhomme, who received the first Nobel in 1901, to J.M.G. Le Clézio, who received it n 2008. Other illustrious Nobelists are Albert Camus, Claude Simon, and Samuel Beckett. Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Prize in 1964, but declined to accept it.
“Word by word the big books are made.”