French Language

Bonjour y’all!

French is one of the Romance languages that developed from the Latin of the Roman Empire. When the Roman general Julius Caesar conquered Gaul (now modern France) in the 50's B.C., he found the people speaking a Celtic language. The Gauls gradually adopted the language of the Roman soldiers; however, they did not speak the language exactly as the soldiers did. They changed the vocabulary based on the way the word sounded. For example a Gaul, hearing the stressed syllables bon and ta of the word bonitas (kindness) shortened the word to bonta. This word has become bonté in modern French. The Franks, the Danish, and the Greeks have also contributed to the French Language. The French language first appeared in written form in the Oaths of Strasbourg, a treaty signed by two descendants of the Frankish king Charlemagne in 842. The modern period of French began in the 17th century.

In 1635, the French Academy was founded by Cardinal Richelieu to maintain the purity of the language and its literature and to serve as the ultimate judge of correct usage. This focus on the French language is considered to be another example of Louis’ attempt to centralize power in France. Today, the people of France are still encouraged to speak, write, and read French properly, elegantly, and articulately. Politeness is also considered important in language as well as in manners. Using madame or monsieur in saying hello, answering a question or making a request is considered proper. Speaking well is a sign of being a native of France.

A beautiful and harmonious language, French is spoken as the mother tongue of more than 90 million people, and millions of others use it as a second language. It is the official language of more than 25 countries including France, Belgium, Canada, Haiti, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and former French and Belgian Colonies in Africa. Having served as an international language in diplomacy and commerce, the French language carries great prestige culturally and is one of the languages used officially by the United Nations.

Many of the words in the English language come from French. English began to absorb French words after the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The king’s court and courts of justice used French, but the common people continued to speak English. For example, the words mouton, boeuf, and porc, which the nobility used instead of sheep, ox, and swine, became mutton, beef, and pork in English. Thousands of French terms have been adopted, in whole or in part, into English.

Nouns and Adjectives

Few French nouns have inflections, which are changes of form. All nouns are either masculine or feminine. For example, the book (le livre) is masculine, and the chair (la chaise) is feminine. In most cases adjectives are made feminine by adding e. For example the feminine of petit (small) is petite. Plurals are most commonly formed by adding s to the singular. The plural of le petit livre is les petits livres. The plural of la petite chaise is les petites chaises. Le and la are the masculine and feminine singular forms of the definite article the. Les is both the masculine plural form and the feminine plural form. In French some adjectives, such as petit, come before the noun, but in most cases, adjectives come after the noun. For example you may see, un blouson rouge (a red jacket) or du lait chaud (some hot milk).


French has 14 tenses, 7 simple and 7 compound. The simple tenses are formed by adding endings to the infinitive or to the stem of the verb. The compound tenses are made up of the past participle of the verb and an appropriate form of one of the auxiliary verbs avoir (to have) or être (to be). In written French, verbs are classified according to the endings of their infinitives. They fall into three groups: -er verbs, such as donner (to give); -ir verbs, such as finir (to finish); and -re verbs; such as vendre (to sell). French also has many irregular verbs.

Word Order

Word order in French is similar to that of English in many cases. A sentence is made negative by placing ne before the verb and pas after it. A question is formed by inverting the order of the subject and verb or by placing est-ce-que (is it that) before the sentence. The following examples give you a comparison of the affirmative, the negative and the question:

John gives books to my friends.

Affirmative: Jean donne les livres à mes amis.

Negative: Jean ne donne pas les livres à mes amis.

Question: Est-ce-que Jean donne les livres à mes amis?


Pronunciation of French is sometimes difficult for English speaking people. The French do not pronounce final consonants, except for the letters, c, f, l, and r. For example, lits (beds) is pronounced lee and et (and) is pronounced ay. French vowels are sharp, clear, single sounds. A few do not occur in English. For example, there is no exact equivalent of the u of lune (moon). This is a sound that combines ee and oo and is made with the lips rounded. Syllables that end in n or m have a nasal sound. The French r sounds harsher than the English r. The French often link words together. For example, les hommes (the men) is pronounced lay ZOHM.

Here are some additional pronunciation guides:

Phraseand OthersSounds like
a fAther
o Oh
aueaux or auxO in Open
i E in Eat
ch sh
é A in cAke
oi WA
qu K

Here are the French personal pronouns:

Singular jeI
Plural nouswe
ilsthey (m)
ellesthey (f)

Here are some common words in French and English:

les enfantschildren
le garçonboy
la fillegirl
l’amifriend who is a boy
l’amiefriend who is a girl
le pèrefather
la mèremother
la soeursister
le frèrebrother
le bébébaby
le chiendog
le chatcat
la chaisechair
le crayonpencil
la cantinecafeteria
la salle de classeclassroom
le professeurteacher
l écoleschool
la salle de bains or les toilettesbathroom




bleu or bleueblue
vert or vertegreen
noir or noireblack
blanc or blanchewhite


Bonjour, Madame/MonsieurHello, madame or sir
Au revoir, Madame/MonsieurGoodbye, madame or sir
MerciThank you
S’il vous plaîtPlease
Comment vous appelez-vous?What is your name?
Je m’appelle ______.My name is ______.
Quel âge avez-vous?How old are you?
J’ai ________ansI am ____ years old.
C’est magnifique!It is magnificent!
C’est dommage.Too bad

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© Copyright 1998, Mississippi University for Women (Teachers' Guide text)
Last modified: Wednesday, 28-Oct-98 12:14:46