The Start of the French Language
French, currently by all standards is one of the major languages of the world, is a Romance language, descended directly from the Latin which came to be spoken in what was then Gaul during the period of the Roma n Empire. As that Empire crumbled, a number of major dialectal divisions developed, which do not necessarily correspond to present-day political or linguistic frontiers. Such a major division was to be found wit hi n medieval France, with the dialects of the north and centre (and part of modern Belgium) , known collectively as langue d 'oil , being sharply distinguished from those of the south, langue d 'oc being characteristic markers of affirmation in the relevant areas), with a third smaller area in the southeast, known as Franco-Provincial, generally taken to include the French dialects of Switzerland and the Val d'Aosta in Italy. The division between north and south is so marked that it has frequently been argued that , on purely linguistic grounds, the dialects of the south, now generally known collectively as Occitan, are best not regarded as Gallo-Romance at all , but rather as closely linked with Catalan, the resultant grouping being distinct from Hispano-Romance also.
Within these major dialectal areas, further linguistic fragmentation took place, divergence being strongly favoured by the lack of social cohesion during the so-called Dark Ages. One of the dialects of the langue d 'oil which emerged in this way was Francian, the dialect of the Ile de France, and it is from this dialect that, once circumstances arose which favoured the growth of a national language, modern standard French has developed. (Another northern dialect was Norma n, which had such a profound influence on the development of English.) The establishment of a fixed royal court in Paris, the recrudescence of an educational and of a legal system in that same city, and the fact that the abbey at St.-Denis, close by, was in effect the spiritual centre of the kingdom, all of these factors tended to favour the dialect of Paris and the surrounding area for the status of national language. Since the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when Francian (a modern name) gradually came to be accepted as a norm to aim towards, at least in writing and in cultivated speech in northern and central France, progress has been slow but steady. It is worth pointing out, however, that although the literary form of Occitan, Provençal, never recovered from the devastation caused by the Al bigensian crusade, and although French came to be virtually ubiquitous as the written language after the Ordonnances de Villers Cotterets (1539), it was not until the nineteenth and even the twentieth centuries, particularly in the south, that French came to be so wholly dominant within the boundaries of France , at first among the bourgeoisie and in the ci ties, and later also in the remoter rural areas. Indeed, French's long period of predominance as the major international language of culture and diplomacy long antedates its general use as a spoken language with in France: by the end of the seventeenth century, French had in effect replaced Latin in the former role, to the point that the Berlin Academy was able to ask in 1782, as a matter of fact.
Within Europe, French is now spoken by some 51 million people within France (and Monaco), and by some 4 million Walloons in Belgium, principally in the four francophone districts of the south.
The rivalry between French and Dutch within Belgium, which extends far beyond the linguistic plane, is well known. A round half a million people live in the Grand-Duchy of Luxembourg, where the native language of most speakers is a German dialect but where French is the language of education and administration, while in Switzerland, the most recent figures suggest that approaching 20 per cent of a total population of some 6.3 million are French speakers. In northern Italy, the Val d'Aosta has a French-speaking population of around 100,000.
Outside Europe, indigenous French speakers are to be found in almost every continent. In Canada, there are some six million francophone descendants of the original colonists, three quarters of these living in the province of Quebec (where they form some 80 per cent of the total population). Strenuous efforts are made to preserve and strengthen French, particularly in Quebec, within what has been since 1867 officially a bilingual country. Descendants of another group of French colonists in Acadia (the easternmost provinces of Canada) , driven out in the mid-eighteenth century, carried their language southwards down the eastern seaboard of the United States and into Louisiana. As a result, although there are relatively few French speakers in Acadia today except in New Brunswick (some 200 ,000), there are significant numbers -approaching one million - in New England (where there is a major admixture also directly from Quebec) and in Louisiana, French until 1803, where the immigrants were primarily from Acadia, and are indeed called 'Cajuns': their form of speech, franais acadien, is in regular use by perhaps a further one million people, alongside a small elite speaking more or less standard French and also a French-based creole.
Other Dialects/Locations of French
Elsewhere, French is generally in competition not with another European language but with indigenous non-European languages and/or with French based creoles in former French (or Belgian) colonies. In the West Indies, French is found for instance in Haiti (where it is the official language of some five million people but where the great majority actually use creole) and in islands such as Martinique and Guadeloupe. By far the most important areas, however, are the countries of the Maghreb (Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia), where French appears to be holding its own since independence: in Algeria, for example, it is estimated that some 20 per cent of the population can read and write French, with a much higher proportion able to speak it, above all in the cities. In black Africa, there are sixteen independent francophone states comprising a great swathe across the west and the centre of the continent from Senegal to Zaire, together with Madagascar, and there is a further group of French-creole-speaking islands (e.g. Mauritius, Seychelles, and Reunion) in the Indian Ocean. In most of these countries, the future of French as a second language, used for a variety of official, technical or international purposes in place of one or more indigenous languages, seems secure.
Like all languages with any significant degree of diffusion, French is of course not a single homogeneous entity.