Estimated native speakers: 70-115 million
Estimated total speakers: 270 million
Official/de facto official language in: Belgium, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Canada, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Côte d'Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, France, Gabon, Guinea, Haiti, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Mali, Monaco, Niger, Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Senegal, Seychelles, Switzerland, Togo, Vanuatu
Language family: Indo-European - Romance
A brief history:
The beautiful French language that we know today became France’s official language by order of King Francis I in 1539, ousting Latin as the language of the courts and administration. But the language had been developing for over a millennium before it achieved official status.
French is the most Germanic of the Romance languages. It didn’t take long for the people of Gaul to give up their Celtic language after the arrival of the first Roman legions in Provence (120BC), but the Vulgar Latin brought by soldiers, traders and settlers itself soon underwent major changes. With the arrival of the Germanic tribes from the 3rd century AD, French started to develop the unique sound that we know today. It is estimated that anywhere up to 7% of French words are of Germanic origin.
Various visitors including the Normans (Vikings whose language would, in turn, hugely alter English), Iberians and Celts influenced the old French languages which prevailed up until the 16th century. Italian poet Dante classified the Romance languages into three groups: oïl languages (in northern France); oc languages (in southern France) and si languages (in Italy and Iberia). It was the oïl variety that formed the basis of modern French.
The language spread across Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries as France became the continent’s dominant power. It was also at this time that it spread to Canada, where today around 10 million people speak French. When the French nation state was establish in 1789, less than half of French people spoke the language at all, but this soon changed as Napoleon developed a unified national identity.