The regional languages spoken in France tell a rich story. From Breton, a Celtic tongue, to Corsican, a cousin of Italian, France’s regional languages are at the center of a fierce debate over cultural identity and national unity.
These languages aren’t just central to local culture. They also teach us about migration, conquest, cultural assimilation, and language policy. (This is also true for regional languages in other countries.)
Language Beyond Borders
But how you define France’s regional languages is a matter of geographical perspective.
We can define a regional language as one that a country’s nationals have historically spoken. Still, it doesn’t enjoy the same use as the official language(s) of that nation.
From this point of view, Alsatian and Breton are regional languages of France. Arabic and Vietnamese, on the other hand, are not, even though both are among the languages spoken in France.
If by “France” we mean only the country between Germany and Spain, then France’s regional languages number more than 30.
But if we took France to include any territory in the world governed by the French, then the number of regional languages would go up.
New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, and French Guiana, for example, all fly the French tricolore. They’re home to languages that aren’t spoken in metropolitan France.
Our map features a few of the regional languages spoken in France proper. Of course, it’s hard to fit information about all of France’s languages on one map. So we’re featuring a few of the most well known regional languages.
Cultural Identity or National Unity?
At the heart of the debate among the French over language use is whether or not national unity should trump local pride.
If you’re born, raised, and educated in Paris, you might be among those who think that French is the only language that matters. As the second biggest city in Europe and the biggest city (by far) in France, Paris can feel like its own sovereign nation. In fact, the greater Paris area had a population of 12.5 million in the 2013 census.
Contrast that cultural juggernaut with Quimper, for example, a small city of well under 100,000 in France’s Brittany region. Despite the fact that Quimper launched a campaign in favor of the use of the Breton language (called Ya d’ar brezhoneg, or “Yes to Breton”), any widespread adoption is limited by both geography and numbers.
Languages Spoken in France: How History and Geography Affect Language Use
The link between language use and geography is clear. Languages have long been passed on from one group to the next in a number of ways. Geographical proximity and immigration play a big part, but so do trade, conquest, intermarriage, and government edict.
Take the case of Breton. Britons from Wales settled in the northwestern part of France after the fall of the Roman Empire. Thus was born Breton, a sister language of Welsh.
We can see the link between Breton and Welsh in words such as glav, which is Breton for “rain.” It’s almost the same as the Welsh word glaw.
Other languages spoken in France have similar stories. Corsican, for example, is a close relative of Italian.
Compare the word “century” in Corsican (seculu) and Italian (secolo). This connection makes sense when you think about it. The island of Corsica, today part of France, used to be part of the Republic of Genoa, where Italian was spoken.
Look at the table in the image. You can see how closely related France’s regional languages are to those spoken in border states. For example, compare the Spanish gato (“cat”) to Catalan gat.
What Does the Future Hold for the Regional Languages of France?
The sad fact is that most of the regional languages spoken in France are losing ground. Take Alsatian, for example. There are more speakers of it (over 600,000) than of any other regional tongue. But they represent only 1% of France’s population.
Educational policy can affect language use, too. For instance, Corsican is mandatory for primary students. (Secondary students may opt out.)
Catalan is also spoken in France. But only a small number of people in France’s Catalan area actually speak Catalan, which is the result of language shift.
Breton is spoken by about 200,000 people; its use is on the wane. Still, some 15,000 children learned Breton in 2013. This is a sign that speakers of Breton want very much to keep it alive.
If you want to learn more about endangered languages, see this post on Wampanoag. (Spoiler: its most famous speaker was Squanto.)
If you’re feeling more adventures (and if you don’t offend easily), check out how to swear in French.