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A language very much alive

Panneau de Paimpol, Pempoull en breton - Photo : G. BrameDuring the Middle Ages, each region had its own language: Breton, Picard, Norman... but when Jules Ferry made public education compulsory in 1881, it was the French spoken in central France which became the official language and unified people from all over the country.

From north to south, French is still spoken with many different accents. This is the charm of the provinces, but it is not always easy for a French person from a different region or for a foreigner to understand. Radio and television journalists use “standard” French.

The language of young people has its passing fads inspired by current ideas from various countries, or by different musical styles. Parents are sometimes surprised that they cannot understand what their children are talking about.

bulles à remplirIn recent years “verlan” (= “à l’envers”, meaning back to front) has had some success in working class suburbs of big cities. By reversing the syllables “fou” (stupid), for example, becomes “ouf”. Similarly “bizarre” (strange) becomes “zarbi”, and “Paris” = “Ripa”.

These days text messaging with a mobile phone has created a new abbreviated language.

Saut à la corde. Illustration : B. TolluWe communicate using words but also show our feelings through body language, for example our gestures and facial expressions.

Our hands often add to the spoken word. They can be in pockets, inferring a certain casualness. Very busy hand movements indicate excitement, sometimes even passion. On the other hand, crossed or folded hands express a certain tranquillity.

Our 5 fingers also have a code: thumbs up, other than for hitch-hiking, means “It’s OK”. But a thumb can also mean the number “one” and by adding more fingers we can count up to 5.

The 26 letters of the alphabet and a few little signs (accents, cedillas...) are used to form the words found in a dictionary. Every year new words, if they are in common use for speaking and writing, can be added alphabetically.

The articles “le” or “la”, “un” or “une” before a noun show whether it is masculine or feminine. Sometimes the gender changes the meaning, for example “la Bourgogne” (the Burgundy area) and “le Bourgogne” (Burgundy wine).

Most names of French cheeses are masculine.


As in other languages, writing must respect the precise and sometimes complex rules of grammar.

Written dictation may be dreaded in school, but at least once a year it becomes a game during the “Dicos d’or” (Dictation Gold) competition when 400,000 people, young and old alike, sit by their television or radio and do it for fun.

Here is a sentence in French containing all 26 letters of the alphabet:  «Servez ce whisky aux petits juges blonds qui fument».

 

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