A huge number of regional languages and dialects are spoken in France, though French remains the only official language, a point on which Article 2 of the 1958 Constitution is clear: “The language of the Republic shall be French”. This does not mean, however, that today’s France has rejected local idioms. After all, the Constitution also states that “regional languages are part of France’s heritage”. Is the existence of an official language compatible with the use of regional variations? And should we be talking about “patois”, “dialects” or “languages”?
Even linguists can’t reach agreement on this one! So we’re not going to try and settle this dispute once and for all here, and we’ll be using “dialects” to refer to minority regional languages which derive from a parent language. Dialects are associated with geographical areas, and are used by a smaller number of speakers. Dialects should not be considered as inferior: dialects have characteristics of their own (grammar, syntax, and so on) that make them structurally indistinguishable from a language. As for the word “patois”, this refers to a form of language spoken within a smaller and more rural geographical area.
Things get more complicated when you realise that French is itself a dialect, as it derives from a parent language, Latin. Throughout history, political authorities have used it as a tool of power. French was initially the language of the king, and for a long time, those who led the country sought to prevent locals from using their regional languages. Vaugelas, a well-known seventeenth-century grammarian and member of the Académie Française (whose role it is to maintain standards in the French language), defined good usage of French as “the speech of the soundest elements of the court.”
Which are the most common regional languages spoken in France? Breton is a Celtic language spoken by nearly 250,000 people with a strong attachment to their traditions. It’s very difficult to understand for the uninitiated. For example, the word for “man” is “den” or “gwaz”, a “woman” is a ‘plac’h” or a “maouez”. “Dour” means “water” and “to have” would be translated as “kaout”. But do you know what the most widely spoken regional language in France is? It’s Creole, which is spoken by some 2.5 million people. Linguistically speaking, we can draw a line across France that passes through Bordeaux, Clermont-Ferrand and Grenoble. North of this line is the domain of the langues d’oil: these include Franc-comtois, Walloon, Picard and Gallo. The south is home to the langue d’oc (or Occitan), which incorporates Provençal, Nissart and Gascon, among other dialects. And I almost forgot Corsican and Flemish, both spoken in regions of France too!
Linguists estimate that there are around 75 regional languages in France! Some of these are taught in schools, including Occitan, Breton, Basque, Corsican, Alsatian and certain Melanesian languages such as Tahitian. Every year, 400,000 pupils learn a regional language in France’s state-run and private schools. It is important for pupils to be able to study a subject in a regional language for their baccalaureate exams. If this kind of education is not strengthened and promoted, we will witness the disappearance of this linguistic heritage. As for those who are learning French as a foreign language, it is important to be aware of the different pronunciations in order to get a better feel for the local culture. In Antibes, lots of the names of local villages include a final consonant which should be pronounced (BioT, VallauriS, etc.) if you don’t want to be mistaken for a “northerner”!
Is it better to speak without an accent? Are there any regions which don’t have a specific accent? The answer to that is probably not, because all regions are still influenced by their regional language. In the Toulouse region, for example, the influence of Occitan means that final vowels are pronounced. Everyone is familiar with the language and accent heard in the South of France, which were immortalised in the works of Marcel Pagnol. Another well-known variation is northern ch’ti accent, as heard in the film Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis [Welcome to the Sticks]. Fewer people are aware of the Franc-comtois accent, which is one of the country’s least charming. Locals in this region (which includes towns such as Besançon and Belfort) pronounce the closed [o] sound as a very open [o], and voice the [t] sounds at the ends of words. The [o] in vélo (“bike”) sounds more like the [o] in botte (“boot”), for example, and the number vingt (“twenty”) is pronounced vinte.
Accents can be discriminatory in that the singsong, light-hearted tone of some speakers seems to be a bar to engaging in functions considered to be “serious”. The professions of singer (Francis Cabrel, Claude Nougaro, Mireille Mathieu, etc.), actor (Michel Galabru, Fernandel, Raimu, etc.), rugby commentator (Pierre Albaladejo) and food critic are exceptions to these persistent stereotypes. Conversely, in other fields (media and politics, for example), we find fewer people with strong southern, Alsatian or Corsican accents. Some examples include the political journalist Jean-Michel Apathie, philosopher Michel Serres and member of parliament Jean Lassalle.
Glottophobie (from the Greek glotta, meaning “language”), or linguistic discrimination, is a way of rejecting all accents that do not correspond to standard French, which the Parisian elites are said to have made sacred in a bid to maintain their power. A lack of education and seriousness, negative perceptions of rural life: these are some of the prejudices that regional accents face compared with the standard language.
What about neighbouring countries? Things are different in Spain, because languages other than Castilian (standard Spanish) have official status in some of the autonomous regions, while in France, French continues to be the working language in government, the legal system, at universities, and so on. In addition to Castilian, which is the official language of Spain, there are regional languages such as Galician (spoken in Galicia), Asturian (Asturias), Basque (Spanish Basque Country), and Catalan. There’s also Madrileño (spoken in Madrid) as well as other dialects used in Andalucía and the Canary Islands.
Our neighbours over the Alps also speak a huge number of languages in addition to Italian. In fact, it’s impossible to calculate just how many, since the language can vary from town to town and even village to village! The main varieties include Sicilian, Sardinian, Friulian (Friuli, Venetia), Ladin (South Tyrol), Occitan (Piedmont, Liguria, Calabria) and Neapolitan. In the Aosta Valley, they even speak French, and in Bolzano, many locals use German.