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The Global French Language Landscape

French is spoken by approximately 129 million people or about 3% of the world's population. In France there are approximately 58 million people who speak French whereas in the province of Quebec the number is closer to 7 million. The other 71 million people who speak French are scattered about the planet.

Standard French (in French: le français standard, le français neutre or even le français international)

This is an unofficial term for a standard variety of the French Language. It is a set of spoken and written formal varieties used by the educated francophones of several nations around the world.

As French is a pluricentric language, Standard French comprises various linguistic norms (consisting of prescribed usage). In France, Standard French is based on the pronunciation and vocabulary used in the formal registers of the French of Metropolitan France, dominated by Paris and called "Parisian French" while not taking into account the multiple other registers used daily in the nation's capital.

In Quebec, Standard French is more often called "international French" or "Radio Canada French". In the rest of Francophone Canada, the spoken and written varieties of formal Quebec French as well as language in Government of Canada documents and speeches are viewed as Standard French. Linguists have been debating what actually constitutes the norm for Standard French in Quebec and Canada on a lexical level...

Popular opinion, however, contends that Standard French should consist solely of the rulings by the Académie Française in France, or in standardization from terminological work by the Office Québécois de la langue française in Quebec.

Standard French versus Canadian French

French varies mostly in its spoken form from country to country. The colloquial language also varies (slangs, youth language, etc.), but for the rest, for the most part French is French.

An educated French native speaker will understand most of the nuances that are in use in the other French-speaking countries. Inter-intelligibility of formally and informally spoken Quebec French with Metropolitan French is a matter of heated debates between linguists. If a comparison can be made, the differences between both dialects are probably larger than those between American and British, but not as large as those between standard German and Swiss German.

Spelling and Grammar – Formal Language

Only differences in vocabulary present any problems. If the target market is the whole world, it is virtually impossible to address all of the local nuances. A typical example is the way natives say "dishtowel" in Standard French versus in Belgium. In France, the word is torchon, while speakers in Belgium and Quebec would use this word to describe a piece of cloth used to wash floors.

It follows that the targeting of a specific nationality would require the use of a native linguist or translator, but that's hardly the end of it. Quebec French is very different from Parisian French, but then again,
 Marseilles French is a world away from Paris French, and they originate
 from the same country!

A notable difference in grammar which received considerable attention in France during the 1990s is the feminine form of many professions, which traditionally did not have a feminine form. In Quebec, one writes nearly universally une chercheure "a researcher", whereas in France, un chercheur and, more recently, une chercheur and une chercheuse, are used.

There are other, sporadic spelling differences. For example, the Office Québécois de la langue française recommends the spelling tofou for what is in France "tofu". In grammar, the adjective "Inuit" is invariable in France but, according to official recommendations in Quebec, has regular feminine and plural forms.

However, for highly technical texts, the differences diminish, as most terms carry the same meaning in all the French-speaking countries. Most accept and freely use some English technical terms, while Canadians prefer to translate everything into French. It's common knowledge that Quebecers show a stronger aversion to the use of anglicisms, in formal contexts than do European francophones, largely because of what the influence of English on their language is held to reveal about the historically superior position of anglophones in Canadian society.

It's also worth noting that language evolves with usage and that international norms can be influenced by Quebec French. As an example, the Office Québécois de la langue française has published many dictionaries and terminological guidelines since the 1960s, effectively allowing many canadianismes or québécismes (French words local to Canada or Quebec) that describe specifically North American realities. It also creates new, morphologically well-formed words to describe technological evolutions to which the Académie Française, the equivalent body governing French language in France, is extremely slow to react. An example is the word courriel (a contraction of courrier électronique), the Canadian French term for e-mail, which is now widely used in France.

The Legal Landscape

Bill 101 in Quebec and other language legislation in that province have an impact on where and how French must be used. In business, the legislative impact is felt on product labeling, advertising (most notably public signage), communications and the provision of commercial services, but not the language of private communication.

Per the Constitution of France, French has been the official language since 1992. France mandates the use of French in official government publications, public education outside of specific cases (though these dispositions are often ignored) and legal contracts; advertisements must bear a translation of foreign words. In France, all matters concerning the orthography, grammar, vocabulary and use of the French language have been governed by the Académie Française since the mid 17th century.

Contrary to a common misunderstanding both in the American and British media, France does not prohibit the use of foreign words in websites nor in any other private publication, as that would violate the constitutional right of freedom of speech. The misunderstanding may have arisen from a similar prohibition in the Canadian province of Quebec which made strict application of the Charter of the French Language between 1977 and 1998.

Source: Significant sections of this article are excerpted from: Wikipedia: "Quebec French"
Also, of interest to readers of French, the section titled "Français" in the French version of Wikipedia is informative


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