Introductions to Languages

Introduction to French

French has several sounds that do not exist in English.

Some key things to keep in mind when pronouncing French include the distinction between nasal and oral vowels, silent letters, and the use of diacritical marks such as the acute accent (é) and cedilla (ç). It is also important to be aware of the different intonations and stress patterns used in French, which can change the meaning of a word. It is recommended to practice with a native speaker or an experienced teacher to improve your French pronunciation.

There are several sounds in French that can be challenging for English speakers to learn. These include:

  • The French “r” sound, which is trilled at the back of the mouth and has no equivalent in English: “rouge” (meaning red).
  • The “u” sound in French is pronounced with the lips rounded, similar to the “oo” sound in “boo”: “lunettes” (meaning glasses).
  • The “eu” sound, which is pronounced like the “e” in “hey”: “peu” (meaning little).
  • The “oi” sound, which is pronounced like the “wa” sound in “water”: “soirée” (meaning evening).
  • French “h” is usually silent, except in some regional accents: “hôtel” (meaning hotel).
  • The French “c” sound, before the vowel “e” or “i”, is pronounced “s”: “célèbre” (meaning famous). (The cedilla ç also indicates that it is pronounced as “s”.)
  • The French “g” sound, before the vowel “e” or “i”, is pronounced “zh” like “général” = “zhene-ral”, and “génie” (meaning genius).
  • The nasal vowels in French: “an”, “en”, “on”, “in”, “un”, are pronounced with a nasal resonance: “enfant” (meaning child).


The acute accent (mentioned above) on a letter (é) indicates that the vowel is pronounced like in “de” or “du”: “été” (meaning summer). It is pronounced “ey-te” with the accent on the first “e”. “Fête” (meaning party) and is pronounced “feht”.

The grave accent (è) indicates a close-mid front vowel sound as in “célèbre” already used above.

The circumflex (^) sometimes indicates a vowel change and sometimes it’s used to differentiate two otherwise-the-same words. For example “pâte” (meaning dough) and “pate” (meaning paste).

The diaeresis (¨) indicates two vowels are pronounced separately, as in “naïf” (meaning naive).

The apostrophe (’) indicates the elision of a vowel sound or the contraction of words, as in “l’arbre” (meaning the tree) or “j’ai” (meaning I have).

The french accent marks are just to show pronunciation of the vowel (or “c”) (or to visually distinguish two words). French does not use stress marks the same way that Spanish does. In French the stress patterns are more predictable, and the stress is usually on the last syllable of a word. The exception to this rule is some words that have a prefix or an ending that change the stress position, and some words that are borrowed from other languages.

“La soirée à l’hôtel célèbre fut un véritable génie, tout le monde était vêtu de rouge et portait des lunettes, même les enfants peu nombreux étaient habillés avec élégance. C’était une fête d’été inoubliable.”

“The evening at the famous hotel was a real genius, everyone was dressed in red and wore glasses, even the few children were dressed elegantly. It was an unforgettable summer party.”

Emmanuel Macron

Eau (water)
Beurre (butter)
Vous (you)
Oiseau (bird)
Croissant (croissant)
Garçon (boy)
Souvenir (memory)
Baguette (baguette)
Apéritif (aperitif)
Château (castle)
Bureau (desk)
Amitié (friendship)


There are some words in English that French speakers may have difficulty pronouncing, such as

  • The “th” sound, as in the word “think” or “bath”, which does not exist in French. French speakers may substitute the sound with a “t” or “d” sound
  • The “w” sound, as in the word “water” or “what”, which also does not exist in French, French speakers may substitute the sound with a “v” sound
  • Some English words that have a silent letter or letters that French speakers may have trouble with, for example: “knee”, “knife” or “gnat”
  • English words with multiple syllables, French speakers may struggle with separating syllables, or the stress pattern, for example “difficulty”, “recommendation”, or “photographer”

Thorough (adj, complètement et soigneusement)
Through (adj, fait ou terminé)
Wasp (nom, insecte piqueur)
Clothes (nom, choses portées pour couvrir le corps)
Schedule (nom, plan des choses à faire)
Psychology (nom, la science de l’esprit et du comportement)
Conscience (nom, sens moral d’une personne)
Entrepreneur (nom, personne qui démarre une entreprise)
Difficulty (nom, l’état ou la qualité de ce qui est difficile)

Discombobulate (verb, confusion, perturbation)
Disrespectfulness (nom, manque de respect, discourtoisie)
Incomprehensibility (nom, état d’être incompréhensible, indéchiffrable)
Antidisestablishmentarianism (nom, opposition à la suppression de l’établissement religieux)


French was used as the language of diplomacy at the European courts in the 17th and 18th centuries, and it was also the language of the elite in many countries, particularly in Europe and Latin America, before the 20th century.

Additionally, French is one of the official languages of international organizations like the United Nations, the European Union and the Olympics, which made it more popular to learn it.

For linguists, “Old French” did not emerge until the 10th century in the North of France. Before that, there were regions within the area of modern France with different dialects such as Ripuarian (between the South of Belgium and the West of Germany) Moselle Franconian (Luxemburg and surrounding area) and Frankish (Netherlands, Belgium and part of Germany and Elzas). (In Luxemburg they still speak some kind of mix between German and French.)


France as a political entity began to take shape in the 9th century, during the Carolingian Empire, which was ruled by the Frankish king Charlemagne and his line (Franks were a Germanic Tribe, originally from the Rhine River Valley, who started emigrating to Gaul during the 5th Century, and Charlemagne spoke the “Old High German” of the Rhine (and during his reign wanted people to compose in both Latin and this Old High German). These Franks who consolidated power over the region roughly became the modern French, but not with their birth language but with the “Vulgar Latin” already being spoken in the land they emigrated to, although this language was of course heavily influenced by the Old High German of this reign.

(For those coming to this history for the first time, Yes, although we think of France as very distinct from Germany, back in those days the Franks were a Germanic people who migrated westward into Gaulish territories and over time consolidated control over a large territory (including what today is modern France), but the Germanic language they spoke didn’t continue in France into the Medieval Period. Most of France spoke a Gaulish version(s) of Latin developed during the Roman Empire (Roman Gaul, Gauls being the same as Celts) and it held in high esteem pure Latin which it used for scholarship and officialdom. From these languages, modified over time by changes in population, power and influences, French as we know it evolved while German and Latin saw less and less use. Writing also played a part. In 813 the Council of Tours instructed the clergy to translate their sermons in to the ‘rustic’ Romance language of northern Frankia. This is the language that evolved into French.)

In German the word for France is Frankreich.


French became a language in England after the Norman Conquest 1066, the language of the rulers (kings were not fluent in English again until the 13th Century) and landed emigrants which a few decades after the Conquest made up around 10% of the English population. By accounts, English spoke English and Normans spoke Norman, and they spoke each others’ languages to communicate between them.

“Ore devez saveir que en Bretaigne, ki ore est apelee Engletere, orent ja cinc languages e si vus dirai ques il sunt: Bretoneis e Engleis e Schoteis, Picteis e Latineis – ore i est la sime que l’om apele Normand e Francés – les ques sunt fait comuns a plusurs par la doctrine des anciens escriz.” – from Henry of Huntingdon’s “Historia Anglorum” c. 1157

“You should also know that in Britain, which is now called England, there were five languages and I will tell you what they are: Breton and English and Scottish, Pictish and Latin – now there is the sixth that is called Norman and French – which were known by many people through the teaching of old texts.”

While the ruling class didn’t need English for themselves and though French was the language of prestige, the clergy realized that the only way to reach the common people was (similar to the resolution in the Council of Tours) to learn English.

By 1300, due to changes in politics and power (loss of Normandy to France 1204, Baron’s War the decade around 1260), French was a foreign language in England again. It was taught in some schools. (The first phrasebook for learning French was written by Gauter de Biblesworth around 1250.)

However, French permeated and was used as a source for new language in English. During the Middle English Period, thousands of French words entered English (at least in written language). Between 1350 and 1400 20% of new English words were from French. “Canturbury Tales” reached it’s final form around 1400, and over half of the vocabulary is French. Chaucer is, note, the first writer and poet in “vernacular English.”

English, French and Latin

It is estimated that 45% of English vocabulary comes from French (others say 30%). Around 25% of English words come from Germanic origins (Old Saxon). 60% of English words come from Latin, Greek or French.

About 10% of French today is from Frankish German. 85% is from Latin. Very little is from Celtic (although more than in English).

The most commonly used French words and their origins:

Fréq.   Nature      Mot     Origine
1050561 (dét.)      le      Latin
862100  (prép.)     de      Latin
419564  (dét.)      un      Latin
351960  (verbe)     être    Latin
362093  (conj.)     et      Latin
293083  (prép.)     à       Latin
270395  (pron.)     il      Latin
248488  (verbe)     avoir   Latin
186755  (adv.)      ne      Latin
184186  (pron.)     je      Latin
181161  (dét.)      son     Latin
176161  (conj.)     que     Latin
168684  (pron.)     se      Latin
148392  (pron.)     qui     Latin
141389  (dét.)      ce      Latin
139185  (prép.)     dans    Latin
143565  (prép.)     en      Latin
127384  (dét.)      du      Latin
126397  (pron.)     elle    Latin
123502  (dét.)      au      Latin
119106  (dét.)      de      Latin
107074  (pron.)     ce      Latin
105873  (pron.)     le      Latin
104779  (prép.)     pour    Latin
103083  (adv.)      pas     Latin
99412   (pron.)     que     Latin
89623   (pron.)     vous    Latin
82277   (prép.)     par     Latin
80180   (prép.)     sur     Latin
77608   (verbe)     faire   Latin
75499   (adv.)      plus    Latin
72134   (verbe)     dire    Latin
71086   (pron.)     me      Latin
70246   (pron.)     on      Latin
70121   (dét.)      mon     Latin
65988   (pron.)     lui     Latin
62554   (pron.)     nous    Latin
59902   (conj.)     comme   Latin
57690   (conj.)     mais    Latin
55394   (verbe)     pouvoir Latin
55081   (prép.)     avec    Latin
47221   (adj.)      tout    Latin
46031   (pron.)     y       Latin
41702   (verbe)     aller   Latin
39659   (verbe)     voir    Latin
38935   (pron.)     en      Latin
37171   (adv.)      bien    Latin
36089   (pron.)     où      Latin
35915   (prép.)     sans    Latin
35774   (pron.)     tu      Latin
34897   (conj.)     ou      Latin
33950   (dét.)      leur    Latin
33202   (subst.)    homme   Latin
32024   (adv.)      si      Latin
30211   (numér.)    deux    Latin
30082   (subst.)    mari    Latin
30053   (pron.)     moi     Latin
29435   (verbe)     vouloir Latin
28542   (pron.)     te      Latin
26148   (subst.)    femme   Latin
26023   (verbe)     venir   Latin
25592   (conj.)     quand   Latin
25388   (adj.)      grand   Latin
24270   (pron.)     celui   Latin
24024   (conj.)     si      Latin
23883   (dét.)      notre   Latin
22703   (verbe)     devoir  Latin
22695   (adv.)      là      Latin
22232   (subst.)    jour    Latin
20489   (verbe)     prendre Latin
19994   (adv.)      même    Latin
19942   (dét.)      votre   Latin
19915   (adv.)      tout    Latin
19379   (pron.)     rien    Latin