Today, French is spoken in 29 countries by 270 million people, making it one of the most spoken languages on the planet. Naturally, with so many speakers there are hundreds of dialects of French, some of which are more well spoken than others…
For the purposes of this article, we will only focus on the 11 most spoken dialects, eg. those you are the most likely to come across!
11. Standard French
According to the Académie Française (the official regulator of the French language) Standard French, or the dialect of French that serves as the official language of France, is the standard variant of the French language.
When the Romans conquered Gaul (France) they brought their language with. For the elites, they spoke Classical Latin, whilst the peasants spoke Vulgar Latin – a combination of Classical Latin and the local Gaulish languages.
Over centuries, the French dialect of Vulgar Latin spoken around the French capital of Paris evolved into what we now call Standard French (sometimes called Parisian French), which became the official language of France in 1539.
To begin with, Standard French was only spoken by the upper classes or those involved in national trade, commerce or the military, with the vast majority of the population
Eventually, however, standardization happened across France. This changed the dialect of French most people spoke from the regional dialect their ancestors had spoken for centuries, to Standard French.
Standard French was also the dialect of French spread to the world during the time of the various French Empires too!
All in all, Standard French is the most spoken dialect of French, having around 85 million speakers, most of whom are located in France and Europe as a whole. Standard French is also the dialect of French usually taught as a second language too.
Chances are, if you take a French class in an English-speaking country that hasn’t also got French as an official or regional language, you’ll learn Standard French.
10. Benelux French
Yet it isn’t just France where French is spoken in Europe. Indeed, neighboring countries like Belgium, Luxembourg and to an extent, the Netherlands, otherwise known as the Benelux countries, all have large French-speaking communities.
Indeed, in both Belgium and Luxembourg, French is one of the official languages, and whilst the French-speaking community in Netherlands has no official recognition, the French language is held in high esteem by the Dutch people.
Yet, due to being surrounded by non-Romance languages such as Dutch, Luxembourgish and others, these languages have begun to influence the French spoken in the Benelux countries.
Replacing French words with Dutch or Luxembourgish ones, or changing how French words are pronounced, Benelux French is extremely odd for Standard French speakers to listen to (and vice-versa of course!)
Whilst many linguists prefer the term Benelux French, it is also known as Belgian French due to Belgium having the largest proportion (and total number) of French speakers of all three Benelux countries.
Today, Benelux/Belgian French is spoken by around 10 million people as either a first or second language (as Belgian French is a compulsory second language taught in the non-French speaking parts of Belgium).
9. Swiss French
Being surrounded by the linguistic giants of France, Germany and Italy, Switzerland speaks all of their languages (plus Romansh). However, over time, the Swiss people have developed their own dialects of French, Italian and German…
Despite Standard French officially being the dialect of French spoken in Switzerland, outside of the Swiss government, most people speak Swiss French.
Whilst there are French speakers dotted throughout Switzerland, the overwhelming majority are located in the west, specifically in the country’s westernmost linguistic region, Romandy.
Influenced by neighboring dialects of Franco-Provençal (primarily Arpitan), as well as Standard and Swiss German, and to a lesser extent, Swiss Italian, Swiss French is very much the “odd one out” when it comes to the European dialects of French.
Most famously, this has influenced the Swiss French counting system.
In Standard French the numbers “seventy”, “eighty” and “ninety” are soixante-dix, quatre-vingt and quatre-vingt-dix respectively. In Swiss French however, they’re septante, huitante and nonante (following on from quarante, cinqante and soixante respectively).
Beyond influencing their counting system, Swiss French is also pronounced slightly differently with their being a large number of German and Italian-influenced words in Swiss French, with their also being a number of words in Swiss French wholly unique to Swiss French!
Today, Swiss French is spoken by around 4.5 million people in Switzerland, as either a first or second language (as the non-French-speaking parts of Switzerland learn Standard/Swiss French at school).
8. Aostan French
What many don’t realize, is that when it comes to Europe, French isn’t just spoken in France. Beyond being spoken in France (obviously), Switzerland and Belgium, it’s also spoken in Italy – primarily the Aosta Valley in the north of the country.
Due in part to the region’s proximity to France (by that, I mean the Aosta Valley borders France) as well as French occupations of the valley from 1539 until 1563, French had long been an important cultural and trade language in the valley.
Indeed, even before French occupation, in 1536, the Aosta Valley declared French to be its official language, replacing Latin. What’s even better is that they did it three years before France declared French to be their official language!
Serving as the official language of the region, many of those who didn’t speak the language soon learned it. From here, it wasn’t long until local dialects of Franco-Provençal and Italian began to influence the language.
Over time, certain French words and phrases were replaced by Franco-Provençal and Italian ones, or were at least made to look like them.
Despite it once being the most spoken language in the Aosta Valley, Aostan French is still pretty well spoken, with approximately 65,000 people, almost all of whom are located in the Aosta Valley.
7. Acadian French
6. Quebecoise French
Perhaps the most famous dialect of French besides Standard French, Quebecoise French (sometimes known as Quebec French or just Quebecoise) is of course, the predominant dialect of French spoken in Canada.
Most spoken in the Canadian province of Quebec where it is the sole official language, Quebecoise French is also spoken in the province of New Brunswick too, where it has co-official status alongside English.
Despite the Canadian Constitution not making any reference to which dialect of French is the official dialect in Canada, most Canadians view Quebecoise French as the official dialect, with this being the one usually used in government, education, healthcare and so on.
Originally descended from various French dialects spoken by the first French colonists to the New World,
Today, there are roughly six million speakers of Quebecoise French in Canada, making up a considerable majority of all the French speakers in Canada (nearly eight million in total).
5. Ontario French
4. Louisiana French
Whilst France is most famous for its former holdings in what’s now Canada, France also colonized much of the land west of the Thirteen Colonies also as a part of their New France colony.
Bringing over thousands of French colonists to colonize what they called Louisiana, these French colonists spoke various regional dialects of French, which made communication between colonists from different regions somewhat difficult to begin with.
Eventually, due in part to intermarriage, but also the relative seclusion from the rest of the French-speaking world (it was only the people who worked on the docks in the major cities in French Louisiana who regularly met Frenchmen, the Louisianans formed their own dialect of French.
Not getting any language “updates” (eg. receiving new words) from France, Louisiana French soon began to introduce words, terms and phrases from various Native American languages, as that was who they regularly traded with.
Joined by a steady stream of Acadian-speaking Acadians starting in 1755, the Acadian French dialect soon began to influence Louisiana French – although not as much as linguists previously thought – with some Acadian words and phrases entering Louisiana French.
Once spoken by almost everyone in Louisiana, the adoption of English as the de facto language of the United States saw a huge reduction in the number of speakers of Louisiana French.
Hoping to fix this, there has been a significant revival of the language in recent years, to the point where there are 150,000 and 200,000 Louisiana French speakers in the US!
3. African French
Quite famously, as a part of their colonial ambitions, France colonized large parts of Africa. Here, French was naturally the language of the French colonizers, who often tried to spread the French language to the natives.
Though there was a lot of resistance from the African populace who wanted to continue speaking the languages their families had spoken for millennia, the French ultimately won, with many native Africans learning French.
Beginning to speak it at home, these native Africans began mixing French with the language they’d spoken for years, creating literally thousands of dialects of French, many of which only have a few hundred speakers located in one small village.
Combined, all of these African dialects of French are known as African French, and can be found as far north as Algeria and Morocco, as far west as Mauritania and Senegal, as far south as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and as far east as Madagascar and Somalia.
As it encompasses more than half of the African continent, there is naturally a lot of variation in the different dialects.
Common features of these dialects include: replacing French words with their African counterparts, hypercorrection (changing the meaning of a French word) and “Africanizing” French words to sound more like a native African one.
Spoken across 36 countries that have a total combined population of 442 million people, African French is spoken by roughly 140 million people (although some claim it’s only 120-130 million).
2. Maghreb French
Although it’s also spoken on the African continent, Maghreb French isn’t to be confused with African French (even though their borders do overlap).
Spoken across the Maghreb in North Africa, Maghreb French is spoken in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco (including Western Sahara), Mauritania and Libya by around 25 million people.
Similarly spoken across a vast area, there are hundreds of tiny sub-dialects of Maghreb French. Despite this, there are recurring themes that occur in almost all of these sub-dialects…
Primarily, there are a lot of Arabic and Berber words and phrases that have either replaced their French counterparts. In recent years, there has also been a growing trend of joining Arabic/Berber words with French ones to create brand new words, which is quite cool!
Needless to say, their accent is also different, as is the way they pronounce words, with Maghreb French being less nasally than Standard French and more “in the back of your throat” like Arabic and Berber are, making it sound a lot less like French.
Interestingly, despite French being held as a prestige language in places like Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, the Maghreb French dialect is actually viewed more positively than Standard French is.
It’s also Maghreb French that is the dialect of French given official recognition in these countries too!
1. Haitian French
Beyond the French Colonial Empire’s holdings in North America, they also followed the example of the British and Spanish by colonizing islands in the Caribbean. For the French, the crown jewel of their Caribbean holdings was Haiti.
Then called Saint-Domingue, the colony was known for its sugar and coffee production. Built using slave labor brought over from France’s colonies in Africa, these slaves spoke literally hundreds of different African languages and often couldn’t understand one another.
As time progressed, these slaves begun to form creole languages based on the various African languages they spoke plus some French. Some slaves learned, or were even taught French by their masters so they could be of more value.
Even after rising up against their French masters and declaring independence, French remained as the administrative language of the country. And this is something that continues to this day.
What distinguishes it from Standard French is the intonations. Due to the African languages spoken by their ancestors, Haitians pronounce French words, phrases and sentences in hugely different manners.
Beyond this, a few French words have been replaced by creole words too, although younger people are beginning to phase out these creole words in favor of the French ones they replaced in order to seem more “proper”.
All in all, around 560,000 people, mostly in Haiti speak the Haitian French dialect.
Which are your favorite dialects of French? Which one do you speak? Tell me in the comments!