Minority languages in France -- An overview

In France, you only speak French? Here you will learn that this is not true and which languages are spoken apart from French.

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Mireille is Parisian. She loves this city and also her country. She also likes the French language very much, so she decides to study French. At university, she has to take a course called "Regional Languages and Cultures in France". Mireille is surprised. After all, French is the only language spoken in France. Maybe a few more dialects. Her friend from the south has an accent that is very different from hers. Maybe that's what they mean, she thinks. In the end, however, the course has very little to do with that and takes Mireille on a journey through many different languages, some of which have very little in common with French.

A lecturer I met at the beginning of my studies described exactly this situation to me. She thought that only French was spoken in France. She just found out years later that this was not true. Now, you can find out which languages are spoken in France apart from French.

Allochthonous and autochthonous languages in France

First of all, I'm sure I'll hear that there are migrants living in France, too. They speak a language other than French (at least in the first generation). You are right. Minority languages that are spoken in a country in the present or in the near past due to migration are called allochthonous languages. In France, for example, these include Arabic. Then there are also historical minority languages, which were often spoken within a country before the expansion of the Roman Empire. These are called autochthonous languages. In this article, I will confine myself to the latter. 

The language policy in France

First of all, a few sentences about the language policy in France. It is quite restrictive. Article 2 of the French Constitution of 1985 states that the official language is French. French is therefore the only official language of the state. Some activists proposed to amend this sentence to include minority languages. However, this amendment was never accepted. In 2008, the Constitution was revised and Article 75-1 was added, stating that minority languages are part of the French cultural heritage. In countries like Spain, the minority languages have a co-official status that allows the language communities more autonomy. Back to France: here, too, there are autochthonous minority languages you will find below. I have selected varieties that almost all have the status of a language. However, there are also varieties in France whose status is disputed. You can read more about the language-dialect problem here.

Returning to the minority languages in France. I will only touch on each language here. Actually, one could write a separate article, if not several dissertations, on each language.


We certainly all know him: Asterix the Gaul, created by Albert Uderzo and René Goscinny. He and his village have been resisting the Romans for years. All invented? Well, in purely linguistic terms, Breton is a Celtic language that continues to be spoken and apparently has not yet given way to French. However, Breton is a highly endangered language. Moreover, it is not an ancient Celtic language, but a language brought from Britain in the 5th century. So the story about Asterix is only partly true. However, this language was suppressed even without the Romans. For example, during the Third Republic, when the language was almost banned. It is estimated that only a little more than 100,000 speakers still speak Breton today. The language flourished again in the 1950s. It was the time after the Second World War and the time of finding identity. The traditional, peasant Fest Noz, the night songs in Breton with dances after work was done, was modernised. However, this episode prevailed only briefly. In the seventies and into the eighties, however, there was a renewed search for identity and numerous Fest Noz took place, also for political reasons. Musicians like Alan Stivell sang old Breton songs and composed new ones. However, the first language of these musicians was mostly French and not Breton.

Nowadays, Breton is taught in some state schools as well as in private Christian schools. There is also the possibility of lessons in Breton. There is also the possibility of taking numerous courses online. In addition, there are regional television and radio stations in Breton. It remains to be seen how the language and its situation will develop. The internet is certainly a suitable medium to draw attention to Breton and to contribute to its preservation. Below I show you an excerpt from the Our Father in Breton.

(1) Hon Tad,   a     zo         en neñv: 

      Our father REL you-are in heaven

(A small note: this is of course not a correct translation, but an interlinear gloss. I will explain this in more detail in another article).


Many French people do not even know that there is also Catalonia on French territory. Catalan is spoken there in Roussillon. Unlike in Spain, Catalan has no official status there. For this reason, it is difficult to determine the number of speakers. The golden age of the Catalan language was in the Middle Ages. It was the first Romance language in which scientific and philosophical issues were recorded.

Catalan is a Romance language closely related to Occitan, which will be briefly examined in the following section. Some Romance scholars have also considered Catalan to be a dialect of Occitan. Obviously, Catalan shares its origin with Occitan in every case. In no case is it, as some non-specialists believe, a dialect of Spanish. Romance linguists disagree as to whether Catalan is an Ibero-Romance or a Gallo-Romance language. Others, however, see it as a bridge language between the two families. Here too, by way of illustration, an excerpt from the Our Father.  

(2) Pare    nostre que esteu     en el   cel,

     Father our      REL you-are in DEF heaven.


I had already briefly mentioned Occitan in connection with Catalan, which is very similar to it. This language also flourished in the Middle Ages. Troubadours wrote their poetry in Occitan. Occitan was also overlaid by French in the course of the beginning centralisation by Louis XIV. Its revival proved difficult. Occitan is also a Romance language. In the literature, one also finds the term Provençal, which I do not use here so as not to confuse Occitan with Franco-Provençal. However, there is a Provençal dialect of Occitan. In addition, this language has a number of other dialects, such as Gascon, where it is questionable whether this is a language or a dialect. But again, as we know, it's not that simple. Let's look at an extract from the Occitan Our Father:

(3) Paire  nòstre qu’ es          dins lo     cèl

     Father our    REL you-are in     DEF heaven

For comparison, here is also the Gascon version:

(4) Pair    noste qui ès         dens lo    ceu

     Father our   REL you-are in     DEF heaven

Please note that this is only a small extract. With such a small amount of language data, it is very difficult to judge whether Gascon is really a language of its own or a dialect of Occitan.


Who still remembers the film Welcome to the Sticks? This one is set in Bergues and deals, among other things, with the Picardy dialect in northern France. The outcry was great, however. Flemish is spoken in this town. Oh yes, Flemish is also spoken in France. Not only in Belgium. But what is Flemish actually? It is a Dutch dialect, a West Germanic language. You can find very little on this.


I have already briefly dealt with Corsican in my article on the subject of language dialect. Corsican is also a Romance language. The language community has a strong linguistic awareness. Otherwise, Corsican is closely related to Italian. For a long time, Corsica was under Tuscan rule. Italian was also the official language during the short period of the Corsican Republic (1755-1769). Afterwards, the island was sold to France and had to subordinate itself to the French central state. Accordingly, French became the official language. Corsican is also taught in schools. Nevertheless, Corsican is also a potentially endangered language. Only 2% of speakers pass their language on to future generations. Most Corsicans are in favour of official bilingualism in Corsica. However, this is difficult due to the restrictive language policy of the central state and the poor social situation on the island. The preservation of the language therefore depends on the personal commitment of the individual. (Maybe Alugha can help here?)

(5) Patre nostru chì sì in celu.

And now, to underline the similarity to Italian, I show the same example in that language.

(6) Padre nostro che sei nei cieli.


This is also a Romance language. The designations for this language vary, as no standard language developed here. All dialects in French-speaking Switzerland are Franco-Provençal ones. The French state does not recognise Franco-Provençal as a regional language. It is taught in some schools in Savoie.


The status of Alsatian as a regional language is disputed. At university, I was told it had the status of a language, but now I have also found that it is a dialect. But, as we already know, it is not always so easy to distinguish between a language and a dialect. If Alsatian is a dialect, it is definitely a dialect of German and not of French. The term "Alsatian" covers various dialects that can be classified as Alemannic as well as Rhine-Franconian, Palatine dialects. Alugha is known to be based in Mannheim. This city is very Palatine in character, even though it is officially on Baden-Württemberg territory. I myself know older people from the Palatinate who like to change their Palatinate a little in dialogue with older people from the Alsace and communicate in their dialect. Alsatian dialects are definitely understood by them. The younger generation, however, speaks mainly French.


The term "Lorrain(e)" covers two varieties that should not be confused with each other. Firstly, there is Romance Lorrain, which (like so many varieties) is sometimes regarded as a language in its own right, sometimes as a dialect of French. Due to its proximity to Germanic varieties, one finds numerous Germanic influences in this variety. On the other hand, there is also Lorraine Franconian, which is a collective term for all Rhine and Moselle Franconian dialects spoken in Lorraine. Here, too, I learned at university that it was a language. Let's leave it at the collective term for different dialects.

As for Alsatian and Lorraine Franconian, it may be left to the reader to wonder why I have not brought the two varieties under one heading, which I have simply called "German". After all, the situation is similar. The question is a good one and I cannot answer it unequivocally. It is perhaps because the status of language-dialect is so controversial.


Basque, however, is indisputably a language. It is probably the minority language here that is most interesting for linguists. Basque is in fact an isolated language. That is, it is not related to any other language known to humankind. Nobody knows where it came from. There are several more such isolated languages in the world. Basque is one that is spoken in Europe. There are numerous theories about where Basque may have come from. However, a satisfactory answer has not yet been found. At the university where I studied, you could learn Basque. It is one of the few German universities where this is possible. Basque is often simply included in Romance studies, because it was and is in close contact with other Romance languages. Other universities pack Basque into Caucasian Studies because it was once assumed to be a Caucasian language. However, this hypothesis is considered to be disproved.

Back to Basque as such: in France, Basque is spoken in two of the total of seven provinces of the Basque Country, namely in the provinces of Labourd (Basque Lapurdi) and Soule (Basque Zuberoa, Xiberoa, depending on the variety). Basque is also taught in the French Basque Country and in Basque. However, this is done to a lesser extent than in Spain. In the latter state, Basque has been standardised. This variety is called euskara batua (unified Basque) and is predominant in the Spanish Basque Country because there are many neo-speakers of Basque. In the following, I show an extract from The Little Prince in euskara batua and in Souletin Basque.

(7) Ene marrazkiak ez    zuen              kapelu bat     erakusten.

     My  drawing      NEG AUX.PST.3SG hat      INDEF show

     'My drawing didn't depict a hat.'

(8) Ene marrazkiak ez züan txapel bat agertzen.

A glance overseas

Let's now venture beyond mainland France and look at the French overseas territories. Among other languages, Creole languages are spoken there. In colonial times, there was strong language contact between French and the language of the respective colony. Most of the vocabulary was taken over from the Romance language. The grammar was initially greatly reduced and then took on a development of its own. Creole languages also exist on the basis of other languages. So-called pidgin languages are considered a precursor to a Creole language. These always arose out of an emergency situation. Creole languages eventually became mother tongues with an autonomous language structure. Furthermore, numerous other autochthonous languages are spoken in the overseas territories.

What is hardly noticed, what one finds little about, but what nevertheless deserves attention

Little is known in France about the linguistic situation of the two languages I will mention last. Nevertheless, both languages deserve to be mentioned briefly. One is Yiddish, the language of Ashkenazi Jews, whose number of speakers has declined sharply. Another language that should be mentioned briefly here is Romani, the language of the Sinti*zze and Rom*nja. This is an Indo-Aryan language.

I may have forgotten other autochthonous languages. Nevertheless, I hope that I have been able to give a small overview here.

Did you know that so many languages are spoken in France?







Gabriel, Christoph & Meisenburg, Trudel (2007): Romanische Sprachwissenschaft, Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink (including the examples from the Our Father)

https://www.arte.tv/de/videos/093478-000-A/fest-noz-jahrtausendealte-bretonische-gesaenge/ (17.05.2021, 09:16)

https://www.fr.brezhoneg.bzh/4-histoire.htm (17.05.2021, 09:19)

https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korsische_Sprache (17.05.2021, 09:18)

https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lothringisch_(fr%C3%A4nkisch) (17.05.2021, 09:14)

https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lothringisch_(romanisch) (17.05.2021, 09:15)

https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sprachen_in_Frankreich (17.05.2021, 09:13)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmJVBhKsSN0&list=LL&index=1 (17.05.2021, 09:17)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dMC62S4yHgA (17.05.2021, 09:20)


Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Printze txikia.2001. Donostia elkar Ediciones Salamandra, translated by Patxi Zubizarreta                                   

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Printze ttipia. 2013.Mauléon: Sü Azia, unknown translator

Photo credit: Tom Sekula via unsplash

Ein kleiner Nachtrag. Nachdem ich veröffentlicht habe, fiel mir auf, dass ich gar nicht auf Italienische eingegangen bin. Zudem habe ich die Sprache der jenischen Bevölkerung vergessen. Auch hierzu findet man, vor allem wenn es speziell um Frankreich geht, sehr wenig. Ich möchte es dennoch erwähnen, denn es gehört dazu und niemand darf verloren gehen.

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