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French & Reading: A Student's Guide to Francophone Literature & Language Learning

Regional & Minority Languages in France

A Breton-themed store in Rennes called ti Breiz, which means “Brittany House” in the Bretagne region of France, (2023). Photo credit: Nico David-Fox.

While French remains the sole national language of France, there are dozens of regional languages that are officially recognized by the government. These include Alsatian, Basque, Breton, Catalan, Corsican, Francoprovençal, Occitan, and the langues d’oïl, a dialect continuum composed of several northern dialects. France’s regional languages are very linguistically diverse—with the majority being Romance languages that derive from late forms of Latin. However, Alsatian is Germanic, Breton is Celtic, and Basque is considered to be a “language isolate,” meaning it is unrelated to other languages. These regional languages were (and are) traditionally spoken across France before the French government made efforts to restrict the use of regional languages and promote the use of French, hoping to unify the country through a common language. In 1539, François I signed the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts into law, mandating the use of French on all public documents. In 1882 the Jules Ferry laws established free, secular education in France but also prohibited the use of regional languages in schools. This is often thought to be the beginning of the decline of French regional languages in public settings. Since the second half of the 20th century, France has become increasingly more open to the use of its regional languages. In 2008, these languages were inscribed in the Constitution. France’s overseas territories have a large number of regional languages and dialects as well (New Caledonia alone has about thirty regional languages spoken by the native Kanaks) but they will not be covered in this guide, which is limited to continental France. For information on Walloon see the guide Belgium & Belgian Collections at the Library of Congress.

Visitors to France may not notice these other languages unless they are paying close attention, but once you know about them, you will see evidence of them all over France. Across the northwest region of Brittany, one can see signs, road markings, and shop names in Breton. In Avignon, all street names have both French and Occitan (more specifically the Provençal dialect) versions. In the southern regions, you might hear Basque or Catalan being spoken on the street. While all of France’s regional languages are in danger due to aging speaking populations and low transmission rates, increased efforts in recent years have made progress in preserving these rich and diverse languages. These efforts towards regional language rejuvenation include bi-lingual schools, regional language publications and community awareness efforts. Lo Diari, for example, is a magazine published entirely in the Occitan language that is meant to engage readers and promote the Occitan language and culture.

Avignon street signs in both French and Provençale, a dialect of Occitan spoken in the region of Provence, (2023). Photo credit: Nico David-Fox.

Another promising and exciting way to promote these languages is the translation of mainstream video games (jeux vidéo) into minority languages. The French take video games seriously; the Bibliothèque nationale de France even has a Libguide on the topic of jeux vidéo External. Video games are not only an excellent learning tool due to opportunities for audio and visual interactivity, but they tend to attract a younger crowd — which is the most vulnerable to loss of language fluency. Danís Chapduelh External (Chadeuil), editor-in-chief of the magazine Lo Diari, views the video game (le jeu vidéo) as a way to transmit knowledge, culture and language into the greater world and encourages the community translation of popular video games. He translated the game Stardew Valley into the Occitan language as Vau Serena External and incorporated cultural aspects including folkloric references and nuanced vocabulary. Another translation into a minority language is the horror game Mundaun External (2021) which takes place in the Swiss Alps. The dialogue in this starkly-drawn and eerie game is entirely in the Romansh language. Another game, Tchia External (2023) is inspired by the landscape and culture of New Caledonia. Aspects of the culture such as the concept of soul-jumping (where you can use your soul to inhabit animals) becomes an ability for players. Native speakers were used to record the New Caledonian language in the game adding to the authenticity. The game Dordogne External entirely in Occitan, is devoted to highlighting the linguistic diversity of this region. It has been warmly received by the video game community. For more information see Chapduelh's presentation on Making Minority Worlds External.

The procession of a Breton Festival, France. 1931. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The variety and history of regional languages in France is complex and would require much linguistic expertise to fully explain. One basic historical division is between the two dialect groups of medieval France: langue d'oïl which was used in roughly the northern half of France, and the langue d'oc which was used in the southern half of France. The langue d'oïl developed into standard French. Langue d'oc developed into Occitan and Provençal and was notably spoken and used by troubadours in the Middle Ages. These names derive from the words for "yes" — oui and oc — in each respective dialect. The Library of Congress contains some of the most comprehensive collections of scholarly works about these minority languages that can be found outside of France. In order to preserve linguistic heritage, an increased effort has also been made to collect more publications in these regional languages, including both classic and contemporary works. Some of the most widely-spoken regional languages are listed below. For further research please see the selected bibliographies of print works for these regional languages on each subpage. To get a sense of the range of the regional languages in metropolitan France it may help to refer to this map of French languages and dialects External.A collection of related online resources is below the general bibliography on regional languages.

  • Alsacien (Alsatian) -Considered by some to be a Germanic dialect and others to be its own language, Alsatian is widely spoken throughout the region of Alsace in eastern France. With an estimated 650,000 regular speakers, Alsatian is one of the most widely spoken regional languages in the country. Having been a part of both Germany and France, Alsace has been culturally and linguistically influenced by both countries. See printed works in and about Alsatian.
  • Basque -The only non-Indo-European regional language in France, Basque has about 60,000 speakers in the French Basque region and 750,000 speakers in the Spanish Basque region. Efforts by Basques to preserve their ancestral language are closely linked to the longstanding independence movement that exists mainly on the Spanish side of the border. See printed works in and about Basque.
  • Breton (Brezhoneg) -Breton is an endangered Celtic language spoken in western Brittany by around 225,000 people, many of whom are elderly. The language first emerged in the 5th and 6th centuries by immigrants from Britain who settled the coastal region. It is the only surviving Celtic language spoken on mainland Europe, making it one of France’s most unique regional languages. See printed works in and about Breton.
  • Catalan -While Catalan is primarily spoken in Spain, there are about 126,000 Catalan speakers in what is often called "French Catalonia," a part of the Catalan region located in the Occitanie region of southern France. The language is still widely spoken in Perpignan, the heart of French Catalonia. Perpignan is a crucial point of connection between France and Spain and an excellent place to experience Catalan culture in France. See printed works in and about Catalan.
  • Corsican (Corse) -Corsican is a language spoken in Corsica, a French island in the Mediterranean that was acquired by France in 1769. Prior to that, Corsica was a territory of the Republic of Genoa for about five centuries; hence, the Corsican language has many similarities with Italian. With an estimated 180,000 speakers, Corsican has gradually been replaced by French as the most spoken language on the island. See printed works in and about Corsican.
  • Francoprovençal -Francoprovençal, whose historical linguistic area spans from parts of western France to eastern Switzerland and northwestern Italy, is one of the most endangered French regional languages. This is partly due to the region’s major cities (ie. Lyon and Geneva) historically favoring French. There is also no distinct cultural or political movement linked with the language, in contrast to many of France’s other regional languages. In addition to having its own linguistic characteristics, Francoprovençal has some similarities with the langues d’oïl and Occitan. See printed works in and about Francoprovençal.
  • Occitan- Occitan is a Romance language that originated in southern France as well as parts of northern Spain and the Occitan Valleys in Italy. It has an estimated 2 million speakers, many of whom live in Provence, a region of southeastern France. Occitan has several dialects, such as Provençal (not to be confused with Francoprovençal), Gascon, and Niçart. Emerging in the 10th century as a version of Vulgar Latin, Occitan was widely used in Medieval poetry and literature. See printed works in and about Occitan.

General Bibliography

Linguistic Policies and the Survival of Regional Languages in France and Britain. By Anne Judge (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). Library of Congress General Collections.

To locate books on this subject in the Library of Congress online catalog, it is helpful to be familiar with the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSHs) that are used to catalog individual books. By clicking on any of the following LCSHs you will see a list of LCSHs that will help you to refine your search. The number in parentheses indicates the number of titles with the relevant subject heading. When you click on the LCSH you will be brought to a titles list of the books themselves. The following LCSHs will lead you to relevant books for this topic and offer other topics of potential interest:

Language policy--France--History

Languages in contact--France--History

Language and languages--Political aspects--France

Linguistic minorities--France

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.

General Online Resources on Regional Languages