March 20 - French Language Day

Posted on March 20, 2020

There are six different language days celebrated at the United Nations:
March 20 - French
April 20 - Chinese
April 23 - Spanish
April 23 - English
June 6 - Russian
December 18 - Arabic

You may wonder why the language days aren't better spaced out through the year, but apparently each date was selected without reference to the others. April 23 was selected for English Language Day because it is the date traditionally given for both the birth and death of William Shakespeare, one of the most important writers in the English language - and someone who actually added a lot of words to the English language!

March 20 was selected for French because it is the anniversary of the International Organization of La Francophonie, a group for people and nations that speak French. 

French is an official language in 29 different countries in Europe (of course!), Africa, North America (including both Canada and the Caribbean part of Central America), and even Oceania (Vanuatu). Of course French is spoken by people in many other nations in which it is not an official language!

According to the International Organization of La Francophonie, about 300 million people worldwide speak French, although only about 76 million are native speakers.

The U.N. language days were created to celebrate multilingualism and cultural diversity. So...let's learn a bit of the French language, or at least a bit about the French language.

  • French used to be one of the languages of science, alongside German and English. That was true in the 1800s, especially 1850 to 1900, and scientists were expected to be able to read and write in all three languages. However, German scientists such as Einstein, Planck, and Heisenberg were so cutting-edge at "the turn of the century" that Germany became the dominant language of science in the early 1900s. German had a short run of being "top dog," because WWI and then WWII occurred.
These wars and the Cold War affected communication between scientists, yet somehow the crumbling of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War left English firmly in the singular position of "the language of science." About 98% of all scientific publications are written in English!

  • But don't forget that English has an awful lot of French in it! Way back in the 11th Century, the French-speaking Normans led by William the Conqueror invaded and occupied England. 
Since the Conqueror took land away from most of the old English aristocracy and gave it to his followers, the entire ruling class spoke French, and Anglo-Saxon (or English) language was mostly spoken by peasants / serfs, servants, tradesmen, and craftsmen. That's why there are so many French words in the English language, including many that were changed in spelling to better match English (like boeuf becoming beef and porc becoming pork) as well as some that have kept their French spellings (like déjà vu and cliché).

  • French has been used as the language of diplomacy. This is because, by the 1350s or so, French was the most spoken language in Europe and was seen as a language of sophistication and wealth. Some people argue that the popularity of English has made this role for French obsolete. However note how many diplomacy-related English words are from French: ambassadorattachécommuniquéconsuldétentepersona non gratarapprochementultimatum, visa.

  • French is still dominant in food and ballet dancing (and therefore to some extent in other non-ballet dance). There are French terms used in various arts such as painting and fashion design.

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