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April 2019

How Languages Evolve Around the World

The story of French outside of France

A recent article in the BBC shined light on the role of the French language on the African continent. The piece is interesting because it gives us a sense of how languages evolve as they travel, taking on new forms and outgrowing their past forms. In discussing this phenomenon, we’ll stick with French as an example, but the fact holds true for other languages as well, such as English and Spanish, languages which are utilised and modified by different cultures around the world.

There are a number of French-speaking African countries, former colonies that have retained the use of the French language for everyday parlance. And while, in these countries, French isn’t the number one language, it’s the lingua franca, a common language for people speaking diverse dialects, and thus it’s useful for communication.

Pidgin speech is a mixture of two or more languages that comes to be for speaking purposes between groups that would otherwise use different languages. One can find such languages in places like New Orleans and Hawai’i, where many cultures have historically congregated and conducted business. Something similar is happening in Africa, where local speakers have modified the language into a dialect of their own, otherwise known as a street patois.

Around the world, 300 million people speak French, and 44 percent of these speakers live in sub-Saharan Africa. The BBC article conjectures that Africa is vital for the future of the French language, positing that, by 2050, 85 percent of French speakers could be in Africa. What’s fascinating is that this language is not the same French spoken in France.

Words used in French-speaking Africa that aren’t found in France include wesh (“what’s up?”) and je wanda (“I wonder”). The creation of such slang words was inspired by several languages. The French language is changing here, and it’s changing faster than the language administrators in France can keep up with.

In fact, the African continent is a melting pot of languages. Arabic, English, and Mandarin are also popular in Africa, as they are useful for opening up job opportunities. They will no doubt evolve too. Still, French is the big winner, and it’s not only here.

Outside of Africa and France, French is also widely spoken in Canada, Haiti, French Polynesia, and in the French islands of the Caribbean. Each area adds its own unique flavor to the language. For example, Canadian French is notably different from French French, and the cultural identity of the Québécois is strong.

One wonders what effect this will have on the French language in the future. As the African continent prospers and the language is exported, will the French of France adopt some updates from their overseas linguistic brethren? It may sound incredible, but languages can evolve even within its home country. For example, words like autotune, buzzworthy, bling, and binge-watch didn’t exist until relatively recently. Now they can be found in the English dictionary.


What do you think about the evolution of languages? Have you noticed new lexicon slipping into your language? Let us know your results on our Facebook Page, and be sure to “like” telc English for more articles on language learning!