Thursday, March 10, 2022


 by Maithreyi Parthasarathy

Maithreyi Parthasarathy is a junior in Linguistics at the University of Illinois. Maithreyi's future plans include working as an English as a Second Language instructor and pursuing a career in diplomacy. She wrote this blog post in 418 'Language and Minorities in Europe' in Fall 2021.

At the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent, a mini France found a home called Pondicherry. Located in Tamil Nadu, this territory seems out of place in the region with its cobblestone boulevards and French edifices. In this territory, the French language thrives, spoken by over half of the local population and established as an official language. The former French colony hosts a population of local French speakers, both native and second language learners, keeping the language and culture alive. Throughout its centuries long presence, the French language has interacted with and been shaped by various languages in the region, its most extensive contact is with the major language of Tamil Nadu, Tamil. In this blog, I will look into the French linguistic diaspora in Pondicherry, their history in the region, the language’s current social and political status there, and how Tamil has shaped the language and French educational systems.

The French language travelled with French colonists in the mid 1600s to the Indian subcontinent. In 1673, the French acquired the land where modern Pondicherry is located, transforming what once was a small fishing village into a thriving French trading center. French culture and language began to dominate the town, with many of the streets, buildings, and locations within the city being built from scratch under the governance of Fracois Martin, sponsored by the French government. In 1703, six villages surrounding Pondicherry were sold and added to the territory, thereby expanding it (Kelkar-Stephan, Bonjour Maa: the French-Tamil Language Contact Situation in India 21-24).

Though Pondicherry was not always exclusively under French governance, French culture still thrived during the few decades under Dutch and British rule. Due to its international presence and further French investment in the region, many immigrants from other parts of India flooded to the city to escape war, famine, and British rule, bringing other Dravidian and Indo-European languages like Malayalam, Telugu, Hindi. The French ruled there until 1948, when India gained its independence. With independence, Pondicherry became a union territory of the new nation, creating a vibrant multiethnic, multilingual community in the region (Kelkar-Stephan, Bonjour Maa: the French-Tamil Language Contact Situation in India 21-24).

Today, Pondicherry’s environment, culture, and administration enables the continued maintenance of the minority language. The large majority of French speakers in the region today are bilingual speakers. As many French nationals hold a great deal of wealth and prestige, they have fostered positive recognition for the language and a steady interest in local communities for learning it. Furthermore, French is viewed as a highly favorable language to know for nationals who could potentially move to France. In France, they can obtain jobs, serve in the military, and participate in French politics and culture (Kelkar-Stephan, Bonjour Maa: the French-Tamil Language Contact Situation in India 74-77). Despite this, some French nationals and those in the creole community often lament the “degradation” of French, believing contact with local languages like Tamil and English adversely affects it. Though the French government has sent support for French language efforts in the region, it often struggles to overcome the strong push to learn English for economic opportunity (Kelkar-Stephan, Bonjour Maa: the French-Tamil Language Contact Situation in India 26).

Socially, publications, businesses, and organizations promote French throughout the territory. From 1947 to 1954, there were 57 bilingual French and Tamil newspapers published in Pondicherry. Today, the paper Le Trait d’ Union keeps this tradition alive ( Kelkar-Stephan, Bonjour Maa: the French-Tamil Language Contact Situation in India 26). In the realm of businesses, information technology, automobiles, energy, engineering, and manufacturing are prominent, with businesses like L’oreal and Louis Vuitton having a strong presence in Pondicherry (“French Culture in Puducherry”). Various organizations like the La Société Mutuelle des Créoles, Les amis de la langue et de la culture Française, the Alliance Française de Madras, and the French embassy near Pondicherry build cultural ties to France by organizing dances, drive through fundraisers, festivities, and parades, such as Bastille Day festivities in Pondicherry. Furthermore, signs, menus, and other orthographic articles throughout the region are written in both French and Tamil, allowing French speakers to navigate the region with ease (Kelkar-Stephan, Bonjour Maa: the French-Tamil Language Contact Situation in India 27-29).

French education in Pondicherry often reflects social trends for the language as well as roadblocks those planning for the language often run into. To learn French in Pondicherry, four types of schools are available that offer the language: ethnic (schools for students speak a minority language at home), biethnic (schools teaching a variety of languages for students of differing ethnolinguistic backgrounds), transition (schools that teach subjects in the students’ native language until their target language skills are ready to learn in), and maintenance (schools where students learn some subjects in the majority language and others in the target language). However, the push for students to learn English over French as a global language means that French is often sidelined in the educational process. In biethnic schools, French is optionally taught as a second or third language, while transition schools only teach math and science in French, lowering the fluency and exposure students have to the language. (Kelkar-Stephan, Bonjour Maa: the French-Tamil Language Contact Situation in India 166-169).

However, in French language classes in the region, French is markedly used as a social identifier, and codeswitching is common. Word choice signals to other speakers their dual identity as Tamilian and French, as they intentionally use Tamil words even when they know the French equivalent (eg. using dabba for boxed lunch over the French substitute) (Kelkar-Stephan, Bonjour Maa: the French-Tamil Language Contact Situation in India 181-183). Furthermore, teachers will often signal to their students in both Tamil and French to create greater efficiency and engagement in their classrooms. For instance, teachers will deliver explicit instructions, encourage development in students’ answers, or reprimand students in Tamil while teaching French. This makes students feel more at ease in classrooms and also signals to students that bilingual usage of Tamil and French is not a faux pas (Kelkar-Stephan, Bonjour Maa: the French-Tamil Language Contact Situation in India 176-177).

The presence of French in the Indian subcontinent has created a unique dialect of French known as Pondicherry French (PCF). Extensive contact with Tamil has transformed the phonology, verbs, and universal quantifiers in French spoken there, differing extensively from Standard French (StdF). For example, spoken and standard Tamil has induced PCF to nasalize vowels followed by m or n (kõm (PCF) vs comme (StdF)), add retroflex consonants (maɭ (PCF) vs. mal (StdF)), and delete or r and l sounds at the end of words (Kelkar-Stephan, Bonjour Maa: the French-Tamil Language Contact Situation in India 80-81). Similarly, Tamil has influenced PCF to adopt the Tamil system of using past tense verb forms to refer to events happening in the immediate future. PCF has also used future tense verbs to talk about habitual actions that happened in the past, an element taken directly from Tamil syntactic systems (Kelkar-Stephan, “Future Tense to Express Habitual Past or Present, and Past Tense to Express Immediate Future”). These changes have made Pondicherry French be seen as a “patoi” (a derogatory term used by Standard French speakers for certain dialects of the language), as it generates a distinct accent and grammar compared to Standard French.

Pondicherry French’s character has been shaped by both the Tamil language and French history in India. Its maintenance in the region is in large part due to the efforts of speakers to integrate it to fit the needs of their local environment and identities as bilingual speakers of Tamil and French. As such, despite its status as a minority language, it is likely the language will continue to have a presence in Pondicherry and influence its local culture in the future.


Kelkar-Stephan, Leena. “Future Tense to Express Habitual Past or Present, and Past Tense to Express Immediate Future.” Rara & Rarissima, 2010,

“Puducherry Directory.” Www.puducherryonline.in

Kelkar-Stephan, Leena. Bonjour Maa: the French-Tamil Language Contact Situation in India. Shaker, 2005.


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