How the French Learned French, Part I: Priming the Bulldozer

The French have always had a particularly high esteem for their language. The first written attestation of any Romance language is the Oaths of Strasbourg, a treaty between two feuding Frankish princes who decided their common tongue was just as good as Latin for dividing up Europe. (Incidentally, it is thanks to the Germanic Franks’ garbling of Latin that French is by far the farthest from the mother tongue of all the Romance languages.)

The oldest law on the books in France, and one of the more important, is the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts, which King François I signed in 1539 to make la langage francoys the official language of his kingdom. But what constituted “French?” To answer that question, in 1637 the great statesman Cardinal Richelieu created the Académie Française to codify the official register, cleanse it of impurities, and give it an orderly grammar and vocabulary fit for the foremost language in the world.

The model for standard French was, of course, the Paris dialect. But French was catapulted to international preeminence a half-day’s ride west of the city, at Louis XIV’s spectacular Château de Versailles. Princes and diplomats hoping to reflect the Sun King’s opulent brilliance made French the language of high society across Europe. France was so admired in Russia that peasants complained that their lords no longer even spoke Russian. Perhaps more importantly, French aristocrats forced to spend part of each year at court brought the prestige register to the farthest corners of the kingdom.

Richelieu and Louis got the snowball rolling on the unyielding central power grab that continues in France to this day. But it was the Revolution that turned the standardising drive into a restless, all-consuming bulldozer.

France’s traditional languages stood alongside aristocrats, medieval laws, and the Church at the very top of the Revolution’s hit list. In 1794, former priest Henri Grégoire published a report on the “necessity to annihilate the patois and to universalise the use of the French language.”

At the time, just three million of France’s 25 million citizens spoke proper Parisian French. Most of the rest spoke a broad spectrum of Romance dialects ranging from Norman to Catalan. Other minorities were more eccentric, including the Celtic Bretons and the Basques, who are totally unrelated to anyone else in the world. In territories acquired from Germany and Italy, border shifts had made little difference to the reality on the ground. France was one of the most diverse countries in Europe. But that was about to change.

Just as they went to war with the rest of Europe, the revolutionaries fell upon the backward traditions of their own country. In the chaos of the next hundred years, restored kings sometimes rolled back their efforts, upholding the old ways they saw as the heart of the halcyon pre-1789 douceur de vivre. In the middle of the 19th Century, a third of Frenchmen still spoke only Occitan, the silvery tongue of southern knights and troubadours that lies somewhere between French, Catalan, and Italian. But the tide of history was against them.

In the 1880s, the tide turned into a tidal wave. The zealous leaders of the new Third Republic, inspired by one Jules Ferry, required all children to go to public school, where they could be formed into proper French-speaking citizens. Students who were caught not speaking French were beaten or made to wear pointed hats and wear signs around their necks. Like Roman Catholicism, all of France’s other languages were banished from the public sphere; even in the home, many parents decided that passing on their cultural heritage would be a liability to their children.

To a non-Frenchman, some of France’s linguistic crusaders sound extraordinary. In the heat of the Revolution, a general quashing a rebellion in the Pyrenees decided that the Basque language was at fault for locals’ royalism. Declaring that, “fanaticism speaks Basque,” he banned the language, scattered thousands of local families, and repopulated the area with solid peasants imported from the north. In 1845, an education official in Brittany issued stark instructions to teachers: “Remember, Gents: you were given your position in order to kill the Breton language.”

With a generation of momentum behind them, radicals in Paris grew even more confident. In 1902, a local official ordered priests to deny communion to Breton-speaking children. To horrified Frenchmen of all stripes, the prime minister (himself a reformed Occitan) stepped forward to confirm that “The Bretons will only be part of the Republic the day they start speaking French.”

By the 1920s, there were still a few villages in Brittany where people did not speak French. They became popular travel destinations not because people were interested in the region’s ancient Celtic heritage, but because bourgeois Parisians were encouraged to go gawk at and heckle the bizarre primitives there.

The Basque Country was spared some of this thanks largely to its isolated geography. The languages of northern France and Provence, which were close to standard French anyway, largely evaporated as speakers switched over. The formerly Italian-speaking people of Nice caved as well. Occitan’s orbit was more distant, but it, too, was feeling the growing gravity of the all-consuming linguistic sun.

The French state’s most particular fury was reserved for German. As of the 1900 German census, only 2% of Alsace-Lorraine’s population spoke French; but the territory had once been French before the Germans reconquered it in 1870, so it became for the French something like Palestine is for Arabs today. When they won it back at the end of World War I, every place name was changed, German was banned, and over a hundred thousand German-speaking residents were deported. German is still the second most-spoken language in France today, but only a quarter of young Alsatians speak it.

The Midi was a foreign country to the kings in Paris until the late Middle Ages. Breton and Basque were national languages of independent states well into the early modern era; Alsace-Lorraine was almost entirely German until just over a hundred years ago. But French zealots were really determined that the entire nation should be French. If you pretend something long and stubbornly enough, eventually it becomes true.

Part II

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Sam Quillen

Sam Quillen

Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets