How the French Learned French, Part II: To the Barricades!

By 1900, for the first time in history, the majority of French citizens spoke French. When World War I broke out fourteen years later, nationwide conscription of all young men into the strictly French-speaking army proved far deadlier for minority languages than for the Germans. Meanwhile, the long campaign against the France’s diverse minority languages continued apace. More important, new theatres were opened all around the world.

At the dawn of the last century, one in five people in the world was a subject of France. France’s unique colonial ethos sought to forge everyone, from Picards to Senegalese to Cambodians, into proper citizens of the Republic. While the British made their officials learn local languages, and the Dutch did not care what anyone spoke so long as they drove a good bargain, the rulers of l’empire civilizatrice were determined to teach everyone French.

Three colours, one flag, one empire

However, even as French made spectacular gains across the inhabited world, its position as the world’s preeminent language was crumbling. Cultured Europeans (not just the French) could look down on English as an uncouth language of money-grubbing businessmen, but its success made it impossible to ignore. Victory in World War I was a great triumph for France, but when French diplomats were unable to veto the translation of the Treaty of Versailles into English, it sounded the death knell for their language’s hegemony.

In terms of worldwide economic and cultural clout, French remained far and away the world’s second-most prominent language. Far from being humbled, Gallophiles formed ranks for a sort of bitter linguistic siege. After briefly flirting with joining the rest of Europe in embracing linguistic minorities, France reversed course hard.

In 1964, the government allowed 90 seconds of Breton broadcasting on regional TV. Proper republicans were horrified. When the forerunner organisation to the EU, of which France was a founding member, introduced a law to protect all of Europe’s languages, President Georges Pompidou (whose own family was Occitan) defiantly declared that there was no place for minority languages in France.

No less than liberté, egalité, and fraternité, French linguistic belligerence took deep root wherever the French planted their flag. In the past few decades, several Belgian governments have collapsed over French speakers’ predations into Dutch-speaking areas. Cameroon is regularly pushed to the brink of civil war because the French majority will not leave English speakers alone.

J’accuse!

Paranoia that others might do to French what the French do to everyone else fuels a particular recalcitrance where the French are themselves the minority. Quebec became British in 1763, but after two centuries of obstreperous resistance to English, the Canadian government was forced to add a clause to the constitution establishing French as the sole official language of Quebec. English speakers, who make up about 80% of Canadians, found themselves in the singular position of being linguistically persecuted in the largest province of their own country. The Québécois tried to secede from Canada anyway twenty years later; their referendum failed very narrowly thanks to Anglo habitantes, but they still won even more far-reaching constitutional concessions. Across the entire country, and especially in Quebec, everyone must translate everything into French or face steep civil penalties.

Ironically, the only satellites of the Francophone world that have escaped the strict linguistic control Paris imposes on the language are two of France’s oldest colonies. Haitians have veered so far from French that theirs is now considered a separate language. Canadian French also differs notably from that of the Metropole. In many ways, it is more conservative. To chauffer le char in Montréal is to turn on the car, whereas in Paris it would be to warm up the chariot. If the car does not start, a French Canadian might shout tabernacle! or chalice!: Québécois swears quaintly reflect Quebec’s Catholic heritage.

In major American cities, public service announcements are more often translated into Haitian Creole than French. As nearly as I can figure, the top two lines of this poster in French would be, Arrêter la propagation des microbes/ Aider à prévenir la propagation des maladies respiratoires telles que Covid-19.

The United Nations has six official languages, of which only two are “working languages.” These are English, which has the most speakers of all of them, and French, which has the second-least. Bengali (which is not even one of the six) has four times more native speakers, but what swanky diplomat wants to speak that?

French is one of twenty-four official languages of the European Union. It would be practical for everyone just to speak English, but the French nip that trend in the bud by forcing the entire European Parliament to move from Brussels to Strasbourg, France once every few weeks. In 2006, President Jacques Chirac walked out of a summit when the speaker started to address the assembly in English.

In France’s former colonies, the language is still implicitly associated with modernity and the ideals of the Revolution.

As they have for centuries, the linguicrats of Paris strive to exact uncompromising control over their language to keep it pure and unadulterated. It is said that the minister of education wakes up every morning knowing exactly what is being taught in New Caledonia, Pondicherry, Kinshasa, Guadeloupe, and Neuilly-sur-Seine. It is easy to remember one thing.

Meanwhile, the Académie Française are vigorously prosecuting their war against any foreign incursions into French, and any innovations (e.g., gender neutral pronouns) to the language. If education is their sword, their shield is the Loi Toubon, an extraordinarily ambitious piece of legislation requiring absolutely everything in France to be in French. Given the odds stacked against them, the zealots atop the linguistic barricades have acquitted themselves splendidly. They have been unable to eradicate bon weekend, but French has proven more robust than any other language.

Members of the Académie are known colloquially as les immortels. Indeed, in a globalising world in which most languages are threatened with encroachment or even extinction, French is expected to grow at double the rate of the overall population. The French reputation for cultural chauvinism is deserved. But century after century, their tenacity continues to pay off. So, en français and absolutely not any other language, joyeaux Noël et bonne année!

This time of year (in a normal year, at least), tourists from all over France flock to Strasbourg. The city’s Christmas festivities harken to Alsace’s ancient German heritage, but you would probably get a chilly reception wishing someone there today Frohe Weihnachten.

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

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Sam Quillen

Sam Quillen

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

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