Because of its precision, the French language is safest to use for the European Union’s legal business, says French writer and former permanent secretary of the Académie Française Maurice Druon.
EU rules presently stipulate that the language controlling the interpretation of any given law is the one in which it was originally written. But the EU has 28 official languages (Irish, the most recent, was added only last month). Druon’s answer to this Tower of Babel: use French to resolve legal disputes – after all, it’s related to Latin and it’s the language of the Napoleonic Code.
But following that sort of logic, the EU’s legal language should be Italian – it’s closer to Latin than French is – or maybe even English. After all, the American Constitution predates the Code Napoléon by a good fifteen years, and Britain was governed by a Parliament long before France started chopping off the heads of monarchs.
Nonetheless, the idea that French is better than any other language is hardly new, especially to the French. Voltaire thought his language the most rational of the world’s tongues, since the structure of French reflected exactly the way the brain works. Voltaire further insisted that everyone found French conversation the most pleasant and French books better than any others.
Unlike Voltaire, Druon acknowledges that other languages are useful in their own limited ways: “The Italian language is the language of song, German is good for philosophy and English for poetry.” But, Druon insists, “French is best at precision, it has a rigor to it. It is the safest language for legal purposes.”
At home in France, the health of the French language is less certain. Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, Druon’s successor as permanent secretary of the Academy, recently complained of the imprecise state of the French language. The language is being undermined and corrupted at home, she warned, its vocabulary diminished, its grammar and syntax ignored. French sentences today are no more than a jumble of words used without regard to their real meaning, or worse, they’re full of English words, Orwellian newspeak, and political correctness. The only rigor that she finds in modern French is rigor mortis.
Not to worry, though, for the French Academy is about to fix all that, rescuing French from its century-long decline. Mme Carrère d’Encausse proudly announced that when it is finished in the next few years, the long-awaited 9th edition of the French Academy’s dictionary will restore the glory that was French. The radically expanded lexicon of revitalized, modern French will contain 55,000 words, 57% more than the previous edition issued in 1935, including for the first time words from French-speaking Africa, words borrowed from German, Arabic, and Russian, and words dealing with all the facets of modern life from holocausts and genocides to computers and drug culture.
Of course the Oxford English Dictionary has over half a million words, ten times more word power than the French Academy’s latest lexicon. English actually owes its huge word hoard in large part to the Norman policy of regime change back in 1066, when thousands of French words crossed the Channel along with William the Conqueror’s armies, and 85% of the native English vocabulary was lost as a result of collateral damage. Since then English has borrowed from all the languages it’s come in contact with, even Latin, the source of much English legal terminology.
But now that unfavorable balance of trade has reversed. English is exporting words to other countries, and the specter of a francophone Britain has been replaced by the specter of anglophone Europe, something that Druon and the French Academy are determined to prevent.
While the French do their best to protect Europe and the rest of the world from English linguistic imperialism, other EU delegates are rejecting Druon’s promotion of legislative French because more of them understand English than French. One French EU representative seemed to confirm this when he complained that his French colleagues in the European Parliament often didn’t know what they were voting for because too many of the bills were in English.
It’s not likely that Europe will privilege any one language as its legal yardstick (about 0.914 meters in any other European language). The Italian delegates aren’t singing about the French proposal, even though theirs is supposed to be the language of song. And the Germans, who pioneered the notion that each language reflects the “genius” of its culture, aren’t taking the philosophical approach: Druon, who is careful to distinguish between German philosophy and precise, rational French discourse, is hardly a Nietzschean superman to them. And where Druon got the notion that English is well-suited for poetry isn’t clear – surely the two poets and many novelists who are currently members of the French Academy would disagree.
In fact, despite romanticized notions of how language relates to culture, languages don’t ever sort themselves out as primarily poetic, musical, scientific, or legalistic. And speakers of every language are capable of rational, precise thought or, as in the case of Maurice Druon’s proposal to interpret all of Europe’s laws according to the French version of the text, of irrational, highly-subjective, and thoroughly self-aggrandizing reasoning as well. And that's a linguistic law that no parliament can repeal.