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  • French Academy sees linguistic diversity endangering national identity

    Right after the French Academy strongly denounced a constitutional revision recognizing linguistic diversity as part of France’s heritage, the French Senate voted 2-to-1 to kill the measure.

    Article 1 of the French Constitution defines France as an indivisible, secular, democratic republic.  On May 22, the French National Assembly voted all-but-unanimously – there was one negative vote – to modify that formula by adding the nation’s many local languages to the short list of constitutionally-protected civic virtues: “[France’s] regional languages belong to its patrimony.”

    But on Monday the Académie Française rejected any attempt to constitutionalize local languages as “an attack on French national identity.”  Article 2 of the French Constitution clearly states, “The language of the Republic is French.”  As the Academy reads it, the national identity can only be expressed through French.

    The French Academy 

    In an uncharacteristic comment on pending legislation, the 40 Immortals of the French Academy called constitutional recognition of regional languages “an attack on national identity.”

    While France has always been a linguistically-diverse country – the nation is even named after the Franks, a medieval Germanic tribe – the French government has often denied that heritage, preferring the myth of one nation speaking one language. 


    After the French Revolution, the government actively sought to eradicate local patois, replacing them with French.  But at the start of World War I, French army officials were shocked to discover that many of their new recruits still could not understand the language of command (as Monty Python might have asked, how do you say, “Run away,” in French?).  By 1930, one quarter of the French were still speaking a regional language, and even today, a good 10 million of France’s 60 million residents don’t speak French at home.


    Not counting the languages of immigrants, there are 29 local languages spoken in the Hexagon, as the French call mainland France.  (Another 45 or so native languages are spoken in current French territories and in its former colonies.)  According to Ethnologue, the regional languages of France include Alemannisch, or Aslatian (1.5 million speakers); Auvergnat, or Occitan (1.3 million); Breton (500,000); Provençal (250,000); Romani (about 50,000); Corsican (340,000) and Yiddish (numbers not available). 


    Historically, students in French schools were punished for speaking Breton, Alsatian, and Occitan (while speakers of Yiddish were simply deported), and France is one of the few nations refusing to sign the European Union’s charter giving legal rights to minority-language speakers.  

    Map showing French linguistic diversity 

    Linguistic diversity in the Hexagon


    The government of President Nicolas Sarkozy urged Parliament to support regional-language protection, as did many community activists.  Even the rigid national educational system makes allowance for linguistic diversity.  According to Radio France, on Tuesday almost 6,000 students took their Baccalauréat, or national high school exit exams, in a regional language.  But the senators were not convinced, and on Wednesday they shut down the regional languages protection clause with a resounding “Non!”


     Senator Jean-Luc Melenchon  

    Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a prominent Socialist Party senator who opposes constitutional protections for regional languages (photo: Le Figaro) 

    While both the Senate and the Académie admit that other languages are spoken in France, they insist that constitutional recognition of this fact would imperil national unity and subvert the principles of the revolution, which sought to subsume individual variation in order to achieve liberté, égalité, and fraternité, a process which caused many French citizens to lose their heads.  


    The French newspaper le Monde editorialized that living languages don’t need constitutional notice in order to exist, and opponents of regional language support observed that regional languages, like a religions, were a matter of personal choice, not something to be privileged in the Constitution.  Others mocked the language proposal by calling for constitutional recognition of France’s highly-regarded regional cuisines.  And several argued that instead of quibbling over the rights of Breton or Auvergnat speakers, France needed to unite under the banner of French to fight the real linguistic danger to national identity, world English.


    Of course none of the defenders of French against the onslaught of both local and international languages acknowledged that English managed to achieve the status of a world language without constitutional recognition in either the United States or Great Britain.  English wasn’t even a regional language when it started out, just an insignificant dialect spoken on a tiny island off the coast of Europe.  It grew to its present position not through legal protection but through the power of guns, dollars, computers, and rock ‘n’ roll. 


    French was the language on every cultured European’s lips when the English were still wondering whether their language was mature enough to have grammatical structure.  But today French itself has become one of the world’s regional languages, with fewer speakers than Chinese, Hindi, English, Spanish, or Russian.  


    Clearly the Académie Française and the French Sénat think that French needs all the constitutional help it can get, though the editors of le Monde must surely realize that, just as living languages don’t require constitutional protection to exist, constitutional privilege can’t protect French as it competes against the living languages of France, not to mention the languages of the rest of the world.

    UPDATE: On Monday, July 21, the French Senate reconsidered and passed the Constitutional reform package, which includes recognition of regional languages, by one vote more than the required 3/5ths majority. Article 75.1 of the Constitution now reads:"Les langues régionales appartiennent au patrimoine de la France."

phil.vandelay@gmail.com Jun 21, 2008 2:46 am

while I agree with you that language and law should be kept separated, I don't think

shoddy fact-checking is a good blogging practice, especially when criticizing

a body of dumb old men (the academy) as if they were representative of all

of French people.


among others:

- the baccalaureat is taken in french by every french student.  there are  optional

subjects, including regional language exams, but all others are in French only (except

foreign languages obviously).

- not to deny the importance of anti-semitism in France in the end of the XIXth century (or after),

but I'd like to see some evidence that at the time yiddish speakers were deported while breton-speaking children were just slapped on the wrist.

dzosborn@gmail.com Jun 22, 2008 1:33 am

Was there any mention of major immigrant languages in any of this? The Ethnologue page cited has in the opening paragraph a list - notable among them are over a million speakers of various forms of Arabic, and half million speakers of Kabyle (the latter being a large percentage of the total speakers of that Berber language worldwide).

Also, it is interesting to note that this turn of events comes in the middle of the International Year of Languages, an observance declared by the UN General Assembly last year with French sponsorship.

debaron@illinois.edu Jun 22, 2008 9:10 am
Although French is itself is an "import" from the days of the Roman Empire, the constitutional revision covered only home-grown, regional languages, not the tongues of more recent immigrants.
debaron@illinois.edu Jun 22, 2008 12:04 pm

Doug Kibbee sends this correction: "the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages is not an EU document, but rather a Council of Europe document. The Council of Europe is much larger [than the EU]. To date 23 governments in the CoE have put the treaty into effect, but 24 have not." While France is not a signatory, many of the Charter's goals have been put into practice in France.


Kibbee notes as well that Ethnologue seriously overestimates the number of speakers of regional languages in France, and reminds us that most of these speakers are bilingual. He reminds us as well that French remains international in many contexts.


Nonetheless, as the editorial in Le Monde inadvertently reminds us, propping up a language constitutionally, whether that language is English, French, or a local or immigrant tongue, won't really protect a language.


What keeps a language going, or contributes to its loss, are the attitudes of those who use it or abandon it. These attitudes may be influenced by legislation, but in the end it's the motive and opportunity of its speakers, not the law, which determines the fate of a language.

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