Defence of French: A Language in Crisis? by Robin Adamson, Hardcover

Defence of French: A Language in Crisis? by Robin Adamson, Hardcover

Why do the French defend their language so passionately? Can a world language like French really be in crisis? By tracing the long history of language defence in...

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Publisher:Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date:03/28/2007
Series:Multilingual Matters Series , #137
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.70(d)
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Defence of French: A Language in Crisis? by Robin Adamson

Why do the French defend their language so passionately? Can a world language like French really be in crisis? By tracing the long history of language defence in France and by examining the multiplicity of official and non-official defensive activities and attitudes, the book aims to answer these and other related questions. It looks at changing government policy, particularly the recent paradoxical shift from monolingualism to plurilingualism, and at what has motivated it. It analyses the work of the powerful government agencies and of the small but very vocal private defensive groups. The importance of the Internet is highlighted both by its extensive use in the research for the book and by an examination of its use by the language defenders. A European context is provided by comparisons with Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom. Finally, a look at various contemporary problems leads to a thought-provoking prognosis for this most strongly-defended of European languages.

Product Details

Publisher:Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date:03/28/2007
Series:Multilingual Matters Series, #137
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Robin Adamson is Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia, working on contemporary French language. For many years she was Director of the Centre for Applied Language Studies at the University of Dundee, where she worked mainly in the fields of second language acquisition, communicative language teaching and discourse analysis, and also contributed extensively to the new generation of university textbooks such as Le français en faculté. She became an officier in the Ordre des palmes académiques in 1989. Her interest in the defence of French springs from a lifelong passion for the language and the discovery that among her Scottish ancestors are several who died defending France.

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Defending French: A Story of Love and Power

Creating Classical French

Most native speakers of English have never felt the need to defend their language. They simply take it for granted. Many of us are only too happy to assume that, because our language has, through an accident of history, acquired a dominant position in the world, it is superior to others. This can give rise to a misplaced and inappropriate linguistic arrogance on the part of English-speakers – whom the French call, with varying degrees of affection, scorn or bitterness, les Anglo-saxons.

This introduction is an abbreviated account of a long, involved and fascinating history, and provides the background for the analysis of the present-day situation in later chapters. A full history of the defence of French is also a history of France, of the creation of the nation and its values, of the construction of French identity, and of labyrinthine political developments from the 16th century to the present. Chaurand (1999), Hagège (1987, 1996) and Lodge (1993) give good introductions to the historical and linguistic intricacies of the subject, while Ball (1997), Gordon (1978) and Grillo (1989) cover some of the sociolinguistic intricacies associated with the defence of the language. The University of Laval web site provides a perceptive and objective overview of the wider aspects of the history of the French language while l'ABC de la langue française has a very comprehensive chronology. The various official sites of the French government and the Académie française give the government perspective.

Because English has not on the whole aroused fiercely defensive attitudes, it may surprise speakers of English to find that official and public concern with the defence of French began at least as early as the 16th century – even earlier according to some commentators (for example, Citron, 1991; Judge, 1993: 9; Walter, 1988: 95). As Bernard Cerquiglini (2003), the Délégué général à la langue française et aux langues de France said when he took office in May 2003: 'Les noces de l'État et de la langue dans notre pays sont anciennes.' (The close ties between the State and language in our country are very old.) It was in August 1539 that François 1er (1515–1547) issued, from his hunting castle at Villers-Cotterêts, an edict now known as the Ordonnance de Villers-Cotterêts. This imposed the use of French instead of Latin in legal judgments. The stated purpose of the Ordonnance was to avoid the problems caused by the ambiguities in various legal documents written in a kind of low Latin, le plus souvent "macaronique" (usually a clownish jumble) (University of Pennsylvania web site, 2005).

The castle at Villers-Cotterêts has become virtually a sacred site for modern associations for the defence of French who declare that they are following in the footsteps of François 1er. Citron (1991: 231) reports that the date of the Ordonnancebecame in the 1990s adate-repère (historical signpost) for the teaching of French history in schools. It is clear in any case that the purposes of the Ordonnance were very different from those of 21st century defenders of the language. If we speak of François 1er defending the language, defending must be understood not as resisting attack, but as supporting or promoting. The king was apparently motivated, not by a wish to protect his language against Latin, but by legal and political considerations: Article 110: 'So that there should be no cause of doubt about the meaning of the said decrees, and we command that they be drawn up and written so clearly that there should not be, nor could be any ambiguity or lack of clarity.' As the Académie française web site puts it: 'Thus the public life of the country was indissolubly linked with the scrupulous use of "the native French language"' (Article 111). This early and unbreakable link between power and the court version of one of the languages of France, the langue d'oïl, set the tone for a great deal of what was to follow.

Ten years later, the poet du Bellay (1522–1560), together with Ronsard (1524–1585) and other poets of the group known as la Pléiade, published their poetic manifesto, the La deffence et illustration de la langue francoyse (Defence and Illustration of the French Language) (Du Bellay, 1549), associating the word deffence with the language for the first time. Like François 1er, du Bellay was using the word in a pro-active sense. He wanted to extend the uses of French and to develop it, as well as resisting a perceived threat from Latin. French was at this time considered by many to be an undeveloped, impoverished language, suitable perhaps for use in legal and political documents, but incapable of expressing the ambitious and elaborate nuances required, for example, by poetry.

By insisting that it was not only possible but desirable that poetry be written in the langage maternel français (native French language), du Bellay added a new motivation to those of François 1er for extending the use of French: its suitability as a literary language. This 16th century identification of the defence of French with its use as a literary language was accepted unquestioningly by successive French educational establishments and underlies much of the teaching of French in schools to this day. Ronsard, du Bellay and their fellow poets left as their legacy the conviction that French is innately suited to express the highest thoughts and passions of which humans are capable. The Deffence provoked spirited attacks on du Bellay and his friends and their refutations were no less vigorous, the first example of the lively polemic, or, as Calvet (2002b: 33) calls it hystérie (hysteria), which continues to characterise the defence of the language in France today.

Although he is not as important a figure for the defence of the language as du Bellay, Henri Estienne (1528?–1598) seems to have been the first to 'defend' French in the sense of combatting a perceived threat to the language. His 'Two dialogues in the new italianised, and otherwise disfigured, French, mainly between the courtiers of the present time' (1578), and his 1579 publication, Essai sur la precellence du langage françois (Essay on the Superiority of the French Tongue), prepared at the request of the king (Walter, 2001b), ridicule people who spoke the fashionable Italianised French of the period. The role played in the history of French by fashion, and the French are perhaps particularly sensitive to changing trends, is far from insignificant. The fact that it is now fashionable to speak English, just as it was to speak Italian in the 16th century, is one of the factors that infuriate those who today battle against the dominance of English.

As the 16th century ended and the grand siècle (great century) began, the role of literature, particularly poetry, in the defence of French was further strengthened by the poetic and linguistic activities of François de Malherbe (1555–1628): 'Finally Malherbe came, and was the first in France to convey the correct tone in poetry' (Boileau-Despraux, 1674 L'Art poétique ). Malherbe was official court poet to Henri IV (1589–1610), Marie de Médicis (Regent: 1610–1614) and Louis XIII (1610–1643) and, most importantly, a protégé of Cardinal Richelieu (1585–1642). This role at court and at the centre of political activity gave Malherbe an extremely influential position and sealed the alliance of language and power that had begun with François 1er. Although he had at first been influenced by the poets of the Pléiade, Malherbe moved away from their adherence to classical forms and insistence on creativity in the native language to insist on purity of form and strict compositional rules.

His insistence on applying rules marked the start of that highly protective and defensive attitude to the language still to be found in its modern defenders and sometimes considered by speakers of other languages to be both hyper-sensitive and typically French. Two words characterise the view of French at this time: prestigeandautorité. Like Walter (1988: 96), Chaurand (1999: 231) reminds his readers that from this time on, French, rather than being viewed as a living, changing means of facilitating communication 'presents first of all the image of something with prestige, preserved and protected with jealous care, at the expense of its varied and free expressive possibilities.' (Chaurand's underlining).

The new rule-based view of the language was at first disseminated largely by the literary salons, 17th century social gatherings in the homes of wealthy noblewomen, who regularly invited influential figures (mainly men) from the fields of literature, the arts and politics to discuss their ideas and read their works. Language was a frequent topic and the rules were strictly applied so that invention and creativity were eventually stifled and the typically French chasse aux néologismes (hunting out neologisms) became a regular pastime. In the heightened atmosphere of the salons, powerful political figures and literary giants met regularly.

The alliance between political power, autorité and language had already been evident under François 1er in the 16th century. However, as Lodge (1993: 169) explains, the sources of power and the underlying conflicts in French society were, by the 17th century, more complicated and the nature of the monarchy had changed. With the development in Paris of the new bureaucratic class, economic and therefore political power was not the exclusive preserve of the court. Various groups, the court, the legal profession and the bourgeoisie, each sought to dominate. Social tensions ran high. For the group that could establish their form of the language as the norm, there would be substantial political benefits. Thus Richelieu, as part of his move to centralise political power in the hands of the court, was determined to establish the language of highly educated court administrators as the standard. In this way, the alliance between language and power was strengthened.

According to Chaurand (1999: 232) and many other commentators: 'It is to Richelieu that we owe the first, the main and the emblematic confusion between political authority and the internal force of the language.' In the terms used by Cooper (1989), this means that status planning and corpus planning were already intertwined in internal language planning. It was as a result of the 'emblematic confusion' between the two that in this period the French convinced themselves that ' our language is a fragile creature which must continually be watched over and controlled' (Chaurand, 1999: 232).

It was therefore, as Cooper (1989: 3–11) and Spolsky (2004: 63–65) so clearly show, politically and socially highly significant that in 1635 Richelieu obtained from the king, Louis XIII, letters patent for an existing 'academy of music and prose'. The Académie française was charged with establishing and monitoring stringent rules to maintain the language in a fixed state of order and purity. This concern with the corpus was never completely separate from the more ambitious aims involved in status and acquisition planning. Fumaroli, a present-day academician (quoted on the web site, Académie francaise, Language, Le français, langue de la nation) says that Richelieu founded the Académie to 'give to the unity of the kingdom forged by political power, a language and a style which would symbolise and cement that unity.'

It is important to note that achieving this political unity resulted in marginalisation of other social groups and their ways of speaking and writing, and in a concentration of power in the hands of a very small, highly educated and ambitious group of courtiers. This intimate connection between the supreme political power in France and the language has continued, although the nature of that supreme power has changed:

Cardinal Richelieu had proclaimed himself the protector of the Academy. When he died, this protection was exercised by Chancellor Séguier, then by Louis XIV and, following him, by all the succeeding kings, emperors and heads of state of France. (web site, Académie francaise, Language, Le français, langue de la nation)

We examine the ongoing role of the Académie française in Chapter 3, pp. 50–55.

The Académie web site also recalls that one of the stated aims of Richelieu's ambitious project was de la [la langue française] rendre pure et compréhensible par tous (to make it [the French language] pure and understandable by everyone). The apparently laudable aim of codifying the language so that all French people could understand one another echoes Article 110 of François 1er's 1539 Ordonnance: 'qu'il n'y ait, ni puisse avoir, aucune ambiguité ou incertitude' (so that there should not be, nor could be, any ambiguity or lack of clarity). It also however begs the questions of which of the languages of France was to be the vehicle of the centralised power and who were the people capable of understanding, speaking and writing it. The mantra of comprehensibility for all was to be reiterated by the revolutionaries, but it would not be until the 20th century that the massive efforts of radically different kinds of political power would eventually achieve, for a variety of political ends, the imposition of something approaching a single national language capable of boasting that it was at last universally comprehensible.

One of the most influential figures in the history of the language in the 17th century was the académicien Claude Favre de Vaugelas (1585–1650). He was charged by the Académie with the preparation of the dictionary – one of four works it set out to produce in order to meet the terms of its statutes. In the century of its creation, the Académie itself published only the dictionary. It was Vaugelas who wrote a grammar of French: Remarques sur la langue française (Remarks on the French Language), an extremely influential work which fixed the rules of 'le bon usage' (correct usage). Vaugelas was subsequently credited with being 'l'organe le plus accrédité du meilleur et du plus pur parler de la France' (the most respected voice of the best and purest speech of France) (Sainte-Beuve). As later chapters show, the importance of the purity of the language, a concern of both Richelieu and Vaugelas, is still agitating the résistants and it is an idea also characterising attempts to defend language in other countries (Chapter 5).

The plus pur parler de la Francewas furthered strengthened by the appearance in 1660 of the influentialGrammaire générale et raisonnée de Port-Royal (General Logical Grammar of Port-Royal) and in 1694 the long-awaited first edition of the dictionary of the Académie finally appeared. So, at the start of the 18th century, the French language was already allied to political power and defended, codified, controlled and protected to a degree unknown in other European countries.

Enlightenment and Revolution: The 18th Century

For the purposes of this study, the first notable linguistic event in the 18th century was the 1714 Treaty of Rastadt, which established French as the language of diplomacy throughout Europe, a status it was to maintain until the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. The consciousness of the prestige enjoyed by French during those years is still evident in the way some of its modern defenders think, speak and write about it.

This was the century of the Enlightenment, and French thinkers were at the forefront of the dramatic new intellectual developments in Europe. Fumaroli shows the extent to which the French language dominated intellectual life in Europe during this century 'where the French are at home everywhere, where Paris is the second homeland of all foreigners, and where France is the focus of interest for Europeans' (2001: 9).

Numerous codifications (grammars) of the language appeared during the century of the Enlightenment, but an event still resonating in the national consciousness was the essay written by Antoine de Rivarol (1753–1801) for the competition organised by the Berlin Academy in 1783: Discours sur l'universalité de la langue française (Discourse on the universality of the French language) (web site, Universität Wien, Rivarol text).

The fact that the competition was organised in Berlin is striking testimony of the widespread view held at the time that French was the universal language. Thus, even in cases where the focus of attention was apparently exclusively on language (corpus), awareness of its potential for the extension of political and cultural influence and status outside France was never entirely absent. The remarks made about the mission of the Académie by Maurice Druon (1995), the then Secrétaire perpétuel, prove that this conviction has endured: 'to give reliable rules to our language, to maintain its purity, to ensure that it is always able to speak with precision about all arts and sciences, and so to protect the characteristics which make it universal'11 (web site, Académie française, Statutes). This preoccupation with universality – apparently a specific feature of French – is found in the writings and pronouncements of both private and government defenders of the language today (for example Gilder, 1993).


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