12/28/2008

Can French compete with France's local tongues?

The French elites love posturing as protectors of language diversity on the world stage, but everyone knows that there is nothing they fear more than competition, starting at home:
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. 
 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. 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!”   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."

20 Jun 2008
debaron@uiuc.edu

Edited Date: 23 Jul 2008

6 comments:

Brian Barker said...

As the “International Year of Languages” comes to an end, you may be interested in the contribution, made by the World Esperanto Association, to UNESCO's campaign for the protection of endangered languages.

The following declaration was made in favour of Esperanto, by UNESCO at its Paris HQ in December 2009. http://portal.unesco.org/culture/en/ev.php-URL_ID=38420&URL_DO=DO_PRINTPAGE&URL_SECTION=201.html

The commitment to the campaign to save endangered languages was made, by the World Esperanto Association at UNESCO's Geneva HQ.
http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=eR7vD9kChBA&feature=related

Ronduck said...

France is one of the few nations refusing to sign the European Union’s charter giving legal rights to minority-language speakers.

I have to agree with the French state in not binding itself to a EU treaty. If EU treatys are as bad as UN ones then it is better for France to stay out. I personally think that French should remain the language of education and administration, for the sake of natinal unity. If speakers of other languages want to maintian them they can do so at their own expense.

This reminds me of the Indians here in my state of Arizona. The US government had a policy of eliminating native languages until about the 1970's. Despite this a Navajo Indian I know in his early 40's didn't encounter English until he left the reservation at the age of 21. For most smaller tribes the fight to save their languages is over and they lost. The Navajos have at least 130k members so they are more likely to hold on.

Ronduck said...

Oops!

Unfrench Frenchman said...

"I have to agree with the French state in not binding itself to a EU treaty. If EU treatys are as bad as UN ones then it is better for France to stay out."
I have to agree with you on this. The notion of language rights and language protection can be dangerous as the example of Canada and especially Quebec shows, where linguistic repression and discrimination against Anglos is rampant. I think the best thing is to neither protect nor persecute languages and let people use what languages they want. Therefore I am against the central state declaring any language official. There is no mention of an official language in the federal constitution of either Germany or the US and I believe this to be a good thing.

" I personally think that French should remain the language of education and administration, for the sake of natinal unity. "
I think education and general administration should become the prerogative of regions in France, not that of central government. France ought to move to federalism. In Germany, education is the resort of the Laender rather than the federal state. Germany's federal structure is the reason why Germany is much more efficiently run than France, and quality of life is much higher in most areas of the country. This federal structure has not led to any loss of national unity and it could even be argued that national unity is stronger in Germany than in France.

My take on this is that if you are going to decentralize fiscal policy, local taxpayers should have a right to decide if they want to support the teaching of languages other than French or, say, to fund schooling in languages other than French.

I personally would not want my money used by the state to subsidize either minority tongues or French: in a democracy, government should be trying to speak the language of the people rather than try to force the people to speak its language. I am also in favor of the government withdrawing from providing education as I believe that it is up to the families to educate their children.

Ronduck said...

I am also in favor of the government withdrawing from providing education as I believe that it is up to the families to educate their children.

Among a homogeneous people that is probably the best solution of all.

Ronduck said...

I think education and general administration should become the prerogative of regions in France, not that of central government.

Having the departments or some other lower level of government do most of the administration would be great. But a country does need a common language. If France cannot maintain a common language then it should either breakup internally like switzerland or break up into separate countries.

Having said that, I still believe that French should be the language of the French state. The massive bureaucracy that has been built up to propagate French overseas should be eliminated as should the domestic language authorities. All local school systems should be required to teach French, beyond that they can teach what they want.