Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Language Amendment

"Regional languages are part of the national patrimony." So reads a proposed amendment to the Constitution. Who could object to an anodyne statement of fact? Well, the Académie Française, for one, and, as of yesterday, the Senate. Because a statement of fact ceases to be a statement of fact when it is enshrined in the very preamble to the constitution as a defining feature of French national identity. This morning I received an interesting comment from an old friend of the blog, Steve Rendall:

Our local paper--the Depeche du Midi--had a screaming headline today suggesting that the Senate's rejection of an amendment to the constitution recognizing that regional languages are part of the country's patrimony meant a prohibition on using Occitan (that wasn't quite what the headline said, but I think that's what most readers will take it to say). Nowhere in the accompanying article was it said precisely what the implications of the amendment or its suppression would be. The amendment was sponsored by the government, but only tepidly; the main opposition to suppressing the amendment came from the Socialists and the Greens, who see things quite differently from the Revolutionary forbears, who were among the first to insist that regional languages had to be subordinated to French. But even the UMP was not unanimous in support; as one UMP senator put it, "Nos enfants parlent Texto, il faut renforcer le français et ce n'est pas en faisant appel aux langues régionales [qu'on le fera]." In any event, it seems pretty clear that the government is not going to forbid speaking, writing, or even teaching regional languages (my daughter studied Occitan in elementary school), and that the regional papers, as usual, are indulging in hysterical demagogy on this point.


It seems that regional language courses are quite popular in certain parts of the country. No one is proposing to shut them down. Let a thousand flowers bloom. I understand the urge to recover one's "roots," though I wish more people were inclined rather to develop "branches," to exfoliate new growth turned toward the light rather than burrow down into the dark earth in search of a seed that no longer exists. I wouldn't impose my preference on anyone, but I wouldn't want to see the preferences of others given special constitutional prominence. A constitution is a special kind of document. It should seek to express a spirit. The more encumbered it becomes with technicalities and special pleading, the more likely it is to collapse of its own weight. The Lisbon treaty exemplifies this error. The Fifth Republic shouldn't follow Europe down that wrong path.

11 comments:

David A. Bell said...

I quite agree with this post, and would go farther. I think that this amendment will be understood as an act of repentance towards the regional languages, and as such will perpetuate an unfortunate historical stereotype, namely that of the French state's supposed hostility towards these languages. The fact is that while the state has often expressed hostility towards the regional languages, it has undertaken relatively little coercive action on the subject, and has often encouraged their study and speaking, in explicitly "folkloric" contexts. The famous Edict of Villers-Coterets did not even target these languages, despite what many historians think. The edict spoke of "langue maternel francois," which speakers at the time clearly understood as any maternal language spoken on French soil (the phrase in fact is best translated simply as "vernacular"). In modern times, by far the most important impetus for the disappearance of the regional languages has come from their own speakers, who have recognized the considerable benefits to their children of growing up fluent in standard French.

David Bell

Unknown said...

Thanks, David. Very interesting point about the edict.

David in Setouchi said...

David, you're missing one major moment in French history.
That is the French Republic.
It tried (and almost succeeded) to eradicate all regional languages to impose French over the whole territory. Even violent methods were being used at times (like badly beat up children that would speak their language at school). This is also why new teachers were always sent on the other side of the country to start their career.
The conscription played a big part too.

It was one of the many ways the Third Republic committed an almost cultural genocide all over France, destroying regional cultures and identities to assert the central power. The centralization could never have worked so well otherwise.

Also, you both seem to imply that regional languages are alive and well all over France, this is very far from the truth. Only the far away regions (from Paris perspective) still have regional languages that are spoken daily (only in the six corners of France).
In some other regions, regional languages have been taught again in recent years, but it's more a recent trend than anything else... Nobody speak them anymore.
For example I'm originally from the
South-West (an hour from Toulouse) and if it's "cool" nowadays to have your kids learning Occitan in class, the last people that speak it are very old people in the countryside. And when I say speak it, I mean: use an idiomatic expression once in a while.

To take a personal example, my Granpa still uses it occasionally (I think his mother spoke to him in Occitan a lot, but I'm not too sure), my mom understands it, but doesn't speak it at all, I don't even understand it.

But back to today's issue...
I totally agree that the line has nothing to do in the Constitution.
Now, I think the Académie Française and the Senate freaked out about it for the wrong reasons.
The Académie Française because it's a conservative and paranoid institution that thinks that evil forces (usually English ones, but also regionalist ones) have only one goal in mind: to destroy the French language by any mean necessary.
The Senate because it's a conservative and paranoid institution that thinks that acknowledging the existence of regional languages would give more power to France (by France I mean all of France that is not Paris) and undermine the Parisian centralized power, which in their mind will mean the end of the Republic and maybe of France itself...

And don't get me wrong, I don't think that non-Parisian French people should give up French and go back to the regional languages, what is done is done and I think a common language is important for national unity (watch Belgium and Canada), but I don't think it would hurt to acknowledge them as a part of the French identity.

(I also think that France is way to centralized to the point that France has pretty much become a colony of Paris, but you might have figured this out by now, and it's almost off topic)

Anonymous said...

While it is true that the Third Republic went to considerable, sometimes excessive lengths to impose "French" on the whole country, the initial impulse came from the 1789 Revolution, and on exactly the grounds that the second commenter mentioned: national unity (see Eugen Weber's wonderful "Peasants into Frenchmen"). That's why I find it slightly amusing that the Socialists should be supporting this amendment. --I'm sure the second commenter, being a native Frenchman, knows more about this than I do, but I also live an hour (north) of Toulouse, and many older people in my village still speak Occitan to each other at home, and nearly everyone over the age of fifty understands it. Nonetheless, I agree that the study of Occitan in the schools is not going to lead to a new generation of Occitan speakers, which means that the language is soon going to be a "dead" one.

David in Setouchi said...

I didn't mention the Revolution, because if I'm not wrong, it did impose French to the whole territory, but didn't try to destroy the regional languages.

What village do you live in? I'm really surprised to hear that some people still speak Occitan at home.
Are you sure of that?
Cause, yeah, older rural people will use a bunch of Occitan expressions mixed in their French, but speaking Occitan as a "full" language today, I've never heard of that... Maybe in remote parts of Aveyron or Tarn???

Unknown said...

Hello everyone,

I just wanted to say something on the subject.
I do not understand the fact that a public institution like the senate spends its time on such subject.
I willingly recognise the fact that regional languages are important for the identity of a region, or for some people. Today, nor the state nor anyone else should decide what language people should speak.
Thus, such an amendment has nothing to do in a constitution. On this point, Arthur is right, saying this is the kind of things that has destroyed both European constitution in 2005 and Lisbon Treaty (at least for now). In a country saying that people are free, it should not conceivable for the state to decide whether or not such things as languages are "part of the national patrimony".
This is because of such an idea of France that the State, since the Revolution or at least the Third Republic has made of French people such losers in foreign languages. This idea of french and of national unity is decreasing the interest in this language of both foreigners and french pupils.

NB: please excuse-me for the mistakes that I made, I have not written in english in a long time.

David in Setouchi said...

Matthieu.
It is the Senate's job to decide the validity of such amendments. If you remove this from their duties, they won't have much left to do. ;-)

Whether a state should decide what language is spoken or not is up to debate, but it has nothing to do with today or yesterday or tomorrow.

And I think you're mixing up a few things here. The fact that French people are bad at foreign languages has nothing to do with the fact that French has been imposed to the nation. It has more to do with the fact that the way the Education Nationale teaches languages is wrong.
The French education is general is based on theory more than practice, on lectures and not on the Socratic method. Two things that just don't work with languages.
In France, one learns to read and write a language, not to speak it.
And yes, it's a shame.

Unknown said...

I recognise I did not express myself very clearly.:)
First, of course it is the job of the senate to decide of the validity of the amendment, I was just saying that I do not understand why politicians do want to put this kind of things into a constitution.

Second, my point was that imposing french in school in France has first jeopardized regional languages and second closed the door to an open-minded learning of foreign languages (They teach English in classes only because it is necessary to know it today, not because it could and would enrich the students). From the reaction of the senator in the article, I understand that the learning of every other language than french is seen as an attack. On this point, I fully join your position, David.
I think this position, and all its consequences, is a shame, because to learn a few languages is definitely an 'open-minding' factor.

Anonymous said...

Professor Bell has not yet responded to David #2, Steven Rendall, and mathieu, so I'll post a link to a recent review where he briefly discusses the historiography: http://www.powells.com/review/2008_02_07.html

See especially: "But Robb gives credence not only to Grégoire, but also to later groups that had an even more obvious interest in exaggerating France's language problems, notably educational officials seeking to justify vast projects of language instruction and regionalist militants seeking to justify political autonomy on the basis of linguistic difference."

The continuing popularity of Weber's argument (and its reincarnations) is intimately connected with what is now a popular neo-liberal myth/narrative about the evil centralizing/nationalizing state. It simply doesn't matter that Weber’s conclusions have been overturned. Ideologues will approach history in a selective manner picking up arguments they consider useful while ignoring countervailing evidence. Weber created a usable past.

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