The Spirit of Cotonou

Finally, some helpful advice to the French on how to enhance the role of their language in the world



French Speaker

I HAVE on one or two occasions made note in this space of the longstanding antipathy of the French people toward the infiltration of English words into their language -- an attitude that has often been backed up with ugly threats and attempts at legal redress. I have no desire to belabor the issue at this time, although the past few years have witnessed the most intense level of such activity since the mid-1980s.

In 1994, for example, France's National Assembly enacted the so-called Loi Toubon, a law named for its champion, the French Culture Minister, Jacques Toubon. The law called for a ban, enforceable by fines of up to $1,800 and by prison terms, on the use of foreign words in business or government communications, in broadcasting, and in advertising if "suitable equivalents" existed in French. (A committee had previously been established to draw up suitable equivalents where none existed; the committee's work has resulted in the coining of 3,500 new French words, mostly to replace English-language ones.) France's Constitutional Council, the country's highest judicial body, eventually weakened the law, applying it only to government documents, but not before a bill was introduced in the British Parliament that would have authorized ordinary traffic wardens in Britain to impose stiff fines on the spot whenever they heard a French word spoken.

The Toubon controversy notwithstanding, last year another language-content law went into effect in France, mandating that at least 40 percent of all the songs played on the country's 1,300 FM stations be French songs -- a situation that one disc jockey compared to asking artists to paint 40 percent of their work in blue. Nor has French-language chauvinism been limited to France. Last spring in Quebec the provincial government banned the distribution during Passover of imported kosher food that had been labeled only in English. As Jews attempted to celebrate their deliverance from Egypt, the Francophone response amounted, in effect, to a declaration of "Ils ne passeront pas," Marshal Pétain's defiant slogan at Verdun.

. . .

But, as I say, I don't wish to belabor episodes like these. For whereas efforts to discriminate against English words in French are at once irritating and futile, a parallel and positive effort by the French simply to promote the wider use of their language seems to be gathering strength and is, to my mind, altogether admirable. Why should not speakers of French seek greater worldwide resonance for the tongue that Anatole France once likened to a woman "so beautiful, proud, modest, strong, touching, voluptuous, chaste, noble, intimate, crazy, and good that one loves her with all one's being"?

The efforts in behalf of French have been advanced along several fronts. One is demographic: increasing the production of native French-speakers. The French have for centuries been as worried about their birth rate as the English have been about their digestion, and in a series of recent public pronouncements aimed at private-sector initiative, the French Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, has sought to induce new spasms of fecundity.

A second front involves the work of a once-moribund organization called La Francophonie, which is made up of France and some fifty former French colonies and other French-speaking nations. In an effort to boost the group's international influence, La Francophonie has created the post of general secretary; its occupant will attempt to mold the membership into a coherent bloc. La Francophonie has also dangled membership before countries that may hitherto have had only an attenuated experience of French, such as Bulgaria, Equatorial Guinea, Moldova, and Sao Tome and Principe, all of which have in fact joined the organization. These countries, lured perhaps by an expectation of trade advantages, may not represent a force multiplier, as military strategists like to say, but they do represent a start. (And, to be fair, a Bulgarian connection does exist. The French word macédoine, meaning "hodge-podge," is derived from the name of the Balkan region known as Macedonia, whose ethnic diversity is its distinguishing trait, and whose incorporation into a greater Bulgaria was once hotly desired by Bulgarian nationalists.)

A year ago, at the biennial meeting of La Francophonie, in Cotonou, Benin, France's new President, Jacques Chirac, issued a call for French-speakers to stake a claim on the Internet (the inforoute, he actually called it), a communications medium that otherwise seems destined to become an English-language monopoly. In making the case for "linguistic pluralism and cultural diversity" on the inforoute, Chirac observed that if even French, which is spoken by some 150 million people -- making it No. 9 in the world, after Chinese, Hindustani, Russian, English, Spanish, Arabic, Bengali, and Portuguese -- is faced with uncertain prospects, the situation must be much worse for smaller languages, which in Chirac's view risk "complete eradication."

The point is hard to dispute. Some languages manage to maintain a certain vitality even in death, so great was once their sway. In England the Treasury Minister was recently subjected to withering scorn when, ex nihilo, he promulgated an edict prohibiting Latin tag phrases in departmental memoranda. In Finland -- which, unlike England, was never even a part of the Roman Empire -- a weekly news program in Latin called (News in Latin) is broadcast on national radio and transmitted worldwide by satellite. Latin's future is secure. But what about the future of Flemish, Irish, or Inuit, not to mention Navajo or Topoiyo?

Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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