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Notes & Comment -- January 1997

The Spirit of Cotonou

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

by Cullen Murphy


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 Nuntii Latini (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?

The question is not merely academic. Judging from examples in Howard Rheingold's They Have a Word For It, exotic languages harbor valuable conceptual resources, much the way exotic flora harbor commercial ones. The Tierra del Fuegan word mamihlapinatapei, which connotes "a meaningful look, shared between two people, expressing mutual unstated feelings," has potentially broad applications beyond its place of origin. The same could be said of such words in the language of Easter Island as anga-anga ("a thought, perhaps groundless, that one is being gossiped about, arising from one's own sense of guilt") and hakamaroo ("the act of keeping borrowed objects until the owner has to ask for them back"). It is perhaps not surprising that a sophisticated culture on Easter Island seems to have collapsed under mysterious circumstances.

. . .

That France should attempt to recolonize the world linguistically is surely more compatible with the aims of a great and confident power than is its attempt to preserve French as a genetically inviolate hothouse flower. And it is not hard to see how France, with a little ingenuity, could exert certain kinds of leverage to advance the spirit of Cotonou -- although, inexplicably, it has yet to do so.

Not long ago a few dozen demonstrators from Denmark descended on Paris to denounce France's plans to conduct nuclear testing underneath Mururoa atoll, in the South Pacific. Even though the Danes deferentially waged their campaign in the host country's native tongue (their T-shirts carried the slogan CHIRAC, NON!), which nationalists might have applauded, they were rounded up by the police and detained at their hotel. A better strategy by the Quai d'Orsay in this instance would have been to make an offer: France would forever desist from nuclear testing, everywhere, if in return French were adopted as the official language of the global environmental movement in all its internal and external communications -- adopted, that is, by Paix-Verte, Le Club de la Sierre, Les Amis de la terre, l'Audubon, and all the rest. This is a high-stakes quid pro quo that the environmentalists would have been seen as churlish to have refused.

The government of France or one of the country's giant corporate combines should also buy the Microsoft Corporation and, if possible, one or more of the major Hollywood studios. The inforoute and the telecommunications industry generally are driven by the need for content, and there is no reason that the content could not be at least superficially Gallicized. The dialogue in most movies would only be improved for being in French; often the titles (Mission: Impossible) would not even have to change. France easily commands the resources to become a player. Could Bill Gates be persuaded to sell his Microsoft shares? To replace his prized compound outside Seattle, France should offer Gates a new "campuslike" setting outside Paris, perhaps at Versailles, where he might even find a dwelling commensurate with his apparent needs.

Finally, the French ought to give some thought to learning how to swim the English Channel. The characteristics of the English language that have assured its good fortune -- its outward-looking ambition, its embrace of the new and the foreign -- are reflected in the fact that of the 760 or so Channel crossings made thus far, almost all have been made by "Anglo-Saxons" (as the French style Britons and Americans when lumping them together). Only six have been made by French swimmers. This is perhaps mere symbolism -- but quelle symbolisme!

. . .

A word of caution to English-speaking peoples: even as we welcome competition in the open marketplace, we must beware attempts to divide and conquer. Maurice Druon, the perpetual secretary of the fabled Académie Française and therefore one of France's most vociferous language gendarmes, has quietly suggested in a small journal that circulates among hidebound British elites that Great Britain set up a forty-member English Academy modeled on the French one, and that the two academies together take on the "dark tide" of "Amerenglish." Should such an unlikely eventuality come to pass, I would hope that Americans would create an academy of their own. At the very least, the complex process of picking forty representative members -- George F. Will or Deion Sanders? Gertrude Himmelfarb or Madonna? Vernon Jordan or Mel Brooks? -- would remind M. Druon of the diverse resources at Amerenglish's disposal.

Illustration by Dave Calver


Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January, 1997; The Spirit of Cotonou; Volume 279, No. 1; pages 14 - 16.

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