Bastille Day 2008

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Jul 15 18:08:27 UTC 2008

Bastille Day 2008 July 14, 2008 @ 12:58 pm·

Filed by Bill Poser under Language and politics

Today, July 14, is Bastille Day, the 218th anniversary of the Fête de
la Fédération, the 219th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille,
and the national day of France. On this day we celebrate the French
Revolution, the end of feudalism, the disestablishment of the church,
and the promulgation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of
the Citizen. For some of us it is also a day that reminds us of Jim
McCawley. From a linguistic point of view, however, the French
Revolution was a disaster. The monarchy had been largely unconcerned
with what languages its subjects spoke. At the time, the languages
spoken by natives of France included six Romance languages: French,
Occitan, Franco-Provencal, Walloon, Catalan, and Corsican (a dialect
of Italian), the Germanic languages Flemish and German, the Celtic
language Breton, and Basque. Some of these, especially French and
Occitan, each had numerous divergent forms. Additional languages, such
as Berber and Tahitian, now qualify as "French". A full list may be
found in the Cerquiglini report Les Langues de la France.

One of the effects of the Revolution was to bring about a greatly
increased centralization of the French government and a policy of
establishing a standard form of French as the only language of the
Republic. I emphasize that the policy adopted was not merely to ensure
that all French citizens shared a common language, but to eliminate
all competitors. This is readily seen in the title of the report by
the Abbé Grégoire establishing the policy: Rapport sur la nécessité et
les moyens d'anéantir les patois et d'universaliser la langue
française "Report on the necessity and means of annihlating the
dialects and of making the French Language universal". Since the
Revolution, all French governments have been hostile to minority

This policy has been quite successful. Today, virtually all of the
minority languages of France are endangered. The only exceptions are
languages such as Catalan, which is not endangered because it is
spoken primarily outside of France. Grégoire was a genuine
progressive. Though a priest, he played a leading role in the
abolition of the privileges of the clergy and the nobility and was the
first to call for the abolition of the monarchy in the National
Convention of 1792. It was he who first called for Louis XVI to be
brought to trial. He was an early advocate of racial equality. Due,
however, to his influence, regional and linguistic minorities in
France have not enjoyed the support of the political left that they
have received in some other countries.

French linguistic policy is not quite as bad as it used to be. It is,
for example, now legal to teach minority languages in French schools.
Even so, the situation of minority languages in France is very much
that of second-class citizens. For example, in 1974 I attended high
school classes in Occitan in Bergerac. Occitan was offered at five
o'clock on Friday afternoons. To this day, France has not ratified the
1992 European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which it
cannot do without modifying its constitution, which makes French the
sole official language of France. (Lest it be thought that this is due
to a perhaps understandable unwillingness to tinker with the
constitution, I note that the Constitution of the Fifth Republic has
been amended 23 times since its promulgation in 1958.)

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