Local language recognition angers French academy

Dennis Baron debaron at illinois.edu
Fri Jun 20 17:07:06 UTC 2008


Local language recognition angers French academy
Angelique Chrisafis in Paris
The Guardian, Tuesday June 17, 2008
Article history
For years France's regional languages were seen by Paris as a taboo  
that threatened national unity and should be repressed - children were  
punished for speaking Breton in the playground, banned from speaking  
Occitan in southern schools or Alsatian dialect in the east. But now,  
just as the French parliament has taken a historic step to recognise  
minority languages in the constitution, a new war of words has broken  

L'Académie française, the institution that defends the purity of  
French, yesterday issued a furious warning that recognising regional  
languages in the constitution would be "an attack on French national  
identity". In turn, local language militants criticised the academy as  
a ridiculous relic of outdated nationalism.

The row has highlighted how far France differs from other European  
countries in the defence of minority tongues. Unlike the UK, which has  
acted to protect languages such as Welsh and Scottish Gaelic, France  
is one of the few European states which refuses to ratify the European  
charter for minority languages and give legal status to its various  
language groups.

France boasts 75 regional languages, including those spoken in far- 
flung territories from the Indian Ocean to South America. Regional  
languages such as Alsatian, Occitan, Corse, Breton and Basque, and  
even smaller ones such as Béarnaise and Picard, have increasingly  
powerful and well-organised lobby groups. Parents have campaigned to  
set up regional language schools outside the state system, while the  
state has started offering some bilingual classes.

But minority languages have no legal status and are deemed by Unesco  
to be dying out. Before 1930 one in four French people spoke a  
regional language to their parents; that figure has nosedived.

Last month the parliament broke a taboo by holding a debate and  
agreeing to insert a line in the constitution recognising local  
languages as part of French heritage. "Speaking or singing in Breton,  
Alsatian or Basque doesn't stop you being patriotic," said one Breton  
MP. All parties were unanimous.

But before the senate examines the issue today, l'Académie française  
has objected, warning that writing regional languages into the  
constitution would dilute French identity.

Dàvid Grosclaude, president of Occitan language group l'Institut  
d'Estudis Occitans, issued an open letter to the academy, which he  
called "full of bitterness, resentment and fear" and too blinkered to  
recognise France's diverse citizenship.

Philippe Jacq, director of l'Office de la Langue Bretonne, said the  
constitutional change was only a small step, and France must provide  
legal recognition and sign the European charter.

He said: "All we ask for is to speak our languages in public life, to  
have services in our languages, for parents to have the right for  
their children to be taught in the language of their choice."

Small Talk

Alsatian Dialect of German spoken in Alsace and Lorraine (at times  
part of German state) by 500,000 in 1999; only 15% pass it on to  
children, though 160,000 pupils learn it at school

Occitan or Langue d'oc; 780,000 speakers in southern Europe in 1999,  
half in Aquitaine and Midi-Pyrénées

Corse Spoken by 90,000 on the island, and studied by 90% of primary  

Breton or Brezhoneg Celtic language spoken by one million in Britanny  
at start of 20th century; now down to 270,000, with two-thirds aged  
over 60

· This article was amended on Thursday June 19 2008. A panel in the  
article above about France's regional languages gave the Breton word  
for the Breton language as Breizh. That is the word for Brittany. The  
language is Brezhoneg. This has been corrected.

Dennis Baron
Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English
University of Illinois
608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801

office: 217-244-0568
fax: 217-333-4321


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