Will French surrender to English?
July 7, 2003 9:51 AM   Subscribe

Are the days of French as a world language numbered? The French language is still considered a "world language," but it is slowly losing its relevance in an English-dominated world. "What is at stake is the survival of our culture. It is a life or death matter," said Jacques Viot, head of the Alliance Francaise in Paris. Will French finally surrender to English?
posted by laz-e-boy (58 comments total)
merde! 40 years ago they were blathering about the same crapola. translate crapola to french once! :-)
posted by quonsar at 9:55 AM on July 7, 2003

Professor: "We could run it through the universal translator, but it only translates into an dead incomprehensible language."


Translator: "Bonjour."
posted by benjh at 9:57 AM on July 7, 2003

I can't see what difference it makes. The loss of a language is tragic to me, but the decline of French as a language of diplomacy matters little. There are still plenty of native speakers.

I actually relish any bastardization of French because France is so stereotypically snotty about it. The connotation of the word "patois", which French nationals use to describe any dialect outside the Parisian, is ugly. I know many native speakers of the Quebecois dialect, and the laughs and smirks that they get from European French speakers are just unnecessary.
posted by Mayor Curley at 10:09 AM on July 7, 2003

After two years in Montreal, Quebec, all I can say is "Le *snicker*"
posted by severed at 10:12 AM on July 7, 2003

Using French is so passé.
posted by salmacis at 10:21 AM on July 7, 2003

And so gauche.
posted by signal at 10:24 AM on July 7, 2003

All I can say is that I spent two hours speaking French and English with my girlfriend's parents last night, and I really didn't sense any "surrender".

Which is a good thing.
posted by jon_kill at 10:29 AM on July 7, 2003

And cliché.
posted by widdershins at 10:30 AM on July 7, 2003

'I actually relish any bastardization of French because France is so stereotypically snotty about it.'
*heheh* So sterotypically American ;-)

There's a sub-editor sits behind me that would say that American business folks have killed the English language stone dead.
posted by i_cola at 10:31 AM on July 7, 2003

On a more serious note, the whole idea of having to "protect" a language is ludicrous. Languages are lving things, which rise or fall solely based on their continued usage and adaptation by people. The notion that language has some "pure" state (which usually coincides with the language spoken by the observer's friends during his youth) is self-evidently absurd. It's right up there with racial-purity both for its intelectual rigor and social applications.
posted by signal at 10:36 AM on July 7, 2003

The great shift, boiled down to essentials...

Old language of diplomacy:

raison d'etre; comme il faut; je ne sais quoi; s'il vous plait

New language of diplomacy:

You want a piece of me? Let's go, pussy!!!
posted by soyjoy at 10:39 AM on July 7, 2003

40 years ago they were blathering about the same crapola.

déjà vu.
posted by eddydamascene at 10:41 AM on July 7, 2003

France already lost this battle when the term "le weekend" came into common parlance.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:41 AM on July 7, 2003

Signal, try telling that to someone who feels their tool for interacting with the people and world around them is threatened. The evolution of the French language, and all languages, will be an ongoing thing, and should be welcomed. However, the replacement of one with another is bound to rankle.
posted by jon_kill at 10:43 AM on July 7, 2003

I wonder if the Romans felt that way about what the French were speaking, 1700 years ago. Of all the ... Gaul.
posted by coelecanth at 10:51 AM on July 7, 2003

Purity = sterility = death.

A "pure" language is a doomed language, fated to become increasingly inbred until it simply fades away. Languages do not replace others -- they outbreed them, fitting splinter groups into every niche they can find.

That used to be true of French (Creole, anyone?), but then the bastards at the Academy began their multi-decade campaign to kill their own tongue.
posted by aramaic at 10:52 AM on July 7, 2003

forget 'le weekend" what about le w/c?
posted by soplerfo at 10:53 AM on July 7, 2003

Will French finally surrender to English?
posted by cinderful at 10:57 AM on July 7, 2003

Worth pointing out that in Quebec, resistance to both the French purity and their subsequent corruption of the language is alive and well. "Magasiner" is used in place of "shopping", and "fin de semaine" instead of the dreaded "weekend".

Indeed, the French seem to exhibit a rabid affection for the English present participle, and so go "skiing", "camping" and "shopping" far more often than the Quebecois.

All that being said, nothing will raise your spirits like hearing that something is fucké.
posted by jon_kill at 11:08 AM on July 7, 2003

And Le Parking (par-keeng)

It's all trompe l'oeil: vis a vis theft, English has lifted more from French. Any one for pie a la mode? Some nouveau riches undergoing voir dire? Shall we watch the grand prix or a film noir?

Also, I think the Gauls were speaking a Celtic kind of German until Caesar showed up with Latin. Vulgar Latin yet.
posted by CunningLinguist at 11:17 AM on July 7, 2003

but then the bastards at the Academy began their multi-decade campaign to kill their own tongue.

a dogmatic position with no real basis. the attempt to keep french from becoming polluted first of all has some nice logical reasons:
1-if english words are kept out, french will be easier to learn for children, because anglicisms will undermine its internal logic. of course any language has an internal logic that's pretty mangled but the logic is there, and children must learn some amount of exceptions...
2-these academics believe that their language is part of their cultural heritage, and each french word that loses its popular currency to make room in the public's head for a foreign word leaves less variety in world discourse.

it's just an experiment they're trying over there, no need to get upset about it, i think.

now, what is interesting, is to what extent such an enterprise foreshadows the mechanization of language which will come with voice recognition and better ai. presumably a very pure language, and a very simple one, will be easiest for a computer to learn to imitate?
posted by mitchel at 11:17 AM on July 7, 2003

mitchel: french and most other languages are complete bastardizations, mish-mashes of a hundred other dialects. The only "pure" (whatever that means) languages would be basque and other isolates, which show no signs of being easier to learn or better in any sense. Would English be easier to learn without the vocabulary it picked up from French? I doubt it.
A pure language is actually a hindrance to communicating outside of your linguistic group. It's much easier to pick up other languages when your birth-tongue already contains some of their words.
posted by signal at 11:31 AM on July 7, 2003

Basque is an absolute maze of declensions for everything. I took one look at it and decided I'd better try something simple like German (hah) before I even think about it. Maybe Mandarin Chinese.

But back on the topic... I expect there is something of a relationship between language and cultural change, and language shifts can be something of a concern for those who feel that their culture has something unique and different to offer.
posted by namespan at 11:43 AM on July 7, 2003

There are many many languages which are in a much worse state than French. The more well known ones tend to be native american languages which at any given time there are quite a few with <1000 speakers. One that I happen to know about is a onondaga, a Mohawk (Iriquois) dialect with 65-110 native speakers left, and virtually no written documentation compared to indo-european languages. This is quite typical (and even perhaps well-off); another language family I took a class on at one point has a member eastern abenake which has only one known native speaker at this point. Ethnologue lists 417 languages that they classify as nearly extinct. Most of these are languages, unlike the better-known examples, where there is no political interest in language-preservation.

Aside from various social arguments that languages shouldn't be allowed to go extinct if at all possible, there is also the fact that most of the ones which do, are radically different from well-studied languages like english (and french) in ways that are often unusual. If we are ever to understand how language works (cognitively) we will probably need languages like these.

In contrast, the ethnologue entry for french gives the number of native speakers in all countries as 77 million, and says that it is spoken in 53 countries besides France.
posted by advil at 11:52 AM on July 7, 2003

I expect there is something of a relationship between language and cultural change,

Yes. I don't know any foreign languages well, but I find that as I wade in even shallowly I encounter concepts that didn't exist. I enjoyed the discussion of Saudade here on MeFi months back, and the Samoan word mana continues to fascinate me: from what I can tell it refers to a kind of power that a person is charged with, not because of who they themselves are but their relationship with their community, their ancestors and unborn descendants. Some say that mana makes each meeting between two people dangerous, and care must be taken to achieve a discharging correspondence with the person.

Granted, the concept is not entirely wrapped up in words... but it's often encountered in that way be the young and the outsiders. There are a lot of things in life you speak of before you experience, so language is important to shaping cultural understanding, and given how sensitive human beings are to context and cues, I can see that even subtle language changes can have an influence.

On preview: advil, I'd guess Samoan and most languages of the pacific are in much worse shape than French. It's a pity. Samoan is the first language that really pulled me into another world and made me believe that learning another language was worthwhile in many ways beyond the value of communication with others.
posted by weston at 11:58 AM on July 7, 2003

Offtopic, but funny/sad piece from The Onion a few years ago: Klingon Speakers Now Outnumber Navajo Speakers
posted by RylandDotNet at 12:15 PM on July 7, 2003

Also, I think the Gauls were speaking a Celtic kind of German until Caesar showed up with Latin.

Yep, it's called Gallic (not far off from Gaelic, eh?). Lots of "ks" sounds in the language (names at least), hence the French popular cartoon charactors "Asterix et Obelix."
posted by me3dia at 12:18 PM on July 7, 2003

vis a vis theft, English has lifted more from French

This is if anything understated. A substantial part of English actualy is French.

BTW, has anyone noticed that when there are two words for a thing, the "plain" word is often the one with germanic origins and the "fancy" one has French origins?

Buy: Germanic. Purchase: French
Get: Germanic. Receive: French
Give: Germanic. Donate: French

Note that advertisers always use the short, germanic word when they want to make it sound simple and easy, and the french-based one when they want to make it sound special. They invite you to "buy" something, then congratulate you for "purchasing" it.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:31 PM on July 7, 2003

languagehat, where ARE you?
posted by widdershins at 12:32 PM on July 7, 2003

"The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary." - James D. Nicoll
posted by RylandDotNet at 12:36 PM on July 7, 2003

The idea of controlling the development of language is ree-dee-kyoool. I adore French, but les dingdongs supporting purity campaigns apparently think that they can control language. Language defines and controls us more than we define and control it. It changes constantly, which is beautiful. The best we can do is try to keep up with it. Also, what signal said.
posted by squirrel at 12:46 PM on July 7, 2003

signal, Basque is not "pure", at least not in the sense you mean. About a third of Basque vocabulary has Romance roots. (Yup, I was browsing Wikipedia on the weekend).
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:54 PM on July 7, 2003

Ryland, that's a good way of putting it. But I think Mitchel has a point. We love to ridicule the Acadamie for their quixotic attempts to stem the tide of progress, but our attitude may be colored by English-language Chauvinism (hah!). In other words, just because our language is a pie-faced, motley amalgam of other languages from all over, doesn't mean we should prescribe that another language should be. Sure, all languages borrow and/or steal, but the internal consistency of French has always been much, much stronger than English, as French has the backbone of the Romance Languages to make sense out of most of its words, while English has... uh... what? French?
posted by soyjoy at 12:57 PM on July 7, 2003

George_Spiggot, the fancy word is usually more Latin than French. In some cases it's obvious that the Latin term was actually derived as a euphemism for something that was considered unmentionable: "fornicate" vs "fuck", "defecate" vs "shit" etc etc. The more hifalutin one comes into usage and the older form comes to be considered vulgar. (And remember that "vulgar" itself derives from the Latin word for "common.") This happens with other language pairs, too. I learned about it in a Japanese class.
posted by coelecanth at 1:05 PM on July 7, 2003

Also animal names are usually germanic when in the field and Old French at the table:

Pig / Pork

Cow / Beef

Goose / Pate Fois-Gras

i_am_joe's_spleen: did not know that, consider myself enlightened.
posted by signal at 1:13 PM on July 7, 2003

Coelecanth, I'm no linguist, and I'm sure you're right about many words, but it's my understanding that we owe the routine inclusion of latinate roots in English words not to the sort of deliberate inclusion you describe (although that does happen with both Greek and Latin, especially for science and technology coinages, viz Television -- a bastard amalgam of Greek and Latin) but through the infusion of Norman French after the Conquest. All Saxon language was by definition vulgar for a time, a prejudice that seems to survive to this day.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:16 PM on July 7, 2003

As an english speaker, I believe that we should all be sensitive to the concerns of groups like the Academie Francaise and Alliance Francaise, and support their efforts to maintain a distinct language and culture.

At least as sensitive as they have been toward Corsican, Breton, Occitan and the other native languages of France.

More dead and dying languages can be found here.
posted by pooligan at 1:29 PM on July 7, 2003

I'm glad to see mentions of Québec in this thread... As an Asian anglophone who grew up in Québec, I'm fluent in three languages with English being my preferred language. I personally couldn't give a damn about language purity as long as people understand each other. For instance, I work in a French environment where I can speak in English while others speak in French, and because everybody still understands each other, everybody gets along. Preservation of language/culture may be great, but evolution/progression of language/culture is kind of inevitable. Let's leave the preservation of language/culture to the museums and the linguists.
posted by freakystyley at 1:37 PM on July 7, 2003

My main complaint is that groups like Academie Francaise stiffle creativity and impose burdonsome bureaucratic controls. I mean really, how can anyone out their possibly attempt to defend an institution who's purpose is to shape language? I know you all have read 1984 because the word Orwellian pops up every other minute.

If the Bush administration proposed setting up an "indpendent" body who's job was to monitor America English and keep it "pure" Mefi would be filled with a flame thread the likes of which you have never seen.

Now, I don't really think the Academie Francais itself is a dangerous organization. I think it is silly and wastefull or resources like time and money that could be better spent elsewhere. But in principle I think the idea of some sort of quasi official body regulating a language is highly dangerous, and frankly, I'm surprised that more of you don't see it this way as well.
posted by pjgulliver at 1:40 PM on July 7, 2003

Hasta la vista, baby.
posted by Joeforking at 1:45 PM on July 7, 2003

soyjoy said: In other words, just because our language is a pie-faced, motley amalgam of other languages from all over, doesn't mean we should prescribe that another language should be.

I don't see it as a case of cultural imperialism, if that's what you're getting at. Nobody is forcing the French to use English words, or forcing them to stop speaking French. Some French people are clearly adopting English words and phrases because they're easier or more useful than French equivalents, if a French equivalent even exists. English is what it is, simply the most generally useful and widely accepted language that humans have come up with to date, largely because nobody has ever (successfully) tried to police it. I can see why some people think of it as McLanguage, though.
posted by RylandDotNet at 2:13 PM on July 7, 2003

Nope, I'm not talking about imperialism - it has nothing to do with us foisting something on the French - I'm only saying our attempts to grasp the issue may be distorted by our thinking of it in terms of our own, quite different, language.
posted by soyjoy at 2:25 PM on July 7, 2003

their: [Middle English, from Old Norse theira, theirs. See to- in Indo-European Roots.]

there: [Middle English, from Old English thr, thr. See to- in Indo-European Roots.]

Different roots, distinct routes, they're unrelated in meaning. I always post words commonly misspelt on my monitor, till I've gotten it learnt off by heart (however, I'm not a spelling Nazi: this is just a bugbear of mine)
posted by dash_slot- at 2:30 PM on July 7, 2003

So French is no longer the lingua franca?
posted by kirkaracha at 6:43 PM on July 7, 2003

soyjoy, you have a good point about possible distortion in our English-perspective inference. For me, this distortion emphasizes the ongoing changing nature of language. Language continually modifies, blends, distorts and replicates. William Burroughs called language a virus from outer space. I tend to think of it as its own organism, which we host. But then, I'm a little squirrely.

all languages borrow and/or steal

I find this metaphor lacking. The borrow-steal model suggests that there are discrete channels of language while from my view all language is organic and intertwined.

Languages take over new cultures, true, but the brutality of this transition is applied by hands and sticks and guns, not the language itself. Language migration per se is a passive process in that language must be apprehended to develop. No one has ever woken up from a fever having lost one language for another. Okay, well Jimmy Swaggart.

I find it very sad to see any language die. Some unique and beautiful way of experiencing the world lost to the ages, a mind frame lost forever. Anyone who has mastered a second language knows how differently various languages make you see and feel in the world.
posted by squirrel at 6:46 PM on July 7, 2003

Th french mus h8 it wen thr language is powned.
posted by ciderwoman at 12:09 PM on July 8, 2003

Je suis anglais, mais j'adore la langue française. A apprendre un autre langue que ta langue maternelle est merveilleuse et ce donner un nouveau perspicacité sur ta langue maternelle aussi. Peut-etre française vont bien au nouveau latin?

And, for what it's worth, knowing French (albeit badly) allows me to think in different ways to English. It's quite amazing how your way of thinking can change when you switch language.
posted by wackybrit at 3:59 PM on July 8, 2003

wackybrit, that's part of what I was getting at. You illustrated it somewhat, even, with "A apprendre," which I'm assuming you were intending as "To learn," when in French it would just be "Apprendre." A tiny error, but symptomatic of how we take what we know, in the way our language constructs it, and try to transfer it one-to-one to another culture, and then think we are comprehending what they're going through, when it's much harder than that, because they not only have a language with a different sort of history, they're talking about it, debating it, and thinking about it in that language.
posted by soyjoy at 8:12 PM on July 8, 2003

The less words I have to learn the gender of, the better. Le? La? Bah..

I'm reading Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson now - quite interestin..
posted by Mossy at 4:48 AM on July 9, 2003

Signal: "Languages are living things, which rise or fall solely based on their continued usage and adaptation by people".

You're describing some sort of ideal world were politics don't seem to exist. In the past may be many languages died a natural death but as organised forms of power started to regulate human societies languages have been increasingly "killed" intentionally and the more organised the power the more effectively it "killed" other languages regarded as a threat.

Even in France not many people know that the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man was translated into Provençal, Briton, Catalan, Alsatian, because a significant portion of France's population did not speak French. And what do we have now? All these languages have been marginalised in their own territories through the imposition of French in education, army, civil service, etc to the point that some or them like Provençal (widely spoken only a hundred years ago and with a thriving literature that even had a Nobel prize winner) are on the brink of disappearing.

I'm sad to see French's sphere of influence being reduced (I speak French and I think it's a beautiful language that's not responsible for the repression and other excesses the French have committed in its name) but it's even sadder to see that the French start to realise about the real value of linguistic diversity when it may be too late for many of the languages that contributed to France's linguistic richness...
posted by blogenstock at 8:34 AM on July 9, 2003

soyjoy: Yeah, you got it. I don't profess to be good at French, I've been studying French for ten years, and I am still appallingly bad (must be the way my brain works with languages), but you hit the nail on the head. It's quite a stretch to think in other languages, and it's quite a revelation when you master a certain number of idioms. Although, clearly, I have some way to go ;-)

The less words I have to learn the gender of, the better. Le? La? Bah..

In my studies of French I have always maintained that I will not explicitly bother to learn genders, unless they just naturally 'stick'. I don't want to be a French author or translator, so I don't consider it important. One of my French teachers, back in my schooldays, said that most French people do not explicitly learn genders either, and get them wrong a lot. So if it's good enough for the French, it's good enough for me! :-)
posted by wackybrit at 8:40 AM on July 9, 2003

For the record, wackybrit, I don't profess to be good at French either, but I was at one time. (look, Mom, my college years weren't wasted - I'm able to use that degree in commenting to MetaFilter!)

And: Sorry to keep coming back to this same point, but...

The existence of genders for nouns is another example of how a language can deeply affect the thought process / worldview. Even if they don't learn all of them (most French people know all the common nouns, since they're used all the time, and more complex words, like those ending in "-tion," have rules to help remember them), people using this language are speaking in a reality quite different from ours, in which objects are undifferentiated. Then again, they're able to speak about an unknown person ("on") without referring to his - I mean her - I mean his or her - gender. It all adds up.
posted by soyjoy at 9:21 AM on July 9, 2003

Soyjoy: I don't really buy this "whole other world" scenario of yours. In the romance languages, gender when applied to objects is merely a grammatical construct. For instance, "agua" (water) is female but takes the male pronoun (so: "El agua esta fria"). This doesn't cause any boggling of the mind to a native speaker, since we don't actually think of water as being of either sex, and I only noticed it when somebody learning the language pointed it out to me.

Also, Stephen Pinker makes the same point in reference to the german word "Schadenfreude" (delight in the misfortune of others). Some people use it as an example of the "different worldview" of germans, with the subtext that they're callous bastards, I suppose. Pinker remarks, though, that no one on hearing of ths word for the first time goes "Oh, my non-german mind can not grasp this concept, it is so alien". Most people actually say something like "You mean there's a word for that?".

Blogenstock: Point taken. But languages die hard. Case in point: Catalan and Basque, both jailable offenses under Franco in Spain, now widely used.
posted by signal at 10:02 AM on July 9, 2003

I don't get it, signal... are you saying that different languages don't contribute to different ways of seeing the world?
posted by squirrel at 11:31 AM on July 9, 2003

signal, that's a cute example from Pinker, but completely irrelevant to what I'm saying. Obviously different languages are going to have different words for things, with different concepts getting different levels of emphasis. What I'm saying is that the overall structure of the language influences the worldview. Obviously a French person doesn't pick up a pen and think of it as a "boy" - but speaking a language where objects have a quality ascribed to them, even rhetorically, that uses the same terms as do flesh-and-blood men and women, that is obviously going to lead to a slightly different way of thinking from a language where that concept doesn't even exist. And other aspects will add to that: Another difference I just thought of is that possessive pronouns agree with the gender of their objects rather than the noun doing the possessing. All of these add up, bit by bit.

So when we look at the French and their language, we have to be careful not to say "what's the big deal? If it were me and my language, I would..." because we can't really put ourselves in their shoes. It's partly because the language itself is built differently and has a different kind of relationship to foreign incursions, but it's also because unless we learn French (and, arguably, live for a while inside that culture), we can't really think the same way. Nor should we. Vive la difference!
posted by soyjoy at 1:05 PM on July 9, 2003

Then again, they're able to speak about an unknown person ("on") without referring to his - I mean her - I mean his or her - gender. It all adds up.

So can I, and I do, quite often. One can do this. One can do that. If one must, one can. And so on. This way of speaking is, however, rather British.

And some people do attribute genders to objects. Ships, planes, and cars, for example. All the people who sailed on her, for example, although this type of usage seems more cultural in origin than linguistic.
posted by wackybrit at 1:45 PM on July 9, 2003

wackybrit, you know perfectly well that the ships-planes-cars thing is not equivalent to gendered objects across the board. You're just yankin' my chain.

And I guess I should've been more exacting in referring to "on," which is roughly translatable to "one," yes, but which can then take a non-gendered singular pronoun, where in English, none exists, as I tried to show.
posted by soyjoy at 2:12 PM on July 9, 2003

languagehat, where ARE you?

I was in beautiful Santa Barbara, taking a vacation from my job, the humid Northeast, and the internet, but now I'm back and ready to take on all comers! It's nice to know that in my absence signal and aramaic were there to shed linguistic light on the matter. But:

The only "pure" (whatever that means) languages would be basque and other isolates

signal, you got a little carried away there. Basque isn't any purer than anything else; it's got lots of Romance loanwords (opening my dictionary at random I see kanale, kanario, kanbio, kandelario, kandidatu, kanela 'cinnamon'...), and presumably lots of borrowings from languages so long extinct we don't recognize them. What it doesn't have, so far as we can tell, is living relatives. (Er, like i_am_joe's_spleen said.)

And let's be careful about saying things like noun gender "must" influence thought. It may or it may not; scientific studies can help decide this, navel-gazing will not.
posted by languagehat at 1:56 PM on July 13, 2003

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