Linguistic Anthropology

The study of language has been part of anthropology since the discipline started in the 1ate 1870s. This site is a place for linguistic anthropologists to post their work and discuss important events and trends in the field.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Language Ownership: Does the French language belong to France?

Praising the work of a French-speaking singer from Charlemagne, Quebec, France's current president Nicolas Sarkozy revealed an interesting attitude toward the French language. Through a complex rhetoric, Sarkozy seemed to imply that the French language is, somehow, associated almost exclusively with the state of which he has been president for just over a year.

Céline Dion was recently awarded the title of «chevalier de la Légion d'honneur» (Knight of the Legion of Honour) by Sarkozy. In a speech he gave during the event, Sarkozy made several comments about languages and nations. I haven't located a complete transcript of Sarkozy's speech but several of the comments made have been covered by media outlets on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
For instance, in Agnès Gaudet's transcription, in Quebec's Canoë news outlet (emphasis mine):
«La France vous remercie, a-t-il dit, car vous contribuez par votre succès et votre talent à faire rayonner notre langue au-delà de nos frontières, sur tous les continents, alors que la tendance partout dans le monde est de s'aplatir sur un seul modèle, une seule langue.»
My semi-literal translation:
"France thanks you, said he, because you contribute through your success and your talent to making our language radiate beyond our borders, on all continents, while the tendency everywhere in the world is to flatten ourselves out on a single model, a single language."
«Faire rayonner» is idiomatic. Its literal meaning is "to make radiate" but it usually refers to acts which "give exposure to," "increase widespread knowledge of," "expand the horizons of," or "spread the word about" some social institution. Journalists have been translating this part of the speech in different ways:
  • "her talent and success has contributed to the influence of the French language outside of France's borders." (NBC Philadelphia)
  • "France thanks her as because of her talent and success; the influence of French language has increased outside the nation’s borders." (IndiaServer)
  • "for spreading the French language beyond their borders." (
In all versions, the association between the French language and the French territory (defined by national borders) remains intact. And this association triggered, for me, some thoughts on language and nationalism.
The "French=France" association seems problematic given the fact that (according to Ethnologue, among others), there are more native and second-language speakers of the French language outside of France than there are French-speakers in France. La Francophonie goes much beyond France's borders as it officially includes 68 member states and governments.
While the French language has had national recognition in France since 1539, other languages have been and are still in use through the French territory. Since the French Revolution, the expansion of the language throughout La République française's territory has been long and partly coercive (Holsti 1995, citing Hobsbawm). During the 20th Century, French has almost become the exclusive language of France with (judging from Ethnologue's statistics for France) around 85% of the French population speaking French natively. Yet, to this day, other languages still share the French national territory. Surely, France's language planning and language policies must take all of these elements into account...
Granted, Sarkozy has not said that Dion is unique in "making French radiate outside of France" or that speaking the French language is an exclusively French prerogative. In fact, the thrust of his speech seems to be that the French language should be spoken by more people, worldwide. But the implication remains that, somehow, the French language belongs to the country of France. By «notre langue» ("our language") and «nos frontières» ("our borders"), Sarkozy was referring to an imagined community which excludes more people than it includes.

It's especially interesting to note that Sarkozy situated his speech in the context of linguistic plurality. Comments about a "single model" and a "single language" seem to emanate from a fear of linguistic domination (and dominance) which goes much beyond France or La Francophonie. But other comments Sarkozy made during the same speech are more marked and specific.
For instance, Sarkozy explicitly avoids pitting French against English.
A partial transcription from France's Libération:
«Il faut comprendre que si nous sommes tellement attachés» à la langue française, «ce n’est pas par opposition à l’anglais», a dit M. Sarkozy, pour qui le «monde est plus heureux avec plusieurs langues» car «la diversité est une richesse».
My semi-literal translation:
"It must be understood that if we are so attached to the French language, it is not by opposition to English," said Mr. Sakozy, for whom the "world is happier with various languages" as "diversity is a resource." translation:
"We must understand that if we are so committed" to the French language, "we are not opposed to English," said Sarkozy, for whom the world is more pleasant with several languages "because diversity is a treasure. "
"Treasure" seems like an appropriate translation for «richesse» in this context but «richesse» also means "resource," as in «richesse naturelle» ("natural resource") and "wealth" or "richness." In a political context, «la diversité est une richesse» easily resonates with a discourse
of resource management.

Unsurprisingly, Sarkozy's speech seems to have been politically motivated at several levels. He apparently made a special effort, this time, to talk about both Quebec and Canada. According to Montreal's Le Devoir, Sarkozy has used this speech to refine his message about France's position toward both Quebec and Canada:
«Je fais partie de ces Français qui considèrent que le Québec sont nos frères et que le Canada sont nos amis. Je n'oppose pas les deux.»
Semi-literal translation:
"I am among those Frenchmen who consider that Quebec are our brothers and that Canada are our friends. I don't oppose both."
The Agence France Presse version (through Yahoo! Québec) ends by «nous avons besoin des deux» ("we need both").
Christian Rioux, in Montreal's Le Devoir has a more elaborate version, which makes more grammatical sense and seems more neutral.
«Je sais les liens très forts qu'il y a entre le Québec et la France. J'aurai l'occasion de venir très bientôt dire tout ce que je pense de cette histoire. Le Québec, c'est notre famille. Le Canada, ce sont nos amis. Et moi, je veux plus pour les deux.»
Semi-literal translation.
"I know the very strong links which exist between Quebec and France. I will have the opportunity to come very soon to tell all of what I think about this history. Quebec, it is our family. Canada, they are our friends. And me, I want more for both."
Says Rioux, in this same article from Le Devoir, a previous speech of Sarkozy's, giving equal status to both Quebec and Canada, had been received negatively. The political impetus behind his speech seemed clear to those journalists.

According to Radio-Canada and others, Dion was awarded the Légion d'honneur in 2005, before Sarkozy became the French president (May, 2007). It thus sounds like Sarkozy used a ceremony planned before his presidential mandate to make revealing statements about languages and nations.

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