La France est un
des pays d’Europe qui offre la plus grande diversité linguistique
The aim of this paper is to
briefly go over the history of linguistic diversity in metropolitan France and
how the French government has dealt with that diversity up until modern times
and the motivations behind its actions. Further, I would like to hypothesize as
to the possible future of the regional languages of France.
The linguistic diversity of today’s France
with 75 languages eligible for recognition under the European Charter for
Regional or Minority Languages (ECRML) in metropolitan France and its overseas
territories in addition to a good amount of immigrant minority languages is, without
a doubt one of the most linguistically diverse countries in Europe, if not in
In metropolitan France specifically,
the seven principal regional languages we can find are Breton, Alsatian,
Flemish, Corsican, Occitan, Catalan and Basque. There are a few more, such as
Norman or Guernésiais. Some regional languages, like Occitan, have various
dialects. Apart from regional languages, there is of course the one official
national language – French – and its many dialects (also called langues d’oïl).
instead of being a point of national pride, France’s linguistic diversity was (and
arguably still is to this day) seen as a negative for decades, with the best
efforts being made to eradicate or, at the very least, significantly diminish
it and these efforts were not without success. Over a period of many decades,
regional languages progressively became considered less and less prestigious,
losing their place first in an official capacity, then in all public places,
and finally in the home as well.
with changing public opinion on the languages of France is that, for centuries,
the French language has served as a cornerstone of French culture and national
identity. All other languages were seen as significantly less prestigious, as “patois.”
While today public opinion tends to be much kinder to regional languages, they
are still not supported by the state, nor do they have anywhere near the same
amount of prestige associated with them as French does.
language policies, while not unique in Europe by any means, are interesting in
that they are much more effective and that less is being done to smooth over their
consequences in comparison to other European countries. Switzerland could be considered a direct
opposite of France’s monolithic aspirations, with French, German, Italian all
share the status of official national languages and Romansh has official status
in one of the cantons. Ireland is an excellent example of a country where a
formerly persecuted language has recovered largely thanks to governmental
support, and even Germany – a large country with one national language just
like France – recognizes regional languages and has pledged to protect them,
having ratified the ECRML in 1998. In Spain, or more specifically in Catalonia,
Catalan has gained the status of something of a singular phenomenon in that
thanks to the efforts of the local government, it has completely recovered and
become as important as Spanish in the region. France, on the other hand, has for
the most part left the preservation of its minority languages in the hands of
private citizens, due to some combination of existing legislature (the constitutional
disagreement with ECLMR is discussed in more detail later) and a fear of
multiple officially recognized languages somehow damaging the unity of French society.
France’s languages throughout history and today
reasons behind the French government’s long term oppression of regional
languages are quite simple and easily understandable, or at least easily
explicable. While the standardization of French had begun much earlier, with
the Académie Française, the
institution most involved in French language official norms to this day, having
been founded in 1635, the idea of the French language as the one official
language of France was first officially vocalized during the French revolution:
“La langue doit être une comme la
république.” (Language ought to be one, like the republic.)
(Speech by Bertrand Barrère to
the Convention on the 27th of January, 1794).
As centralization was a
rather important goal in post-revolutionary France, promoting one language,
that language being French (specifically, the Parisian dialect), and with it
one cultural identity, gradually became a permanent fixture in France’s
legislation, especially since the late nineteenth century. Probably the most
significant piece of legislation enacted at the time that promoted the French
language at the regional languages expense were the Jules Ferry laws of 1882.
While these laws commendably guaranteed a free
and secular education for all children from 6 to 13 years old, boys as well as
girls, and served as a basis for educational policies abroad, they also stated
that instruction will be given in French. This effectively ensured that all
future generations would speak French, which was rather significant, as in the
1860s approximately 10% of young men in the army did not speak French at all, while
20% had a very poor grasp of it according to an 1867 survey. Of the remaining 70%,
we can assume a majority was bilingual. (Lodge, 2001, p. 202)
Because of the Jules Ferry laws,
strict monolingualism was enforced at schools, with punishments such being used
to dissuade students from using their first language.
During the First World War
soldiers from the whole of France had to work together, so French was used as a
universal language. When these soldiers returned home, they often continued
speaking French so while they themselves remained bilingual, their children
were much less likely to speak the regional language. During the Second World
War, regional languages were seen as a sign of disloyalty towards France,
further tipping the scales in favour of French. (Harrison, 2012, pp. 37, 38)
On a slightly more positive note,
The Deixonne law from 1951, officially permitted Basque, Breton, Catalan and Occitan
to be taught for one hour per week, optionally, should the school in question
wish to and have the necessary resources. While even if a school did all it
could, it would not be nearly enough to maintain a fluent level of a regional
language, much less learn one, this is a vast improvement over the Jules Ferry
laws from seventy years prior. This version of the law excluded Alsatian,
Corsican and Flemish with the official reasoning being that they were dialects
of foreign languages rather than regional languages of France.
In the 1960s, private bilingual primary
schools were established throughout France, mostly through the work of private
individuals. A bit later, in 1982, the Savary education bill allowed for public
bilingual schools and official training for regional language teachers. This
was a great success for regional languages, but is still wholly insufficient in
terms of revitalizing them. The weight of that burden still rests largely on
the shoulders of regional language activists. Furthermore, regional languages
can be taught as second languages in many schools, though the motivations
behind this may have more to do with the dislike of English than with a desire
to revitalize these languages.
An extremely important
contemporary piece of legislation in regards to regional languages is the
current French constitution, which explicitly states that “La langue de la République est le français.” (The language of the
Republic shall be French.) (The French Constitution, article 2). This article is currently the reason why no
other language can be recognized as a language of the French Republic and why
the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, though signed in 1999
has not been ratified to this day. While the constitution can be amended and has
been amended seventeen times in fact, it is doubtful whether the issue of
regional languages will ever gain enough supporters for an amendment on their
behalf to be politically viable. Even if the charter is ratified, there is no
guarantee that several of the regional languages would not be beyond help at
that point – Norman, for example, is considered to be severely endangered, with
a mere 11,000 or so speakers left.
If the ECRML were to be ratified,
the government would be pledging to officially acknowledge and seek to promote
regional languages various ways (depending on what best suits the language in
question) in seven domains: education; judicial authorities; administrative
authorities and public services; the media; cultural activities and facilities;
economic and social life; and trans-frontier exchanges. However, seeing that
the charter has still not been ratifies almost twenty years after its signing,
and was latest rejected in 2015, it would seem that regional language activists
in France might have to continue to promote their languages with little to no
help from the state in the near future.
Apart from regional languages,
France is host to countless minority languages brought into the country by
immigrants, chief among these being Arabic, Italian, Portuguese and English.
While these languages are spoken by many French citizens and arguably influence
contemporary French (Arabic influence being particularly strong with several
million speakers), they cannot even hold the mostly hollow title of a regional
language as they are languages of other sovereign nations. These minority
languages would not get any recognition even under the ECRML, as it only
applies to languages traditionally spoken by the state’s citizens.
While today’s France no longer
persecutes or punishes the use of regional languages in an overt way, they
still lack sufficient governmental support needed to recover from the damage
inflicted by past governmental policies. Though there are individuals who try
very hard to preserve and promote their language, the regional languages are still
dying out, with most of the people who speak a regional language as their first
language belonging to the older generations.
Even if, by some miracle, France’s
languages policies were to change overnight, becoming extremely supportive of
its regional languages, the damage done by decades of legislative persecution would
take even longer to undo, if it can be undone at all – these languages lost
decades during which they would have developed, gained vocabulary for modern machines
and concepts, they would have had (more) songs, poems, and novels written in
them. In truth, we will probably never know exactly how different France would
have been, had it chosen a more multi-cultural approach a few centuries ago.
Some of these languages, like
Catalan for example, are used beyond France’s borders which might help them with
their revival or at least preservation, but not nearly all of them. Catalan
specifically was lucky enough to have been acknowledged, funded, and heavily
promoted by the government of Catalonia. Today, Catalan is used about as much
as Spanish by people of all ages in Catalonia and it enjoys a similar level of
prestige. Catalan in the South of France on the other hand, is slowly dying
out, with most of its native speakers being over 60 years old.
To sum up, the regional languages
of France have only recently been allowed any sort of official existence in
France after a long period of persecution. While promoting French as the one
and only national language can be explained away with justifications such as “a
need for national identity,” and though it may have simplified things from a bureaucratic
point of view, the fact remains, that in doing so France has lost, perhaps irreversibly,
large parts of its linguistic and cultural heritage.
Alliance for Linguistic Diversity. (n.d.). Retrieved
1 27, 2018, from The endangered languages project:
Harrison, A. M.
(2012). Managing France’s Regional Languages. University of Liverpool.
Lodge, A. R. (2001). French:
From Dialect to Standard. London: Routledge.