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The Other Languages of France


David Bond

David Bond 2005)




Patrick Le Lay, managing-director of France’s premier television channel TFI, has shown from the outset a singular capacity to court controversy. On taking up the job, he created a scandal by the surprising but honest admission that the purpose of television programmes was to hold viewers’ attention just long enough to sell them coca-cola. This September Le Lay, a Breton, raised eyebrows once again by claiming that the French state had been guilty of  “cultural genocide” with respect to the Breton language. Denunciations of French ‘jacobinism’ and the espousal of regional identity (“I am not French; I am Breton”) are fashionable but often paradoxical. Le Lay is not himself a Breton speaker (although he reads the language “more or less”) and it is arguably the world of global communication, Le Lay’s own world, far more than jacobinism, that has ‘murdered’ the regional languages of France.


Historically France is a country of many languages. Of the pre-Roman languages, the most important are Euskara or Basque (spoken in the western Pyrenees) and Breton (a Celtic language close to Welsh and Cornish). The Latinisation of the Gauls gave birth to the langue d’oc (where the word for ‘yes’ is oc) and to Corsican. Occitan is a language of enormous cultural importance. Closely allied to Catalan, it was originally as widespread as French itself, being spoken, in a multitude of different dialects (including Provençal), throughout southern France. Viewed as a single language, Catalan-Occitan-Provençal is not merely a regional language; it is the mother-tongue of the western Mediterranean.


The Teutonisation of the northern Gauls under the Franks gave birth to the langue d’oïl (where ‘yes’ is oïl or later oui), the ancestor of modern French. The Ordonnance de Villers-Cotterêts of 1539 established French as the ‘mother-tongue’ of the entire kingdom and François I is often rather unjustly blamed for the repression of regional languages. In fact the ordinance was intended to end the domination of Latin (with respect to administration and law) rather than to suppress the other languages of France.


Nevertheless the conquest and annexation of outlying territories by the crown of France during the Middle Ages favoured the northern tongue to the detriment of its rivals. Yet even when French became the official language of the entire Hexagon, it never successfully displaced the regional languages. Though their status was reduced to that of patois, originally a pejorative medieval term (‘gobbledigook’), Breton, Basque and Occitan remained the native tongues in the regions where they were spoken but with no official support. Their literature was discouraged and their use frowned upon.


Official support for French was reinforced by  the founding in 1635 of the Académie française, designed to forge one uniform language in use throughout the realm. For the Jacobins, this uniformity became a political principle, not because regional languages were regarded as a threat but because they were seen as an obstacle to egalitarian ideals. The Rapport Grégoire of 1794 specifically set as an objective the obliteration of regional languages (anéantir le patois) in this perspective. Banned in schools (and its use there often severely punished) until very modern times,  patois became quite literally ashamed to speak its name.


Capetian centralisation, revolutionary Jacobinism and republican principles were certainly guilty of attempted murder, but it is questionable how far they succeeded.

In practice, Brittany was still largely Breton-speaking in 1914. Occitan disappeared progressively in the regions bordering French-speaking France but remained the normal spoken language of the people of the Toulousaine, of Languedoc and Provence. In a largely peasant culture, rural populations had been surprisingly little affected by centuries of Parisian disapproval and obligatory French at school.


The crucial turning-point was the Great War. Volunteers who set off in 1914 in regiments comprising their friends and neighbours soon found themselves, if they were lucky enough to survive, regrouped into formations made up of poilus from every region. The situation could be harsh for those who spoke no French. The case of the young Breton, François-Marie Laurent is notorious - shot for desertion because unable to explain that he was simply obeying orders. French only really became a genuine lingua franca on the battlefields of Flanders. Returning soldiers, marked forever by the experience of the war years, encouraged their children to learn it and contributed to the decline of their native tongues.


At the same time the experience of the war brought a resurgence of regional ‘nationalism’. Bretons petitioned in 1919 in favour of their language and in the thirties the case of the good soldier Laurent was revived as a symbol of the oppression to which it was subject. The post-war years also saw a resurgence of Basque and Corsican nationalism. In Languedoc there was an increasing historical interest in the rich pre-French past of the region; in the south-east, where Provençal boasted a long and continuous literary tradition including  Nobel prize-winning novelist Frédéric Mistral (1904), the language became a major source of pride. All the regional languages had to wait, however, until 1951 before they could legally be taught in schools (and German dialects of eastern France were not taught until 1988).


Since the 1960s tourism has played an important role in bringing regional cultures and languages to the fore. Lorient in Brittany has hosted since 1971 the largest Celtic festival in Europe; Toulouse’s Festival Occitania is a major celebration of Mediterranean culture. Regional languages throughout Europe are protected by a European Charter of 1992 but, following a veto by the Constitutional Council, France remains the only country not to have ratified the charter. Nevertheless in 2001 the Minister of Education, Jack Lang, gave full support to its principles and talked of “putting an end to the injustice of the republican school system”.


In practice, despite their new respectability and the support of enthusiastic minorities, most regional languages continue to lose ground where it matters – amongst the village communities where it was once spoken. Tourism may create an interest in the languages but it is part and parcel of a social mobility that is destroying their raison d’être. The language becomes part of the ‘brand’ and a badge of pride for the region but it is no longer the patois spoken round the home-fire.


Thanks to modern technology, there are television-broadcasts in regional languages and there has been a spread of radio-stations and internet sites devoted to their cause but the dominant tendency is to globalise communication, making regional patois less and less useful or attractive to the younger generation. The languages of France are not alone in their predicament. It is estimated that some 90 percent current 6,000 languages spoken worldwide will disappear by the end of the century.


Breton is still learned by some 7,000 schoolchildren and Le Lay’s bewailing of its unnatural death would seem a mite premature. It is estimated, for instance, that there are still some 250,000 native Breton speakers (20% of the population) and perhaps a further 100,00 people who make frequent use of the language. Unfortunately these are predominantly people of the older generation. The true drama for Breton, as with most regional dialects, is its confrontation not with Jacobinism but with the modern world and this is where Le Lay the telecommunicator is in rather an ambiguous position.



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