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The Battle of the Languages:

English Won French 0?


David Bond



For several hundred years, French was the language of an Empire that, if it did not in practice include all of modern France, certainly did include England. That English folk-hero Richard Lionheart, whose statue graces Westminster, lived virtually all his life in France (when he was not crusading or in prison) and probably spoke not a word of English. Through the early modern period, with Paris dominating taste and fashion, French remained the most important European tongue. Right up until the last century, it was widely spoken as a second language by the people who mattered throughout Europe from Brest to Brest-Litovsk.


A crucial turning point came in the eighteenth century with the loss of the French colonies in India and North America to the profit of perfidious Albion. The occasional bad poet in Pondichéri or screeching songster in Québec would no longer serve to keep the French flag flying in the face of the British imperial apparat in those far-flung lands. Nevertheless, during the unseemly ‘scramble for Africa’ and the final feeding frenzy of nineteenth-century imperialism. France held its own. Arguably it often proved more successful than Britain in exporting its culture to its territories overseas. The two languages now enjoyed equal status on the world scene.


With the rise in the power of the United States in the last century, the domination of English was already well under way. With Marshall aid after the war came American products and American fashions of all kinds and the English language followed the new economic imperialism just as the Christian bible had followed the earlier variety.. Onto the cultural scene exploded forms of music (rock and pop) for which the alexandrine rhythm of French was ill-suited and, beside which, traditional French chanson often seemed, even to the young French themselves, rather an old-fashioned thing.


Another turning point came in 1972 with the entry of Britain into the Common Market. Europe, in the absence of the perfidious enemy, had remained a sort of linguistic domaine privée where French still ruled supreme. For ten years De Gaulle had very wisely managed to keep the ‘Trojan horse’ at bay but his successor, the easy-going Georges Pompidou, was more easily hoodwinked by the rosbifs and more prepared to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that they might be sincere in their professions to be ‘good Europeans’. With the English, busier than anyone in the European bureaucracy that they pretended to detest, came inevitably the language of Shakespeare.


The gradual retreat of the prestige and influence of the language of Molière has, it would seem, become a rout. The French weekly Le Canard enchaîné reported recently that even the traditionally francophile and partially francophone Rumanians had chosen to negotiate the final phase of their entry into the Union in English rather than French. The Turk at the gates, once strongly impregnated with French culture, is now the protégé of the Anglo-Saxons and babbles in globish like everybody else.


Globish, I should explain, is that particularly disagreeable dialect of English that one now hears everywhere, as spoken, for example, by some German composer being interviewed by a Greek television-presenter or as is to be found on page after page of barely literate pap on the internet. I have always thought of it myself as ‘Scandlish’ because the Scandinavians are far and away (according to point of view) the worst offenders or the best practitioners. There is seemingly not a Swede or Dane alive who is not a fluent speaker of globish.


Alas for the language of Molière, globish is now set to storm the innermost bastions of francophonie - the schools. Where the Islamic veil no longer dares to show itself and where the Sikh turban is verboten, globish is to be quite simply invited in. A recent report published here on the future of schooling not merely advocates that English should be a compulsory subject (a privilege heretofore enjoyed only by French itself and the language of the gods, mathematics) but has even specified that the English taught should be an “English of international communication”. Globish, in a word!


As one who loves both the language of Shakespeare and that of Molière and who lives his life and earns his livelihood precariously between the two, I have perhaps an unusual perspective on the issue. The French are convinced that language (as they used to say of football) is a game that ends with the French losing. I beg to differ. Globish does not advantage the language it mimics (in this case English). In the long term it will be the kiss of death, just as once a similar phenomenon was the kiss of death to Latin as a living language. No language long survives its emergence as a lingua franca and English (in its globish variety) is already well on the way to becoming indistinguishable from Esperanto.


The French language, by contrast, has never been in better health. It has in recent times acquired a vitality and a flexibility that often eluded it in the years of its greatest glory. It has, one might say, escaped from under the dead hand of the Académie française. Franglais, so often regarded as a threat, is in reality no such thing. Such borrowing enriches the language of the borrower not that of the lender. In practice franglais very quickly finds its own linguistic space, becomes naturalised in French and soon only bears a superficial association with the language of origin.


What is more, French (like English itself in the years of its greatest development) now borrows from many different sources. Words and phrases enter apace from the Maghreb, from ‘black Africa’, from the Antilles, from Polynesia. Even where French might most supposed to be endangered, where it is quite literally encircled by the enemy, it is more than holding its own. Francophone culture in Québec is in full cocorico and québecois has become a major and refreshing influence on the mother tongue itself.


French chanson  is unable to compete globally with Anglo-Saxon pop but it has re-established itself strongly in the francophone world. ‘Retro’ fashion has both revived the classics, from Piaf to Ferré and from Brassens to Brel and put new life into aging survivors from the golden age such as Henri Salvador, Juliette Greco or Charles Aznavour. There are also now a host of talented young chansonneurs and chansonneuses to carry on the tradition. Here too Québec and other outposts of francophonie make a vital contribution. Singers from francophone Africa figure prominently in the catalogues of  ‘world music’ and Céline Dion, while she may earn more money when she sings in English, sounds a whole lot better when she sings in French.


French has never been richer in argot and a language’s slang is a very good measure of its health. English and American seem by contrast more apt to generate a rather different species of metalanguage – jargon. The French certainly borrow the Anglo-Saxon jargon to complement their own langue de bois but they create their own rich slang from a variety of different sources. Ever changing, irreverent and inventive, it puts fun into French. and, far from enfeebling the language as conservatives always fear, is in fact a sure sign that it is fit as a fiddle.


Even if nobody risks ostracism nowadays (like the unfortunate servant in the Molière play) for ‘offence to grammar’, the French have also rediscovered the more refined pleasures of their own language. Thirty years ago people used to attack the subjunctive as though it was a ghastly leftover from the days of medieval torture.  Nowadays, perhaps precisely because it no longer feels like an imposition, the same people tend to praise its grace and subtlety. This autumn a book on the subject (by academician Érik Orsenna) was actually amongst the top ten in the list of best-selling books..


English by contrast is already suffering from its imperial status. The dead-fish drabness of globish is already perceptibly affecting the language spoken by anglophones themselves. By contrast with French, English marks time, stagnates, show all the signs of being ‘the sick man’ amongst the languages of Europe. So the French can make a dignified withdrawal from the field of battle and leave the Anglo-Saxons to celebrate their Pyrrhic victory. While the language of Shakespeare comes more and more to resemble the language of Mickey Mouse, civilised people throughout the world will always delight in the language of Molière.


Further reading


Bernard Cerquiglini, Jean-Claude Corbeil, Jean-Marie Klinkenberg et Benoît Peeters (ed)

Le Français dans Tous ses États (Flammarion 2000) 


This is an excellent collection of essays, written to accompany a major exhibition that took place simultaneously in Lyon, Brussels, Dakar and Québec, which also benefits from superb cartoons by Lewis Trondheim.


Érik Orsenna

Les Chevaliers du Subjonctif (2004)


This is the sequel to the excellent La Grammaire est une Chanson Douce. The books could be thought of as pedagogic works for children that adults will enjoy or as adult fairy-tales that are also highly instructive for children.



On the Web  Page created by the former director of IBM in France (now director of marketing for IBM in the USA), an outspoken advocate of ‘globish’.



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