17 thoughts on “Vite! Cachez Le Saucisson!”

  1. The real joke is the whole “ministry of culture” thing. Thank God we don’t have one.

    People use whichever evolving/borrowed/invented words it makes sense to use. Govts that try to prevent them from doing so are spitting in the wind. The only way to prevent language evolution is to use force — as, e.g., they do in Quebec by banning English-language shop signs. Such authoritarianism, to the extent it is effective, helps to keep culture stagnant.

    Hebrew was modernized in the 19th and early 20th centuries by well-intentioned enthusiasts who imported some words but created a lot of others. For example, the invented term for “telephone” is a combo of two words meaning “conversation at a distance.” But it didn’t stick and everyone in Israel uses the Greek word “telephone” just like the rest of the world does. The same pattern prevailed with numerous other words, as it does in any dynamic society (including France).

    Linguistic purity is a bogus concept, on the same level as racial purity. Neither type of purity is desirable or exists in the real world, and people who try to impose such concepts are at best irrelevant and at worst dangerous.

  2. This nonsense has been attempted for years with little success. It is a rear-guard battle that shows more desperation and pettiness than strength, but when that’s all you have…

    In general, there is strong ‘traditionalist’ current in France these days. Everything traditional is authentic and good. Everything new and modern is implicitly phony and bad.

    It’s gotten to a point where people have forgotten that what we call a tradition today was a new controversial way to do things not so long ago.

    This too, shall pass.

  3. The French overdo it. But I actually sympathize to a small degree with what they are trying to do. The idea of maintaining some standards of grammatical and linguistic consistency is a positive thing. Failing to do so has bad consequences. Jacques Barzun makes a good point somewhere that in English there was a pretty strict standard held up by “educated persons” of what was and was not good English. There was a broad but widely accepted set of acceptable practices, of good grammar and decent taste in written work. These practices were slow to change. Hence we have 500 years of literature that, with some effort, can be comprehended today. The preservation of this living body of written work is a very significant achievement, done without any exercise of the public power whatever. The locus of enforcement should be private and decentralized, but standards should be discussed, disseminated, argued over, yes. But they should also be maintained and enforced. This should be done in schools, but it isn’t, and by editors of books and journals, but it isn’t. And this is a failure. If there was ever a lost cause, this is probably it. No one teaches this stuff anymore. But some of us conservatives refuse to give up on it.

    Far from being a straitjacket, it is liberating and empowering to be able to say clearly, forcefully, and with precision what you mean to say and have it be understood. The English language is like a set of tools (both for practical and artistic work) which has given wonderful service to the world, and it should be preserved not as a museum display, but as the set of essential working implements it is. So, while I disparage the statism of the French, I must disagree, at least with the tone of Jonathan’s comment that “linguistic purity” is entirely “a bogus concept”. “Purity” goes too far. But linguistic accuracy, coherence, consistency — none of these are bogus. And they require both self-discipline and external discipline. Where the latter is lacking, it is imperative that we do as much as we can with the former.

  4. Lex,

    You are right about standards, but standards and “purity” are not the same things. The French zealots oppose new words that have non-French origins — never mind that these words fill needs that cannot be met in current French. Surely there are more important issues, and in this context concern about imported words strikes me mainly as a pretext for chauvinism by insecure people. Some changes (e.g., the creeping use of “they” as the universal personal pronoun) to English should be resisted, but can you imagine an English-language authority objecting to use of a word like “burrito”? Some of these French Academy guys have too much time (or subsidies) on their hands, I think.

  5. Lex, I think Jonathan is right one here. The Ministry Of Culture’s fatwas have nothing to do with language and grammar proper, only with vocabulary and the petty political correctness of officials who have nothing to do except justify their useless work by scoring cheap points.

    This adds nothin to the precision or accuracy of the language. How could it, when another word is artificially created when one already exists ? Redundancy for its own sake hardly clarifies a language.

  6. M. G ewirtz,

    Yes, we ban English-language signs in Quebec. Francophone Quebecois (like me) represent only 1% of all of North America’s population. That does not make us much of a threat to the English language. We’re just trying to protect what we have fought for for so long. And if “stagnant culture” means refusing assimilation, then I’m all for it.

  7. Mr Francophone, with all due respect, I do not believe you are protecting anything, except the pretense Quebec is some sort of French country or province province, when most people there need to be bilingual if they don’t want to be at a professional disadvantage, or simply want to live, study or work outside the province.

    Forcing people to follow such arbitrary rules is not protection. It’s intellectual protectionism and government bullying. You and others in Quebec are free to refuse ‘assimilation’ – whatever that means – as individuals. I do not see what entitles you to use the local state’s coercive power to force your refusal and its consequences on everyone else, and what the benefits are, for them and the province. If you do prefer a stagnant culture, as you say, that should be your own choice. Others should not have to pay for its consequences.

    Nationalist parties everywhere need a rallying cry, some sort of real or perceived Maginot line to defend so as to galvanize the troops.

    This is your Maginot line. Someday, you’ll get out of the bunker and realize you’ve been overrun decades ago.

  8. The United States is an English-speaking country. Nobody would put that in question. But why is it not clear that Quebec is a French-speaking province or country or whatever? Is it so much to ask that we – the only remaining French-speaking part of North America that is politically organized save for few pockets of demographically shrinking Franco-Canadians (and Francophone Americans) – may still speak French here? In North America, there are 9 provinces, 3 territories and 50 states where pretty much everything goes on in English. I seriously don’t know where the urge of adding Québec to this tally comes from. If I go live in Sweden or Spain or whatever someday, I’ll have the decency of learning the language that is spoken there, and to not call their wish to speak their ancestral tongue “stagnant” for that is none of my business. If I go on a trip to Saudi Arabia or Israel someday, I’ll spare no effort to respect their religious customs, and (for instance) I won’t criticize nor make fun of muslim people because they don’t drink alcohol. I won’t act surprised when I’ll see Japanese signs in Japan. I’m going to the USA this weekend – I won’t expect the customs officer to speak French. In Rome, do as Romans do, they say. You seem to have a problem with that. The following should be considered: there is a growing Spanish-speaking population in the United States, but Spanish is not an official language stateside. Some states and cities are even putting forward “English only” policies. Maybe the Anglo-American culture is a stagnant one after all…

  9. Francophone, there is a big difference between the “English only” movements in the U.S., and the “Ministry of Culture” moves we see in France and Quebec. Much of the impetus for English-only in the U.S. comes from practical and fiscal standpoints relating to government-provided and/or mandated information. In order to avoid having a collection of 60 speed-limit signs in the languages of every identifiable ethnic group cluttering the roadways, or to avoid the expense of printing tax forms in each of those languages, you mandate one uniform language for basic communications related to the public sector. However, no entity (as far as I know) currently prohibits any citizen from opening their own private enterprise and conducting business on their own linguistic terms. If a private enterprise or individual can flourish by relegating itself to the use of a non-mainstream tongue, then more power to it. Frankly, I really do not care if governments of Quebec or France or any other nation/state attempt these regressive approaches, because I am a U.S. citizen and intend to stay one, but they do provide good comedic material.

  10. Andy, even though it’s for “practical” and “fiscal” reasons (which I’m almost sure is only partly true) it remains that the US government is imposing the use of English (which seems to be the whole point here). And you do have some “comedic material” of your own in the US. Speaking of speed limits and considering the whole planet is using the metric system or is in the process of converting to it, the officialized use of the Imperial system in the US is indeed “regressive”, is it not?

  11. I agree with you regarding metric system in part. When I was in grades five and six, our school put on a really half-assed push to teach the metric system, while telling us that it would replace Imperial measure in five years. That was 1977. However, the government never banned either system of measure, instead letting the market decide a preference, and today they co-exist. When private enterprise needs to use metric specifications, they use them.
    If I were to open a coffeehouse in Quebec, why not allow me a sign that says “Coffeehouse” rather than “Salon du the”? If people do not want to patronize my shop because of my sign, then I go out of business. However , if I succeed, I fully expect to fill out my tax forms in French, with a French speaking accountant to assist me.

  12. Andy, what you say about the metric/Imperial system ambiguity is completely true; someone will have to make some decisions sometime.

    About the “coffeehouse” thing, I guess the logic behind the language law is to prevent some kind of domino effect (i.e. allowing English-language signs will lead into more areas of use or whatever). But chains such as Future Shop (electronics superstore now owned by Best Buy) or Second Cup (a Starbucks of sorts) are allowed without any problem to keep their original names. So you could open a “coffehouse” named just like that, but you’d still have to give it a French name also.

    Now, I fully realize that this might not seem logical/rational to you. But imagine for a moment that you live in an alternate world with an alternate history in Maine, and Maine is the only English-speaking place in North America, except for a few pockets in the rest of the US and in Canada. All the rest of the US and the whole of Canada would be French-speaking – not only that, French would also be a global lingua franca, the language of business, culture, movies, music, science, technology and politics. In other words, you’re surrounded by French, which is thrusted by powerful economic forces that seem unstoppable. Now you’re in Maine, populated with 6 million Anglophones and 1 million Francophones, and the English population is diminishing. Nevertheless, there are more and more shops where you can’t be served in English. Movies are in French (and the translations are bad). Music is in French. Magazines are in French. There are more books in French than there are in English. The French language that is surrounding you is taking more and more of the little space you English-speakers had left. Economic forces alone won’t allow for the survival of the English languages, since everything goes against it – so English would obviously be no threat because it is itself threatened. So, the Maine government decides that all you have left to protect your linguistic asset is to enact laws that control some aspects of the public display of the French language. But then, all of a sudden, French people start criticizing you and making fun of your small attempts to regain some turf, saying that you’re “regressive” and have a “stagnant culture” because you won’t accept the global (and local) domination of French. All you want to do is continue to live in an English world, have your English shops, your English signs, your English everything in Maine, the place that you call home. You want your children to speak English, not French. You wouldn’t think about going to the UK to live in English. Anyway, think about it.

  13. Francophone, I think you are confusing issues. I have nothing against non-Anglophone culture in North America. (I doubt that Andy or Sylvain does either.) If Quebequois want to maintain French identity it’s fine with me. If people want to speak Spanish in the U.S. it’s fine with me.

    I am not talking about government-administered educational or other functions, where I think an official language is appropriate. What I object to is use of state power to enforce linguisitic conformity in private society. That is wrong, just as it is wrong to use state power to enforce religious conformity. The Quebec government, unlike the governments in most other democracies of which I am aware, does not respect its citizens’ rights in this regard.

    U.S. cities (for example) are full of non-anglophone enclaves where some shop signs are monolingual in Spanish, Vietnamese or whatever. I don’t see this as a problem. People who live in these areas who want to participate in the wider society learn English. People who don’t want to use English are free not to do so at the cost of remaining marginal. You get a choice. But if you’re an anglophone in Quebec and your customers are all anglophones, the government will punish you if you put an English-only sign on your shop. It’s that kind of abuse by government, not francophone culture, that I object to.

    Also, as a practical matter, making it difficult for enterprising minorities to function in your country is not a good way to strengthen and promote your culture. I can’t think of a single country that gave a successful minority a hard time and didn’t thereby marginalize itself. Maybe Quebec would do better if it made more of an effort to be friendlier to minorities, to encourage assimilation into its francophone culture, rather than antagonizing them.

  14. Jonathan, thank you for your level-headed reply, especially when you make the distinction between abuse by government and abuse by francophone culture. That was much needed. However, it remains impossible to put English and French at the same level with respect to the need for some official protection. French, in North America, is threatened – English, obviously, is not. As I see it, Québec still does not have the necessary “critical mass” (in terms of population and economic power) to get people to realize that the cost of not using French is remaining marginal (in fact, somebody who does not use French in Québec will most probably not be marginalized). Frankly, I long for the day when the language law (and the “language police”) will vanish into obsolescence – but for now, I see the language law as akin to government subsidies to a new industry.

  15. Mr Francophone, your emotional attachment to the French language is entirely obvious, if only because of your choice of words. French is “threatened”, which implies a need for a “defense”. This is neither neutral nor innocent and is intended to elicit or justify support for your cause. Yet, emotional attachment is no justfication for anything.

    To put it simply, your freedom stops, as they say, where mine begins. What language I speak is neither your business nor the state’s, anymore than the food I eat or the church I go to.

    The notion that the US government is imposing English is, to be blunt, silly. It doesn’t impose English anymore than McDonald’s drags customers into its restaurants at gunpoint. But believing it does certainly helps in justifying defensive measures.

    The number of Spanish speakers in the US is growing by leaps and bounds. The federal and state governments have provided documentation, forms and even education in Spanish for many years. So much for imposing English.

    As for the metric system, I’m afraid your example is going to backfire on you. Are you saying the US government is trying to force others to adopt the imperial system ? Doing so would be regressive indeed. And that’s where you are confused. Nobody calls French, or the practice of the language, regressive. But the act of forcing it on people or businesses against their free will and better opinion definitely is.

    Then comes the eternal bogeyman, quite popular in French culture on both sides of the pond : the big bad “economic forces”. The good government must protect us from them. Problem is, economic forces are not acts of god or natural cataclysms. They are the product and reflection of our own free collective choices. Economic forces do not fall from the sky and decide everybody is going to buy Microsoft Windows; no group of men in dark suits sits in a smoky room to decide on the amount of “economic force” that will make people go to fast food joints, no matter what Michael Moore tells you.

    We make those choices. You, I, and everybody else. But one can’t go around point your finger at everybody; that would be rather counter-productive. So we blame vague, evil economic forces instead. Because even in France or Quebec, politicians cannot justify coercive measures in the name of correcting the alleged ignorance or stupidity of their own electorate.

    It is rather better, and also more effective to claim protecting us from the universally bad “economic forces” instead, which brings up the popular image of big bad rich men bent on exploiting he rest of us. Pure demagoguery, and it works. It has for centuries.

    Economic forces reflect supply and demand. If there is a strong natural demand for the something, economic forces will provide the supply. Witness Spanish in the US. You cannot call a bank or customer support at a phone company without being offered the possibility to speak to someone in Spanish. No need for laws or coercive state measures. If the market is there, economic forces do the job. If demand shrinks, supply decreases. As it should.

    You would have a hard time making the case there would be no strong natural demand for French in Quebec without the language laws. Why should the state legislate artificial supply and force demand to maintain a level of ‘frenchness’ above what it would otherwise be ? I am sure the comfort and emotional benefits to yourself seem to make it all worth it. But it has costs, including the freedom of many others. Your cultural choices should not be exercised at the expense of everybody else’s; this, indeed, is regressive.

    Such measures have never been a recipe for success. Diktats, dogmas and other fatwas have never protected anything. They only hasten the demise of the old order once they go out of practice. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you need these laws until such time there won’t be a need for them anymore because french will no longer be “threatened”. For starters, the jobs of too many civil servants depend on them to ensure their prompt and graceful exit. And as soon as they are abolished, the amount of French and English in the surrounding environment will quickly adapt to what people actually want. And if experience is any guide, that will be anything but what the state wanted to achieve.

    Ministries of Culture and their Orwellian decrees defining which word means what, language polices and other statist absurdities are as unneeded as they are wrong.

  16. Sylvain, you’ve made quite a few good points. But maybe my “economic forces” argument/example was flawed. I should’ve mentioned the demographic forces, which are as powerful or more so than the economic ones. In North America, we’re 6 million (give or take a few) and you’re 300 million (or more). Just do the math.

    It’s easy to say that the language law(s) is/are absurd when you’re (that’s not necessarily you, of course) an Anglophone, thus when your freedom of speaking English is a given. I doubt any English-speaking American would allow the spread in the USA of a foreign language, being spoken to in that language where they shop, being frowned upon and laughed at when they speak English and still say “what the heck, it’s a demand thing, let’s witness the slow vanishing of English language use and speak Spanish”.

  17. Franc, I have to tell you that I can go 15 city blocks south or north of my office right now, and walk into any number of establishments where I would be the only Anglophone in the room. The only time English would be spoken would be by me when inquiring about service or product, every other conversation would be in Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Greek, Lebanese, etc. People could be saying any number of things about me and I would not understand them (except for Spanish). I patronize these businesses because I like their products, and I could not imagine legislating these individuals choice of language out of existence. The fact is that ethnic groups have a natural tendency to congregate, not to assimilate, so the clusters of native languages flourish or wither based on the population of these groups. My children will most likely be living in a time when the primacy of their ethnic background will be challenged by the Hispanic population. If the demographics of the U.S. ever swung to a Hispanic majority, it would not be surprising to see Spanish spoken more frequently than English, but I certainly would NOT expect legislation outlawing English.

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