Are we turning into a French-speaking planet? That was the surprising possibility raised by president Emmanuel Macron on a recent visit to Burkina Faso. “French will be the first language of Africa,” he said, plausibly, before adding, “perhaps the world.” Ah, oui? C’est vrai?
No, this is preposterous, and therefore very French. It’s true that a 2014 study (by, coincidentally, a French investment bank) did indeed suggest that French could be the most spoken language of the world by 2050 – assuming enormous population increases in Africa. But, given that French is currently the first language of only 75 million people, most observers still bet on English or Mandarin Chinese. Macron’s real message, perhaps, was simply that France is important – because talking up the French language has always been a proxy way of talking up the importance of France itself.
France’s postcolonial equivalent of the Commonwealth is explicitly a language-based club: the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (international organisation of the French-speaking). In 1966, Charles de Gaulle set up a high commission for the “defence and expansion” of the French language, subsequently replaced by a series of similar committees focusing on “correct” French and its use overseas.
And, of course, there is the Académie Française, created in the 17th century to protect French from the noxious influence of Italianisms, but which today sees global English as the great enemy. It continues to issue fatwas against English loan-words such as “email” and “weekend”, and called the proposal to allow some university courses to be taught in English “linguistic treason”.
Of course, a fair amount of modern English itself derives from post-conquest Norman French. This was perhaps the reasoning behind Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau’s quip that “English is just badly pronounced French”. But for French people, the English language is also typified by the boorish native Anglophone who cannot converse in any other tongue. As the French writer on language Claude Gagnière observed: “A man who speaks three languages is trilingual. A man who speaks two languages is bilingual. A man who speaks one language is English.” He would perhaps have approved, at least, of the doomed efforts made by Mark Twain, who wrote: “In Paris they simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.” Read More …