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Friday, January 13, 2012

Language, Nation, and State

It was a good Christmas at the Flophouse.  I had a number of books I had been lusting after and, lo and behold, Santa (via La Poste) graciously fulfilled my wishes.  Ever since late December, I've had my nose in a book (actually I've had my nose in a book since I was 5 years old much to the despair of my loved ones) and I've just finished one that I thought you might be interested in: Language, Nation, and State: Identity Politics in a Multilingual Age (Europe in Transition: The NYU European Studies)

It's a book of essays edited by Tony Judt and Denis Lacorne about language and identity - topics that people tend to have very strong feelings about.  All of the essays in the book are excellent but there was one that I thought was outstanding.  

"Difference Rights and Language in France," by Alain Fenet, a professor of International and European law at the Université de Nantes.  Throughout her history, France has been a multi-lingual nation and this was still true up until the 20th century.  I remember a trip to Brittany about 20 years ago where I met an farmer whose standard French was very strange (he had a very odd accent.)  I asked my family about it and they explained that his first language was Breton, a Celtic language that is still spoken by people in that part of the world.  I found this comforting - a confirmation that one could have an accent, or not be a native French-speaker, and still be French.

Though French has been the official language of France since the 17th century, there is a world of difference between a nation's language policy and the "facts on the ground."   It took centuries before multi-lingual France become mono-lingual France and even today there are holdouts in the provinces.  Call these people "the enemy within" which, in some ways, remains just as threatening as the external enemy, the Anglo-Saxons and the growing hegemony of English.  Fenet shows how laws to protect the French language:  Bas-Lauriol Law (1975), the amendment to the French Constitution (1992) which says, "French is the language of the Republic," and the infamous Toubon Law (1994), were also fine weapons in the hands of those wishing to eliminate regional differences and marginalize local languages in the Hexagon.

Then came Europe to the rescue with the European Charter for Minority Languages.  This EU charter recognizes that there are many languages  in Europe and offers some protection against their elimination.   This posed quite a problem for the French government and in 1999 the Conseil Constitutionnel did indeed declare that the Charter was incompatible with the French Constitution since:
The Charter conferred 'some specific rights to groups of speakers of regional and minority languages, in territories where these languages are used' and 'tended to recognize a right to practice a language other than French not only in private life but also in the public sphere.'
How did the story end?   It didn't.  We are the year 2012 and this is still an on-going issue, a festering sore in the heart of an otherwise blissful and trouble-free Europe. France is hardly alone here - see this document for progress of countries on the implementation of the Charter.  Very recently Francois Holland, the Socialist candidate for the French presidency was questioned about it during a campaign stop in Strasbourg.  He responded as any good politician would - he promised to "engage discussion" which in my mind indicates that any decision on this will be put off as long as possible.

Back to the book.  All of the above came from a reading of just one of the ten essays in this book.  Trust me, all the other essays are just as good, just as rich, and you can read about and admire the language policies of many states:  Switzerland, Israel, Canada, Ukraine, Belarus and California.  The book is a bit pricey but worth every penny. 


Just Me said...

Speaking of French, have you seen the minor dust up between Gingrich and Romney because Romney speaks French... :)

nprguyraz Guy Raz
@newtgingrich points out @MittRomney speaks FRENCH! (just like our founding fathers did) sacrebleu!

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi Just Me,

Oh yes we saw it and the younger Frenchling thought it was pretty obnoxious. Quel connard....

I though about writing about it today or tomorrow but there is also the great story about Colbert (a comedian) getting 5% in the polls in South Carolina.

American politics is becoming quite the comedy :-)