French must accept English as the new lingua franca

Author (Person)
Series Title
Series Details Vol.7, No.32, 6.9.01, p6
Publication Date 06/09/2001
Content Type

Date: 06/09/01

Contrary to popular belief, King Canute did not expect the waves to stop lapping at his feet when he plonked his throne down at the sea's edge almost a thousand years ago. The whole exercise was meant to prove to his yes-men that even divine rulers could not stem the forces of nature.

France's chattering classes would do well to keep The King Formerly Known as Knud in mind as they build yet another dyke around their language in a last-ditch attempt to prevent it being flooded by an Anglo-Saxon tsunami.

The French have always been neurotic defenders of the language of Camus and Cantona. But their reaction to proposals to streamline the working languages of the European Commission over the summer has plumbed new depths of paranoia.

Under plans drawn up by top Commission official David O'Sullivan, legal texts would be fine-tuned in the language they were drafted in, rather than translated into other EU languages at every twist and turn of the legislative process.

While most of their compatriots were fighting for towel space on Europe's beaches, the French and German foreign ministers penned a letter to Commission President Romano Prodi protesting that such moves "could only favour monolingualism in the EU, which is unacceptable to our two countries".

This reaction was mild in comparison to that of France's traditionally tepid press. Decrying the "arrogant domination of English", Liberation's Brussels' correspondent Jean Quatremer wrote: "In their zeal for standardising everything, the officials of the European Commission have a single dream: that all the Union's citizens should speak English and that their national languages be relegated to the level of local dialects, eventually to be taught in special classes for a few backward provincials."

Quatremer must have been taking tips from his British colleagues, because this sort of sloppy, chauvinistic and inaccurate reporting is usually the exclusive preserve of the UK's red-topped dailies. The Commission's aim is not to impose English on anyone but to make the adoption of texts quicker for officials and cheaper for taxpayers.

At present, about two-thirds of documents sent to translators are in English, compared to more than a third in French and around 1% in German. If the changes proposed by O'Sullivan are agreed by the full Commission this autumn, the 400,000 pages of text drafted in French would continue to circulate in French. The only difference would be that they would not be translated into English or German and the 650,000 pages of English text would not be translated into the other two working languages.

Of course, the French are right to feel concerned about the rampant rise of English - the proportion of internal documents drawn up in the world's most widely-spoken tongue increases by about 3% a year and is set to sky rocket after enlargement.

When the European Economic Community was founded in 1957, French was the official language of half its members. Now, French-speaking nations make up one fifth the EU total and in an enlarged Europe they will comprise less than one tenth. But an even more decisive factor in the demise of French is the fact that almost no one speaks it in the candidate countries. If anything, German could become the EU's second language after accession.

It would be easier to sympathise with pleas to preserve linguistic diversity in the Commission if French-speakers had been a little more tolerant about the use of other languages during the institution's first 40 years. When former Secretary General David Williamson of the UK was angling for the post in the 1980's he was forced to swear he would speak French to get Paris' backing for the job and it was only when Jacques Delors packed his bags that English was allowed in the press room. Even today, the Commission publishes the minutes and agendas of its meetings in French only - despite the fact that three-quarters of the present Commissioners are fluent English speakers.

Instead of acting like Louis XIV, the French would do better to take a leaf out of Canute's book and accept that it is futile to resist the inevitable. Like it or not, English is rapidly becoming Europe's lingua franca. The French can either accept this fact and get on with doing what they do best - churning out pouting actresses and world-beating footballers - or they can erect a Maginot Line around their language and watch it slowly suffocate. By Gareth Harding

Commentary feature

Subject Categories