LFrench is very good, thank you. This booklet, published in the Tracts de Gallimard collection, and signed Les linguistes atterré(e)s, has been sold out since the beginning of the summer – 50,000 copies sold with eight reprints already. In this booklet, 18 specialists from France, Belgium, Switzerland and Canada challenge ten preconceived ideas, such as: “We are being invaded by English”, “young people no longer know how to write” or “the inclusive writing kills French.” Such public enthusiasm for such a debate – which has been going on since the spelling and grammatical rules were established from the Renaissance – proves the attachment of our fellow citizens to their language. But are these philologists right to be optimistic?
Let’s start with the fear of domination of Shakespeare’s words. It is a fact, he triumphs internationally, as much in diplomacy as in commerce or science. Ninety-eight percent of UN job offers require knowledge of English and only 10.4% that of French, deplores the International Organization of the Francophonie (OIF) in 2022… so that our language is one of the six official languages of the United Nations.
And even in post-Brexit Europe, only 3.7% of Commission texts are produced in French – the rate reaches 12% for those of Parliament. These figures seriously worry the OIF, which considers that “multilingualism, an essential condition of multilateralism, is a common good and a value to be defended”. The Organization is also launching training for civil servants and supporting TV5 Monde, the French-speaking channel. Language is an instrument of power, and internationalized English is poor in nuances. However, Maria Candea, professor of linguistics at Sorbonne-Nouvelle University and signatory of the booklet, is not panicked: “As long as parents continue to pass on French to their children, she will be alive! And it is better to rejoice that the whole world communicates in a common language. » Certainly, in the 18th century, the royal courts spoke French from London to Moscow… but we can be pleased that it remains the fifth most spoken language in the world.
Chase away invasive English
The fact remains that, here too, English is gaining ground. Within companies, we talk packaging, process, brainstorming… On the Internet, there is talk of post, follower, crowdfunding . The Covid period has hatched cluster , click and collect (1) … We can retort that this is simple professional jargon. However, 47% of French people say they are hostile or annoyed by advertisements containing English words (Crédoc study in 2020). “English is an element of distinction, the equivalent of Latin in the 17th century. It’s exclusionary: when you don’t understand, it’s not funny! explains Jean Pruvost, professor emeritus of lexicology and lexicography. Our compatriots must make an effort to translate. I am happy that the French Academy is offering alternatives. » In France, and even more so in Quebec, the offer does indeed exist. Solutions are found, “successfully or not,” laughs the Immortal Barbara Cassin who edited the work (2) published for the opening of the Cité internationale de la langue française in Villers-Cotterêts (Aisne). Thus, “computer” was adopted instead of computer . We are now trying “infox” to replace fake news . Let’s hope it works! »
Simplify complex rules
The rise of English is all the more annoying as the level of French seems to be declining among young people. According to a 2022 note from the Ministry of National Education, CM2 schoolchildren make nine more mistakes in 2021 than in 1987. Pisa (International Program for Student Achievement Monitoring) studies show that they rank among the last in Western countries, in reading and understanding text.
“Language is not spelling,” explains Maria Candea. And French is one of the most complicated in the world. The spelling and speech do not necessarily correspond, there are homonyms, silent “e”, double consonants, aberrant rules, exceptions to the rules, and exceptions to the exceptions! These difficulties put young people – and adults – in disabling linguistic insecurity. »
The professor campaigns for a simplification that the Hispanic world practices continuously. An opinion shared by academician Barbara Cassin. “In France, debates on spelling have always been at loggerheads, because language was the glue of our nation. As a Latinist, I like to see traces of it in our language, but the spelling is dated and we can change it…”
On condition that you go about it in a reasoned and progressive way, believes Jean Pruvost: “Yes, French is difficult. But we must not mix the essential (the conjugation, the agreement in the nominal groups, that of the past participle with être and avoir…) with the accessory (the rules and complicated words). The basics of the language must be learned, like a carpenter learns to assemble a frame. For the rest, we can be lenient. »
Indeed, there are faults and faults: that of inattention does not have the same value as that which changes the meaning of the sentence. Moreover, the number of points that can be deducted from a bac exam due to spelling is limited (maximum four). A step backwards for some, a step forward for others, who favor creativity and progress over substance.
Limit the feminization of words
To these questions has been added in recent years that of the feminization of words. “Be careful,” says Barbara Cassin, “I am for the evolution of the language, but I do not want to let usage or activism take precedence. This is why the French Academy spoke out against the midpoint (that of student. es, meaning students, used by certain faculties and certain media, Editor’s note), unsightly and unpronounceable. » Inclusive writing aimed at equal female-male representation raises a storm.
If the feminization of professional names was difficult to accept by the venerable institution, it describes inclusive writing as a whole as a “mortal peril”, and parliamentarians propose banning its use in the “public sphere” . The “all . yours” instead of “all” will not pass! For the moment… “The Academy’s task is to balance usage with the norm – which it does in its dictionary – and to ensure the evolution of the French language,” recalls Barbara Cassin. A very exciting development that concerns 321 million speakers! As proven by the linguistic inventiveness of Quebecers, Creoles, French-speaking Africans and young people – each generation bringing its own vocabulary.
However, the real solutions to make it more egalitarian and less masculine have not all been found. Absurd rules deserve to be simplified. And if we must ensure that English does not creep in everywhere, the basics of Molière’s language must be better taught, written and oral expression encouraged, media and screen education developed.
“Give back to writing, from primary school, its letters of nobility”, demanded on September 6, in the daily The world another collective, made up of intellectuals and artists – including Élisabeth Badinter, Isabelle Carré, Jamel Debbouze. They plead for “a true culture of reading and writing, accompanied by intelligent use of new technologies”. For better living together. Because, as Jean Pruvost points out, “the language is shared by four generations, all of whom must be able to read and understand it! »
(1) Packaging (packaging), process (procedure), brainstorming (brainstorming), post (message), follower (subscriber), crowdfunding (crowdfunding), cluster (hearth), click and collect (click and remove). Find the French equivalents of English words here.
(2) The book of a language, under the direction of Barbara Cassin, Ed. of Heritage, Center of National Monuments, 328 p. ; €42.
French in a few figures
- 5th most spoken language in the world (321 million speakers), after English, Chinese, Hindi and Spanish.
- 36 States educate their children in French establishments, 80% of which are in Africa.
- 4th place in idioms used on the Internet, after English, Spanish and Arabic.
- 50 million people learn French in a foreign language (the 2nd foreign language taught on the planet).
Source: The French language in the world, synthesis of the International Organization of the Francophonie, 2022, Ed. Gallimard