Why is French so prescriptive (and is English)?
People in the UK are routinely amused and bemused by French-speakers’ hyper-sensitivity to language matters and by the steps taken by the French state to regulate linguistic behaviour. In the 60s and 70s, under the sway of Gaullism, successive governments targeted above all the use of Anglicisms. More recently, the Socialists have faced a tide of protests at official attempts to simplify the spelling system. A recent study comparing prescriptivist attitudes in France and Quebec suggests that while French-speaking Canadians continue to be perturbed by the ‘outside enemy’ (American English), European speakers of French are generally more alarmed by the ‘enemy within’ (bad French). On our side of the Channel, we remain indifferent to the permanent Americanization of English and to the top-down manipulation of the language which turns services into products, passengers into customers, and difficulties into challenges. We may get cross about lilys for lilies, recieve for receive and wrongly placed apostrophes – sure signs of sloppy schooling – but few of us would consider it the state’s responsibility to step in and modify the language. Why are language attitudes so different on either side of the Channel?
A quick answer might be that at the end of the eighteenth century the French had the most radical of political revolutions, while the British did not. Under the Ancien Régime the symbol binding the kingdom together was the crown. With the execution of the King in 1793, new symbols of national unity had to be found and people began referring, astonishingly, to Sa majesté la langue française (‘Her Majesty the French Language’). The old slogan of une foi, une loi, un roi (‘one faith, one law, one king’) gave way to nation une, langue une (‘one nation, one language’). The French language and the French nation were one. Other countries took up this idea, but nowhere did it make such headway as in France.
One nation, one language
In the 1790s ‘one nation, one language’ sounded fine in theory, but in practice, in a France three times the size of Britain and with a population to match, very few of the Nation’s citizens spoke the national language. If they didn’t speak Breton, Basque, Catalan, Occitan, Italian, Alsatian, or Flemish, they spoke some patois which educated Parisians could never bring themselves to understand. For a while, it looked as though a federal state would emerge, with each region using its own language, but the Jacobins triumphed and a centralist, unitary state was established. Theory required one nation and only one language, so that had to be the reality, even if all the evidence pointed the other way. Wars prevented the centralists from quickly bringing theory and practice into line. Things had to await the second half of the nineteenth century, when large-scale industrialization and the humiliation of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) made language standardization an urgent necessity.
The nation une, langue une ideal requires everyone to speak and write in the same way, but complete standardization of language is a pipe-dream. The only part of language which can be fully standardized is spelling, so French people promptly saw spelling as the quintessential form of French; the clearest embodiment of the ‘one and indivisible Nation’. Spelling mistakes in the daily dictation exercises at school were not just signs of ignorance, they were ‘kicks in the teeth for France’. Things have calmed down since the fevered decades of the Third Republic, but the recent spelling kerfuffle shows that, despite e-mails and texting, old language attitudes persist. Many feel that official meddling with the spelling system is an even greater betrayal than individuals’ breaking the rules through sloppiness.
Does this fully explain the differences between language attitudes on either side of the Channel, or could there be deeper forces at work? Are we to believe that the French, with their mania for prescriptive norms and uniformity, are a set of mad theory-driven Cartesians, while the British are common-sense pragmatists, who treat English simply as it comes, in a straightforward, non-judgmental way? What Britain and France have in common is that, unlike Germany and Italy, they are each dominated by a ‘primate capital’ which has profoundly shaped each country to suit its needs. Paris and London are, however, very different from each other. Urban historians distinguish two types of city: ‘central-places’ which depend for their success on mobilizing the material and human resources of their hinterland, and ‘network cities’ which, in order to succeed, must maintain a nodal position in the international trading and financial networks.
Paris offers a paradigm case of the central place: it came from almost nowhere in the thirteenth century to become the largest human concentration in Europe, principally on the basis of a rich and expanding agricultural hinterland. France’s symmetrical systems of regional and local government, of education, of transport and communications developed to mobilize the country’s total resource, material and human, in the interests of the capital. Language has always played a key role in this, and is still used to remind the French that their primary loyalty is to Paris, and not to their particular region, class, or ethnic group, and certainly not to New York. Parisian norms, in language as in everything else, are not arbitrary diktats, they are principles derived from reason which make non-normal behaviour simply illogical.
The case of London is different: it joined the big league of European cities only in the sixteenth century and did so as a ‘network city’, after the trade-routes changed and Venice became a back-water. With cities of this type, mobilizing the indigenous resources of the hinterland matters less than maintaining a nodal position on the trade-routes, nowadays electronic rather than material. London is not interested in using language to foster common national objectives and to mobilize the talents of all its citizens. A key function of the standard language (the Queen’s English, Oxford English, Public School English) is to bolster the traditional structures of power. There is no need for the state to regulate it, since traditional non-state institutions do the job perfectly well. We cannot claim that the English are less judgmental in matters linguistic than the French, it is just that their judgments are based on class instead of on reason. They bear less on the written language and more on elocution and ‘accent’. We may chuckle at the French preoccupation with orthography, but they are no less bemused by our hypersensitivity to phonology, reminiscent to them of the Ancien Régime.