Language, Language Policy, and Citizenship

The French Revolution and the ‘citizen’

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The French Revolution and the ‘citizen’ It seems clear that the French Revolution did many things—it abolished the privileges of royalty, it took away lands and properties of both the nobility and the church, and it created the notion of the citoyen, or citizen. Before 1789, ordinary people were either in a state of serfdom or servitude to those with greater power, or perhaps as artisans or tradespeople and inhabitants of cities, where they could lead a kind of individual life with some rights, but without much in the way of privileges.

“The National Constituent Assembly completed the abolition of feudalism, suppressed the old orders, established civil equality among men (at least in metropolitan France, since slavery was retained in the colonies), and made more than half the adult male population eligible to vote, although only a small minority met the requirement for becoming a deputy.” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2004.)

Before the Revolution, however, there had also developed a notion, aided by the monarchy, of a special role for the French language: under some earlier pressure from both Spanish and Italian, which seemed--in the 17th century at least--to be making inroads into French linguistic territory, a French Academy was established. At first independent, then under royal sponsorship, the Académie’s role it was to guard the language in some way from corruption and incursions by other languages.4 Over time, the idea that the French language had inherited some kind of special status, perhaps even the ‘mantle’ of classical Latin, became established. This claim to ‘classical’ status was aided by the close link the Académie had with the French monarchy, admired throughout Europe for being the most elegant and refined royal regime the world had every known. Thus the ‘brilliance’ and luster of the French monarchy had also ‘illuminated’ the French language, French literature, and indeed all of French culture. Even though the monarchy then fell, the status of the French language was not affected by the Revolution, but was in fact enhanced, since various revolutionaries saw the role of the French language as the ideal vehicle for the dissemination of the ideas of the French revolution. These leaders then campaigned actively not only to further the language, but to undermine any attachment anyone in France might have to any other kind of non-standard variety of French, or of any other language, dialect, idiome, patois, or whatever else that was spoken on the territory (Schiffman 1996). These other linguistic varieties were seen as relics of feudalism, as expressions of loyalty to separatist tendencies, or even worse.

At first, during the early months of the Revolution, the ideas of the Revolution were disseminated by whatever means possible, for instance, by translating the texts of the laws and decrees emanating from Paris, but this eventually was determined to be not functioning in the manner that theoreticians such as the Abbé Grégoire and others had hoped. Translation, they felt, was in fact working against their revolutionary goals, and they finally concluded that proper participation in the Revolution required a form of communication that was clear and rational. The only vehicle that filled the bill was, obviously, standard French. Grégoire (de Certeau et al., 1975) Robespierre, and people like Barrère felt that only Standard French was lucid, rational, and clear, and other forms of language (derided as idiomes, patois, jargons, and argots) were muddied, irrational, unclear, and inadequate. On the 27th of January, 1794, Barrère addressed the Convention as follows:

‘The language of a people ought to be one and the same for all. Our enemies had made the French language into the language of the courts; they vilified it. It’s up to us to make out of it the language of the people, and to honor it. Federalism and superstition speak Breton; emigration and hate for the Republic speak German; counterrevolution speaks Italian, and fanaticism speaks Basque. Let us smash these instruments of damage and error.’5
‘Citizens, you hate political federalism. Abjure linguistic [federalism]. Language ought to be one, like the republic.’6
Thus there emerged from the French Revolution the notion that the French language, previously a cosseted and privileged instrument of royalty, could become the language of ordinary French people, but only if kept unified, i.e., free of any regional taint. Pure and unsullied, it would convey the noble ideas of the Revolution to all, and it was not only the right but the duty of all citizens to learn it. Failure to do so would compromise the ideals of the Revolution, and open the door to counterrevolution, anarchy, and chaos.

It is interesting to contrast this idea about language with ideas in other revolutionary traditions, as we shall do below. In particular, to Anglo-Saxon eyes (and other minds as well) the idea that a monarchical view of language could be transformed into a revolutionary one, and that non-standard and regional forms of language should be ‘smashed’ and abolished, is a strange one. American ideas about government, and about language, view decentralization and federalism as democratic, and the language of the ‘people’ as emanating from the people, not the other way around, i.e. handed down from the capital. Soviet ideas about language, as we shall see below, also involved abolishing the monopoly of Russian, and allowing many regional forms of language to blossom, instead of trying to eliminate them. Ironically, however, as various analysts have pointed out (Brunot, 1966), the French Revolution was a triumph of the monarchic language policy, and the royal view of language, even as the monarchs were being frog-marched to the guillotine.

As for the present, nothing seems to have changed. Bourdieu (1982), who sees language usage as a kind of linguistic ‘exchange’, specifically discerns a kind of folk-Whorfian world-view (Mertz 1982)at work in the imposition and functioning of the French language policy model. Teachers in French schools are on the front lines, as it were, working constantly to “inculcate a clear faculty of expression and of each emotion,” through language. They work to replace the patois—for them nothing but a confused jumble—with standard French, held to be the only ‘clear and fixed’ medium that deserves to be in their pupils’ heads, if one was to succeed in getting them to perceive and feel things in the same way. The work of the teacher is “to erect the common conscience of the nation.” Bourdieu calls this a Whorfian or Humboldtian theory of language, which sees scholarly action as “intellectual and moral integration.” (Bourdieu op. cit. p.32.) Teaching language, therefore, is a kind of ‘mind control;’ instilling the standard language in the heads of children will re-program them to think clearly. It is no wonder, then, that Anglo-Saxons cannot think clearly about anything; they have an inferior instrument residing in their crania, and nothing will help short of uprooting it and replacing it with something more ‘rational, clear, and lucid.’

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