Patriotism and Linguistic Purism in France: Deux Dialogues Dans le Nouveau Langage Francois and Parlez-Vous Franglais?

By Hornsby, David | Journal of European Studies, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Patriotism and Linguistic Purism in France: Deux Dialogues Dans le Nouveau Langage Francois and Parlez-Vous Franglais?


Hornsby, David, Journal of European Studies


1. Purism in the sixteenth and twentieth centuries

Nearly four centuries separate the publication in France of two satirical works: Henri Estienne's Deux dialogues dans Ie nouveau langage francois italianize (1578) and Parlez-vous franglais? (1964)(1) by Rene Etiemble.(2) Both works are unashamedly purist in intention,(3) written in response to a perceived threat to the French language from outside. The satirical target for Estienne is the Italianized language of the court, while Etiemble focuses on the more recent threat from English, or more precisely, Anglo-American. Parallels between the two books have been drawn (see, e.g. Thody 1995: 21), and Etiemble indeed both acknowledges a debt to Estienne (p.296), and quotes approvingly from his later work on the same theme, La Precellence de la langue francaise (1579), in Appendix 2.

While the aims of the writers were similar, the position of the French language in terms of its prestige at home and abroad at the time of writing differed greatly. Although Palsgrave had bemoaned its 'want of rules and preceptes grammaticall' as early as 1530, French remained a largely uncodified language throughout the sixteenth century, in spite of the fact that what Trudeau (1992) terms a 'spontaneous norm' (norme spontanee), namely the usage of the Parisian upper classes, had long since emerged (see Brunot 1966: II, 159). The sixteenth century has generally been seen as a period of elaboration of function (see Lodge 1993: 118-52). Having become the official language of law and administration with the Ordonnance de Villers-Cotterets of 1539, French needed to acquire the linguistic resources for a new range of functions formerly performed by Latin. Lexical borrowing was an important source of new vocabulary, and in courtly circles in particular, it is clear that the prestige of Italy had engendered a vogue for Italian borrowings, which Estienne saw as an affectation.

There were a number of reasons for Italian pre-eminence. As Hope (1971: 229) notes, a certain scorn for Italy had given way to admiration for her wealth, and her achievements in the military, educational and artistic spheres were also greatly admired. A period of education in Italy was the norm for many children of middle- and upper-class Parisian families. Additional factors were the economic importance of Lyon, with its strong commercial links to Italian states, and perhaps most importantly, the regency from 1560 of Catherine de Medicis, which attracted significant numbers of Italians to the Court. What Lodge calls a 'feeling of cultural inferiority' of France to Italy finds expression throughout the century either in crude anti-Italianism or in metalinguistic attempts to prove the validity of French as equal or superior to Italian (see for example Lemaire des Beiges 1511, Estienne 1565). But while Estienne writes at a time when French was still seeking to assert its prestige, Etiemble's work is written against a backcloth of a language in decline, continually losing ground to English on the international stage. Having functioned as the universal language of diplomacy in the seventeenth century, and enjoyed admiration for its supposed qualities of clarity and reason (see Lodge 1993: 178-87), French now found itself increasingly sidelined. In 1919 the Treaty of Versailles had been drafted in English as well as French solely at the insistence of the United States and Great Britain, but by 1945 French was accepted as a working language of the United Nations Organization, alongside English, Russian, Spanish and Chinese, only by a single vote. For Etiemble, a symptom of the declining prestige of the language worldwide was its reduction to no more than sabir atlantique, a transatlantic jargon so riddled with Anglo-American elements as no longer to be recognizably French. Both works thus reflect contemporary national insecurities either side of the 'golden age' of French linguistic hegemony. But while sixteenth-century Italianism for Estienne is a courtly affectation to be mocked, Etiemble sees the threat from English in terms of a deliberate attempt by a hostile and dominant foreign power to undermine French linguistic and cultural identity, requiring the intervention of the state to protect a national language ill-equipped to defend itself. …

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