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Why Do the French Try to Control French Language Usage?

Why Do The French Try To Control French Language Usage?
There have been many attempts to control the development of French; through the work of the French Academy and it’s spelling and vocabulary rules, to a recent attempt by ‘COSLA’ to simplify French administrative language. This raises the question – why have the French tried to control their language in the past, and why are they doing so now?

Dr. David Krasovek, who teaches French as a foreign language, history and methodology of geopolitics, and contemporary issues of France and European Union at the Russian Presidential Academy shares his wisdom on this subject.

To the question are the French trying to control their language, Dr Krasovek comments that the question is very complex, and that it is necessary to look at the historical context. “People are usually very surprised to know that 100 years ago only 30% of French spoke French. Then the situation was very different. That was one of the golden ages of French literature, the age of Victor Hugo and Zola. …And at that time, only a few percent of French were able to write in French. Today we are in another situation, because today, all French are speaking French, and this is actually an exception in French history. As far as control goes, in the 19th century, we have an attempt to control the language because taxation policies were different in each region. …So there were two reasons [that the French government tried to control the language] – the importance of propagating the ideology of the State and for practical reasons, such as being able to raise taxes.”

There was a nationalistic period of French linguistics, when, 30 years ago, during De Gaulle’s presidency, French words had to be found for all English words. Dr Krasovek comments: “This attempt to control the language was stupid, excuse me, because so much was in English, and it was ridiculous trying to change so much”.

To the question of whether it is, or not, possible for the French government to control French now, Dr Krasovek says: “there are two issues – one of controlling language and the other is controlling minds. At the moment it is more pragmatic to control the spelling of French, to control minds is a part of each ideology. …Why hasn’t written French language changed? It isn’t because the government wants to control the language as such, but because it is very important for French scholars to have access to texts from the past. And that’s why the French Academy is so conservative. …In France we can read Moliere today. At the same time, if we heard how they spoke at that time we would not underhand them, because the pronunciation has changed a lot. That’s why you have some regions which are still speaking French like they were hundreds of years ago, and we cannot understand it. …For the French Academy, it is important that the French will be able to read what we are writing today in 100 years time. So the [present] administration wants to control the meaning because it is pragmatic and practical. The COSLA program is about simplifying administrative language; it has to be easy to open a company, for example. Other pragmatic reasons, Dr Krasovek says, are that the French government wants to support the universality of the language in communities where French is spoken around the world, in America, in Africa and Asia….  “But that doesn’t stop you speaking French differently in different regions, by using different accents. …Of course, the French government is nostalgic about the period in history when French was the official international diplomatic Language. It is the official diplomatic language in a lot of institutions, but in reality, all of the participants speak English. You have to bear in mind that only a few years ago, the French were worried about linguistic separatism – of colonies, and of different French speaking areas within Europe, especially after WWII.”

In short, the French government is not trying to control French as such, but to maintain a basic universality which can enable the language to be used internationally. This is still control, but may not be such a bad thing.

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