French: Familiar yet foreign

Daniel Whitesman 8 October 2014

Having studied French for eight years, I have learnt about many aspects of the language. Grammatical exercises have been completed, vocabulary has been learned, but I have had a tendency to consider it purely in its current, “standard” form and it is only recently that I have had the opportunity to consider the fascinating development of the French language.

Turbulent and contradictory are probably two words best suited to the history of French’s development as the language has found itself in the grip of a perpetual struggle between the need to change and the influence of those who seek to control its natural progression. In the sixteenth century, new words were borrowed from Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Spanish and Italian to enrich and renew the French vocabulary, only for people to object to this foreign influence in the seventeenth century when ‘L’Academie Francaise’ was created in 1635. Following the French Revolution of 1789, there was a great desire to eradicate the other patois that reminded people of the old regime and this battle to create a regularised, standard French language has been waged ever since. In the past, some have even gone as far as proposing that future spouses should prove that they know how to read, write and speak the national language in order to be lawfully wed, whilst others have endeavoured to eliminate regional variations through rather extreme punishments in schools. During the nineteenth century, writing in traditional “pure” French was made compulsory in exams but despite all of these attempts, children would often address their friends in their dialect during recreation. However, shifts in language can often come about in surprising ways. The uniting of conscripts from different regions during the First World War favoured the use of common French and the invention of radios and televisions meant that people who before only heard their regional dialect found themselves exposed to politicians and broadcasters speaking Parisian French.

Even if it is now fair to say that the patois no longer pose a serious threat to standard French, these challenges have been replaced by new ones. The incursion of English, particularly when it comes to words for new technological innovations like ‘le scanner’ or ‘le tuner’, ruffles the feathers of those who seek to maintain French in its “pure” form. For those concerned with women’s rights, the masculine nature of certain French professions should be called into question. It is true to say that certain job titles, such as ‘vendeur’ (shop assistant/seller) have been feminised to ‘vendeuse’ and ‘dessinateur’ (designer) can become ‘dessinatrice’ but professions that are sometimes considered to be more prestigious such as ‘directeur’ (manager), ‘ingenieur’ (engineer), ‘docteur’ (doctor) and ‘avocat’ (lawyer) remain solely masculine in form. This doesn’t seem right in a country whose renowned national motto remains ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’. Will the language be altered to avoid sending mixed messages to French society or will tradition and French’s notorious rigidity take precedence? Only time will tell but one thing is sure: the battle between the will for French tradition and stability and the need to adapt to a changing world will be fought out for many years to come.