frenchmen could not speak french -- 1/15/15

Today's encore selection -- from 'The Truth is Out There', a review of Graham Robb's The Discovery of France by Bee Wilson. The language of the French nation. With the arrival of the 18th and 19th centuries came the rise of the 'nation' in a sense not previously seen in Europe. This nationalism -- which was to be achieved through a common language and a common sense of identity and purpose -- was needed in part as a replacement for the divine right of kings and the unifying influence that it had long provided. As Graham Robb's book The Discovery of France shows, in the period immediately following the Revolution, most French citizens did not speak French, and this new nationalism came more readily in large cities than in remote villages:  

"Again and again, Robb shows how the centralizing ambitions of the metropolis were thwarted by peoples who barely considered themselves to be 'French' and did not even speak the language.

" 'O Oc Si Bai Ya Win Oui Oyi Awe Jo Ja Oua' is the title of one of Robb's chapters -- just a few of the many words for 'Yes' in the micro-dialects of France. In 1794, the Abbe Gregoire sent out a questionnaire to town halls asking how patois -- which the Encyclopedie defined as 'corrupt language, as spoken in almost all the provinces' -- could be destroyed. His survey revealed that France contained a mere 3 million pure French-speakers, 11 percent of the population. More than 6 million were in total ignorance of the French language. The Abbe found this alarming. 'In liberty, we are the advance-guard of nations. In language we are still at the Tower of Babel.' He followed this up with a report, 'The Necessity and Means of Exterminating Patois and Universalizing the Use of the French language'. To the Abbe, the Babel of patois was dangerous because it undermined patriotism. How could there possibly be a nation without a common language?

Battle outside the Hôtel de Ville, by Jean Victor Schnetz

"Reading Robb, one is left suddenly uncertain as to whether France ever really was a complete nation, at least until the early twentieth century. Even in 1863, a quarter of army recruits spoke only patois. As late as 1880, only a fifth of the population was entirely at ease in the French language. And this linguistic alienation went hand in hand with a hostility to the idea of France itself. The Abbe was right to have been worried. In Gascony and Provence, they spoke contemptuously of the 'Franchiman' and the 'Franciot', by which they meant the people from the north [of France]. Elsewhere, Robb depicts fierce local communities in which there was violent prejudice both against visitors and against neighboring settlements. In the early 1740s, a cartographer taking part in the Cassini mission to make for the first time a reliable map of France was hacked to death in a tiny village in the Massif Central called Les Estables. A savage and irrational act? Not according to Robb, who argues that these people 'were defending themselves against an act of war'. To be mapped out was eventually, over time, to be phased out of existence."


'The Truth is Out There', a review of Graham Robb's The Discovery of France


Bee Wilson


The Times Literary Supplement


January 4, 2008


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