Sunday, June 22, 2008

Regional languages

One often imagines that, in France, everybody speaks French. Well, the situation is far more complex than that. Throughout the République (including overseas territories), there are indeed dozens of so-called regional languages, including Breton, Corsican, Basque, Occitan, Catalan, Alsatian, etc.

A Breton parliamentarian recently presented an amendment to the French constitution that would allow for the reconnaissance (recognition) of regional languages. Insofar as these ancient languages are a significant part of the cultural patrimony of France, it's not surprising that polls indicate that most people approve of such an amendment. In particular, French youth are largely unanimous in applauding such a change of outlook, which respects cultural diversity. After all, the right to speak the language of one's forefathers would appear to be no less sacred than the idea of perpetuating, say, their religion or their life style. Only an insensitive bureaucrat would argue that these precious regional languages should be allowed to die out in the name of progress and unity.

In any case, that's how the situation appears when examined superficially. However, we cannot ignore the fact that the acceptance of regional languages in an operational sense within the République could be quite a complex and hazardous undertaking. What I mean by "operational sense" is that citizens might end up demanding that official documents be drawn up in their local language. Imagine, say, that the authorities in Grenoble were to hand me, at the naturalization ceremony next Friday morning, an identity card written in some Alpine dialect. If I wanted to drive up to Christine's place, I would first have to find an official translator to obtain a Breton version of my driver's license. If ever this linguistic amendment were to be validated, it would only be a short while before an inspired French citizen started to lobby for the reintroduction of Latin, as a daily language, throughout the former territories of Cisalpine Gaul. Then the folk in Marseille would start to scream because they felt that it would be more fitting for them to have the possibility of using Greek. And the République would rapidly become a Tower of Babel, whose major economic activity consisted of language translation. Why reinvent such cacophony within the frontiers of the Hexagon when we already have the European Union? And soon the Mediterranean Union?

Don't take me too seriously. The truth of the matter is that I love the precious phenomenon of exotic languages, old and new... including those we invent these days to run our computers.

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