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Vol. 2 No. 3 Apr 2003

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In praise of multilingualism, bad French and the canoe instructor
Page 2

This is a dreadful story of course, but I will not make too much of it. This story is impossible in Italy, the Italians would say, nor in Germany, the Germans would say, nor in France, would say the French. So, let us look at France where they pretend to speak a single language.

When I listen to the conversations of teenagers who attend the lycées of the center of Paris, I am struck by their accent when they speak French. One would imagine that these sons of bourgeois come out of the suburbs and that at home they speak to their parents in Arabic or in Tamazight. They have acquired Arab accents. Do they realize it? Do they speak like this to their teachers who quiz them on Racine or Chateaubriand? It seems almost incredible: by mimicry, the young girls and boys of the 5th and 6th arrondissements chat in the rhythmic and subtly guttural accent of North African immigrants whose French is not their native tongue. Add a certain style, some clothing fads, but this is nothing new. In the States, too, the children of middle-class New Yorkers’ ape the kids of the black ghettoes. However, in Paris as in all the large French cities, they copy not just the look, but also a linguistic deformation.

At first, there may have been a notion of derision in this way of speaking, or was it a way to show solidarity with marginals? Now it seems to be a sort of self-discrimination, a way to evade the norm to integrate, a way to say: we are all French-speaking outsiders.

This linguistic manner that I notice is the opposite of the centralizing and universalistic model developed until now by the thinkers of the French Republic. At the time of the Revolution, hardly half of France could speak French. Now that standardized French has become homogeneous, its power is challenged by a foreign accent used in the very heart of its capital.

The fact is that language is colored from the bottom, just as a length of cloth dipped in dye absorbs color by every fiber. French tinged by Arabic, and soon other African languages, is simply doing what happens or has happened to other languages, from the Latin of the clerics to the English of the tour operators. The purity of French - defending and illustrating it - is but a phantasm of those in power who want to hang onto their comfortable seats, either in the Académie Française or in the Government.

The unique language, the French of France just as the English of the British Isles lives on by absorbing, whatever the cost, the accent, the words, the terms of those who were the last to learn it. In the case of France, the peasants, and now the immigrants.

When one considers how languages develop, one can only be optimistic: language remains alive and always tells the battle of the margins to push their color to the center. That is why the bad French of the Parisian students offers me quite mischievous amusement whenever I return to the capital. The story of the Swiss-German and his canoe may someday occur in a French suburb. One must accept it and remain optimistic.

Along with a few millions of French-speaking people in Quebec, Belgium, the Antilles, more and more Africans and Asians, we French-Swiss share the pleasure of tweaking and teasing the French language from the outside. The French of France call us Francophones. They would hardly be flattered to be included in this category. They speak of it as a peripheral situation outside the French Hexagon. They are French. We are but Francophones.

Let us accept their distinction, let us admit right from the start that Francophones are only those who speak French outside of France. And from here, let us begin to analyze our own relationship to the spoken language then to the written language.

The French-speaking part of Switzerland may serve as an example of the spoken language as used by Francophones. But the same reasoning might be applied by analogy to any other French-speaking outsiders, as I like to point out with the Parisian student example.It may apply also to the Swiss speaking German or Italian. And even more: each language, which lives near another one, makes it clear that linguistic fundamentalism is impossible to sustain.

Sometimes on the train, I listen in on conversations. Not to know what is being said but to observe how it is said. I recognize our slips from standard French: the particular use of possessive pronouns, local expressions, redundant syntax, and even syllables inverted as in German names, to avoid Frenchifying them

I recognize also our minimalism. No lengthy sentences, many exclamations, simple rules. Not saying much more than mimicry can express. Living at the frontier of languages, we ourselves know languages are mortal. Our neighbors, the Swiss-Germans speak a dialect that is living out its very last century. We already gave up our patois with not too much pain and linguistic marginality does not scare us. If we speak this way, it is not to add to the folklore collection of Francophone dictionaries but simply to proudly defy standardization.


Vocabulary, syntax, accents, we might be only the victims of regional variations from the norm. But listening carefully to what we pretend are full sentences, we must admit we are far from the French standard. Our words line up hesitantly to stop anywhere as soon as the person in front of us seems to nod assent. Why bother to make up the rest of a wordy sentence? For us, every word counts. If we hear no more assenting grunts, it is a sign we have been understood. Talking to say nothing special, one ends up by thinking with no ideas. We are not scared of silence.

A lengthy pause in French, German or Italian may mean the same as several useless phrases from Paris, Berlin or Rome. Or even equal a whole meaningless conversation. The gift of the gab was not poured into us from a metric French baby bottle. If our lingua interrupta had to be justified, we might well evoke our jerky thought process, we might say that a secondary level of understanding comes from such an economy of means. The minimalist way we express ourselves is not, in our case, a trait of provincial cunning, but a modest way of trying not to be too outgoing, a manner that avoids showing off. Yes, every word is an effort and we often like to tell our subordinates that they chatter far too much.

The reasons for this state of affairs and its history seem well known. The partisans of an ethnic theory of languages put the blame for the French on our closeness to German playing tricks upon us. They say that Germanisms would infest not only our speech but also our thoughts. Within every French-Swiss, would slumber a German-Swiss who wakes up whenever we start thinking. It is the same for the Quebecois, who are likely to think in English, or the Walloons who think in Flemish or the French-speaking Algerians who think in Arabic.

Among other explanations, we, in Switzerland, would suffer from cultural backwardness because our sky is hemmed in by mountains.

The cleverest ethnologists blame our distance from the creative center of standardized French, German or Italian. We live so far from the heart that we would be unable to share the rich intellectual life that gives our language its power and radiance.

Those who would teach us to speak our language properly really blame us not so much for trying to avoid standard usage but for challenging its authority. Because language establishes rights, law, order. To speak properly is to think properly, to submit to the accepted code. A hint of illegitimacy taints our mother tongue. Its hesitant ways irreverently mock power.

Fortunately, many of us think, writing allows us to express ourselves without the accent of our free mountains ever giving us away. Since, hampered by our many hesitations, it is so hard for us orally, it would seem easier to write. Being poor talkers, just like weak students, we might fare better in writing. In spite of everything, we would reach the universal. In writing, the difference between French and Francophones, German and Germanophones would no longer be perceptible. Yet. Reading the mail from our administration, or the local sections of our dailies, we can spot at a glance, the indelible stamp of provincialism, padded, glossed, ironed-out by the word processor but oh so treacherous. The writing of our local notables, of our sports writers and our electrical services seems to reproduce in every sentence the jagged outline of our Jura pines along the horizon. Even when our language aims for the smoothness of a plane tree in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, it retains its spiky needles all winter long.

Therefore, it remains only for literature - from fiction to the poems of our writers - to erase the flaws of our speech.

This might be our most heroic attempt to escape the stamp of the local landscape. Finally, we would join, in the same care of writing well, all who are devoted to a single language. Has it succeeded? Has literature any chance of success?

Where speech is marked by its peripheral state, can the passion for literature, as by magic, build a strong center that escapes local influence? There are two answers to this question of Francophone literature. Two contradictory solutions face off. One believes itself universal, the other specific.

According to the first - the universal one - outsider peripheral speech in no way impedes a central way of writing, since speaking and writing are two traditions with a separate existence. One - speech - is passed along by word of mouth. The other - literary tradition - is transmitted from parchment to fine paper. This theory has solid and prestigious partisans, even in our region.

Therefore, it would be through literature itself that our own literary production is forged. Can one dare doubt this - richly documented, culturally correct way - of seeing? To claim a literary inheritance out of any constraint of space or time is the foundation of classicism. However, this means we must give up our language’s own history. We know that is impossible. That is why classicism is often closely watched by academism.

All over, many defiant proclamations are multiplying. For some time now, authors no longer write to defend and illustrate their language. They write to subvert it, to insert an element of doubt, targeting the clichés and the dominant way of thinking.

This was the universalistic option. The second - specific - option offers just the opposite. It recognizes the filiations of literature to the spoken language. It admits that from a different language comes a different literature. Can it deny the outsider peripheral situation and erect its own center? This was the choice of French-speaking Swiss writer Ramuz. Yes, he said, we live far from the Academy, the heavy plane of our language levels our thoughts, paring off its own rough shavings.

Ramuz, like Céline and a few others wanted to re-establish the continuity between spoken and written language. He began not with the sentence, an arrangement of words meant to be written down but from the statement, the way our thoughts turn into words. He noticed the growing abyss between our school-taught literature and the popular linguistic reality existing at the beginning of the 20th century. He did not imitate oral speech, even less did he transcribe it. However, he ceased to ignore it. For Ramuz, there were not two antagonist filiations, but only one that anchors itself in speech, detours through writing, and returns.

What remains of these attempts today? Faced with linguistic hesitation, two extreme options to found literary projects were attempted. One was classicism, the other was known as regionalism. Both reached dead ends. Nevertheless, the question remains. How to create a literature from a spoken language so unsure of itself? Unsure French, unsure German, unsure English?

For the last fifty years, the gap between spoken and written language has widened even more. Speech, assisted by recorders, has found the lasting character from which writing once gained its nobility. With the democratization of recording that allows us to fill tape after tape, literature is seeking another status. Since speech-processing tools will next allow us to turn dictation into words on a screen, we can no longer pretend that written text illuminates thinking any more than does the spoken word.

Is French a special case? In fifty years, French has become one of the languages where the gap between writing norm and spoken usage has increased the most. Neither in German, Spanish nor Italian does one find today such a divergence together such an anxiety about the so-called invariability of the written word. The refusal of the slightest spelling reform in French offers but one illustration. This makes the French example the most advanced.

So here we are: back from classic tradition, disappointed by regionalism - universalism limited to Paris or Berlin (itself the most pompous variation of regionalism - and confronted besides with a linguistic tool confiscated by the techniques of reproducing it. Moreover, in such conditions we should go cultivate our own four literatures!

Instead of bewailing this, we can instead consider our state of peripheral outsiders as a stroke of luck. In more ways than one. The good luck to live far away from power, far from calculations, compromises and passing fads. Then, the good luck to face more radically each day the gap between the language of the mouth and the language of the pen.

Our luck as language outcasts is to live each day this conflict between what one might say and our halting diction. Céline one day noticed that the difference between himself and people in power was that their language was dead even before it was set down on paper. Whereas his language, at least once, had been alive. Therefore, our doubts about our unsure manner of speaking force us to choose between the living and the dead branches of our language. People who keep such a language alive are called half-breeds. We should accept the term as proudly as did Joyce, he who was from neither Dublin nor London but a sort of an Anglophone half-breed. So we could decide to speak proudly French, German or Italian as it is spoken in Switzerland.


From the Jura to the Atlas Mountains, we, who speak French, willfully endanger the academic standardization that tries to purify language, as others would cleanse ethnic races. Our linguistic hesitancy is our own treasure. There is no need to envy the old-time inflated style of literary people close to the center of power. They who believed their literature was universal have discovered its commercial frailty. They thought they might recapture its vigor by noisily clamoring for a cultural exception that otherwise confirmed the rules of global exchange. Soon these critics of our marginal status will also discover that they too are a mere sub-system. They who disdained our hesitation will themselves begin to hesitate. Just a little more effort, we all will be Francophones !

Then, having at last accepted our condition - detached from power and displaced as peripheral language outsiders - we will discover that our linguistic hesitation is the most commonly shared quality in the world. And on that piece of common sense, we construct our texts.

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QLRS Vol. 2 No. 3 Apr 2003


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  Other Essay in this Issue

Letter From Hong Kong: The Life of Mask-Wearers
By Wendy Gan.

Related Links

Daniel de Roulet bio
External link to the Prague Writers' Festival.

Daniel de Roulet bio
External link, in French.

Swiss Government
External link.

Etymology of names in the Swiss Alps
External link.

Académie Française
External link, in French.

C.F. Ramuz
External link, in French.


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