Linguistic Diversity in France

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“La langue de la République est le français.” Article 2 of the French Constitution, revised as recently as 1992, leaves no room for misinterpretation. France is not known as a multilingual nation, nor one with a well known multilingual history. However: The apparent linguistic unity of France hides a rather different reality of considerable linguistic diversity. (Laroussi and Marcellesi 1995, 85) The country’s monolingual facade hides a multitude of regional languages, whose speakers have faced chastisement and suppression for centuries. An enormous amount of conscious manipulation by the powers that have governed France through the ages has led to the complex linguistic situation that can be found in France today. This essay will present an overview of the historical events which have led to France’s present day linguistic situation paying particular attention to the country’s regional languages and their status. Breton and Basque will be the two regional languages focused on. French, the “sole” language of the French Republic, is certainly one of the country’s most powerful and influential assets. France has exported the French language all over the world, resulting in between seventy million and one hundred and ten million native speakers and twenty-nine countries using it as their official language today. However before founding this global platform, French had to establish itself within its own country, a process far more complicated than one might think. When the Romans began extending the frontiers of their empire to Gaul, an area which incorporates modern day France, Belgium, Germany as far as the Rhine and Switzerland from lake Geneva to lake Constance (see Lodge 1993, 39) they encountered a high level of linguistic variety. A mixture of Greek, pre-Indo-European and Celtic languages as well as many other languages that linguists have little knowledge of to this day could be found. As the Romans took control of this area from the second century BC, there followed a period of romanisation, and with this, presumably, latinisation. As put forward by Lodge: The rich archaeological record surviving from the Gallo-Roman period enables historians to trace the spread of Roman civilisation in Gaul in some detail (see Thévenot 1948). The process of latinisation undoubtedly followed the same paths as that of romanisation, but direct evidence related to the linguistic history of the period is scanty. [...] In all probability the latinisation of Gaul was very gradual [...] (Lodge 1993, 42) As Latin infiltrated Gaul, it most likely became influenced by the languages already present, resulting in a variety of non-standard Latins. The Gallo-Roman period lasted for about five centuries, until the Barbaric Germanic invaders: the Francs, the Visigoths and the Burgundians invaded and took over in the fifth century A.D. leaving behind them a linguistic legacy. The vulgar Latin already present mutated with the arrival of these new linguistic influences and France, at this point, was the proprietor of a large number of different dialects. These dialects became clearly split between the ninth and the thirteenth centuries forming the dialectical divisions of France: the langues d’oïl in the North and the langues d’oc in the south. This split came about as the northern half, from around Lyon upwards, said oïl for ‘yes’, whereas the southern half said oc. (Davidson 2011, 110) Today, the langues d’oïl comprise French, Breton and Alsatian and the langues d’oc are made up of Occitan, Basque, Catalan and Franco-Provencal. The incredibly diverse linguistic platform present at this time still does not shed much light as to why French emerged as the single language of the French Republic. From this point, French emerges as an arguably “planned language”. (see Judge 1993) During the Old French Period, between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, the dialect of l’Île de France, the region which today incorporates Paris, grew in influence,...
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