France Is an Archipelago

The French do not speak the language of Molière, but rather a creolized tongue that is constantly growing through its encounters with literature and music from all over the world. And that’s a good thing!
© Antoine Moreau-Dusault/France-Amérique

For writers short on vocabulary, metaphors can lend a helping hand. They may describe France as l’Hexagone and French as la langue de Molière – a twofold misunderstanding. This image of a hexagon, reminiscent of the shape of France, dates back to the 1960s in the wake of decolonization. Deprived of its empire and confined to its original borders, France suddenly resembled a fortress designed by Vauban. Yet this nostalgic withdrawal is unfounded. What about Corsica and Guadeloupe, which are as French as Touraine but distinctly un-hexagonal? When Miss Tahiti was elected Miss France in 2019, she hardly had a “hexagonal profile,” as one might say. We should forget, banish, and abandon this misleading metaphor and its narrow-minded, nationalist ideology. The same applies to “the language of Molière,” which no French person speaks today. Our current lexicon is no longer the one he used, and we have no idea how he even pronounced the language. It is thought that, in the Baroque era, people rolled the “r,” but we are not certain. As for pre-Molière French, we would struggle to even understand it. No one flicks through Montaigne’s original texts; instead, we read contemporary translations. We don’t even know if Napoleon spoke with a Corsican accent, as historians are still debating the matter.

The French of the present is not the French of the past. In fact, did the French of the past even speak French? No! Everyone spoke the language of their province, and French was only instated as the national language when public education became compulsory in the late 19th century. The government of the time imposed a national language, which was in fact the language of Paris. Historians credit World War I with accelerating a unification of the language, with commanding officers forcing millions of soldiers, suddenly uprooted from their homelands, to speak French. The only remnants of the wonderfully diverse local languages that once defined old, rural France are imperceptible accents, which are gradually being erased by the disappearance of agricultural communities and the intensification of the urban melting pot. These ancient tongues were often wrongly described as “patois” to facilitate their replacement by state-backed French. But they were languages in their own right, as shown by the modern defenders of the Breton, Corsican, and Occitan languages. This status has also been demonstrated by Provençal literature, which enjoyed a revival with Frédéric Mistral, the 1904 Nobel Prize laureate, as its figurehead.

This does not mean that the French language cannot continue to evolve. Anyone watching a movie from the 1930s will soon notice that the vocabulary and the accents are not of our time. Today, English and Arabic are transforming French in the same way that our ancestors assimilated Italian words in the 17th century. Just as France is not a hexagonal fortress, neither is our language. When a former Minister of Culture tried to ban Anglicisms in 1994, he was ridiculed. His name was Jacques Toubon, and he was immediately nicknamed “All Good”! This linguistic debate between France’s elite and the general public is a very old one. As far back as 1620, poet François de Malherbe replied to pompous language scholars by declaring that the real French was the one spoken by the “ordinary people” on the quays of Paris.

Language comes from below and elsewhere, not from above. Our literature and our language are constantly enriched by books and music from the Caribbean, Quebec, Louisiana, Lebanon, and Africa. Our current Minister of Culture, Rima Abdul Malak, is of Lebanese heritage, as is Amin Maalouf, the new perpetual secretary of the Académie Française, the highest literary office of the land. His predecessor, Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, was of Georgian and Russian descent. French is now a vehicle for not one but several cultures, all coexisting without excluding each other. There may be occasional friction, which is inevitable but hardly dramatic. This is called creolization, and not métissage – another outdated and misleading metaphor implying the removal of differences.

If France and the French language are fortresses, they are open to all. And that’s a good thing! If we really want to use a metaphor, an archipelago would be an apt image of what we have become: a collection of cultures, words, and notes circling the globe via Wallis and Futuna and Saint Pierre and Miquelon. As for the cultural pathways used by creolization, look no further than food (think paella and couscous) and music. Rap is currently teaching us Arab and African vocabulary, along with a whole host of Americanisms. Younger generations are making the biggest contribution to enriching French culture. And to use their language, they’re trippin’ over this archipelago!

Editorial published in the December 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.