Molière May Be Dead, But His Language Is Alive and Well

No, French is not set in stone! No, young people are not deforming it! No, Anglicisms are not a threat! In an incisive and necessary manifesto, a collective of linguists has declared war on preconceptions about the French language.
© Boris Séméniako/France-Amérique

It is a well-known fact that French is the “language of Molière,” just as English is the language of Shakespeare, and German and Spanish are the languages of Goethe and Cervantes. Yet if a French speaker were to delve into the original text of Le Bourgeois gentilhomme or Les Fourberies de Scapin, they would understand very little. Words, grammar, spelling, and even pronunciation have changed enormously. From the Oaths of Strasbourg that brought it to life in the ninth century to the present day, French – like all languages – is constantly evolving.

Mistakes often become the norm. For example, the past participle agreeing with the auxiliary avoir which tends to be invariable. Good! One less headache for those speaking and learning French. This argument is made by a group of French, Belgian, Swiss, and Quebecer academics in a short, explicitly titled book published last May: Le français va très bien, merci (“French is doing just fine, thank you”). For the Linguistes Atterré(e)s (“The appalled linguists”), as the 18 authors call themselves, the “accumulation of doom-mongering statements on the current state of our language has prevented people from understanding its immense vitality, its fascinating and perpetual ability to adapt to change, and even from believing in its future.”

But surely the French language is under threat from English? Isn’t the alarming number of borrowings by the former from the latter a sign of the defeat and planned obsolescence of French? Are we not condemned to speak the linguistic monstrosity that is Frenglish? Well, as it happens, such lamenting and wringing of hands has no scientific basis, say the authors. While there are Anglicisms, they are merely “lexical borrowings, part of a gradual process of appropriation.” Spoiler (“to give away a twist or an ending”) – which some would like to see replaced by divulgâcher (a mixture of divulguer, “to divulge,” and gâcher, “to ruin”) – is not an English verb, and “to spoil” is itself derived from the Old French espoillier, meaning “to strip.” Just like pressing, playback, tennisman, zapping, and many other false Anglicisms, it has now become a French word in its own right.

This debate is nothing new. As observed in another work with a similar tone, Le français est à nous ! Petit manuel d’émancipation linguistique (2019), many English words and calques (meaning literal translations such as guerre froide for “Cold War”) were adopted as far back as the 18th century. A large number are found in the political and legal spheres, such as vote, comité, jury, majorité, minorité, verdict, coalition, legislature, and even véto and ultimatum, Latin terms that had been redefined in English. And just like English, which has borrowed countless words from the Gallic tongue, French is able to integrate many foreign words without losing its essence. In fact, these additions enrich it even further!

Another preconception that the Linguistes Atterré(e)s are fighting is that “spelling makes a language.” In reality, spelling often has no logical or even etymological reason behind it. The current spelling of various words is not proof of an overarching linguistic plan, but rather of a succession of small adjustments made by chance over many years. Examples abound: Nénufar (“waterlily,” originally a Persian word) became nénuphar in 1935 for no good reason. Dompter (“to tame”) is from the Latin domitare, and should not include a “p.” Posthume (another Latin loan from postumus) has no connection with humus and certainly has no business including an “h.” Meanwhile, aspect, respect, and suspect have all kept their original silent “c” but objet, préfet, projet, sujet, and rejet have not. Et cetera.

© Boris Séméniako/France-Amérique

Where Is the Académie Française?

French spelling may have become so inaccessible because it has not been reformed for years – unlike many other European languages. The “old dame on Quai Conti,” as the Académie Française is often nicknamed, regularly opposes all changes to spelling, even though most are far from radical. Shifting from oignon to ognon (“onion”) and from chariot to charriot (“shopping cart”) to mimic charrette (“cart,” “wagon”), as recommended in the Rectifications of 1990, is simply a question of common sense. The Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, which is barely on its ninth edition more than three centuries after it was first published, is partially obsolete. Mariage, for example, is still defined as “the legitimate union between a man and a woman.”

That the French are poor speakers of their own language is another preconception shot down by the Linguistes Atterré(e)s. In all countries, spoken language precedes written language, and the ways in which both are produced are very different. Speech is spontaneous with no preparation, whereas writing is the result of lengthy planning and is subject to multiple corrections. Any disparity between the two is therefore entirely normal. The French say tu viens ? (“you coming?”) instead of the more formal viens-tu ?, and ça va pas (“it’s not OK”), instead of cela ne va pas. When we speak, we focus on the essentials without any cumbersome frills such as the adverb ne, which can seem quite redundant when talking. The use of language, whether correct or not, is forged, brought to life, and developed every day by speakers, not official organizations. Many new terms regularly appear, such as the recent surge in portmanteau words (complosphère, the online community of conspiracy theorists and purveyors of fake news) and adjectives with the suffix -able (revaccinable, “able to receive another vaccine”).

Safe to say, the Linguistes Atterré(e)s are hardly fans (another Anglicism imported into French) of the Académie Française, which stopped following the language’s evolution years ago. As a result, it is often attributed a role that it does not actually play. Regardless, the organization has no direct link with the French Ministry of Education, and therefore has no power over the French language. It neither passes laws nor publishes legal memorandums. As for its dictionary, has anyone even read it? At the end of the day, the Académie’s main role is to contribute to terminological projects led by ministerial commissions. What’s more, Francophone countries in the Global North have their own institutions that monitor and develop the language to help local French speakers – look no further than the Office Québécois de la Langue Française.

This proves that – despite another cliché – French is less and less the language of people in France. In fact, it is increasingly the language of Africa. The world’s biggest Francophone city is not Paris, but Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with some 17 million inhabitants. What’s more, French is not even the only language spoken in France. With its regional and minority languages (such as Alsatian, Basque, Breton, and Corsican), creole dialects, and patois from French Guiana and New Caledonia, the country is home to more than 70 languages. And yet, France has never signed the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages.

As the Linguistes Atterré(e)s have pointed out, it is high time that Emmanuel Macron’s country took a truly multilingual approach to the Francophone world. After all, the president himself enjoys drawing on loan words when using the language of Molière. Or perhaps we should start calling it the language of Leïla Slimani, David Diop, Gad Elmaleh, Angèle, and Stromae!

Le français va très bien, merci
by the Linguistes Atterré(e)s, Gallimard, 2023.

Le français est à nous ! Petit manuel d’émancipation linguistique by Maria Candea and Laélia Véron, La Découverte, 2019.

Article published in the March 2024 issue of France-Amérique.