By James Chetwood
Over the next couple of days people all over France will participate in the Fête Nationale. The events of the Revolution it celebrates not only altered the linguistic landscape of France, but it also saw the creation of a language policy which transformed language into a vehicle for nationalism, and means through which states could demonstrate their authenticity, as well as demand loyalty from their people.
It was in 1790, barely a year after the Bastille was stormed, that the first ever linguistic survey of France took place. The Rapport Grégoire established that French was the sole language in only 15 of the 83 départements, and that over 12 million citizens – mainly in rural areas – couldn’t speak enough French to carry out a conversation, and that only 3 million people could speak French ‘properly’, with even fewer able to write it. In effect, Paris and its hinterland was virtually an isolated island of monolingual French speakers surrounded by a sea of regional languages.
The initial response of the Constituent Assembly was to have all new legislation
translated into all the languages spoken in France – a position supported by the federalist Girondins. But with the fate of the Revolution in the balance, the centralising Jacobin faction that took control in 1793 had other ideas. Ruling through the wonderfully Orwellianly-named ‘Committee of Public Safety’, the Jacobin ruling faction acquired far-reaching executive powers, including control of the army and mass conscription, the ability to appoint judges and juries to the Revolutionary Tribunal, the right to set prices, as well as the maintenance of public order.
While it might be a step too far to call this an ‘authoritarian régime’, many of the techniques used by the Committee have been features of authoritarian rule in the centuries that have followed. The ‘Reign of Terror’ they oversaw crushed internal insurrection in the Vendée and eliminated political enemies, executing some 17,000 people along the way. To ‘save liberty’, it was also deemed necessary both to enlighten the people of France and exercise control over their opinions. Liberty of the press was abandoned, patriotic pamphlets and journals were printed, national fêtes were organised, and the theatre was expected to contribute to promotion of the Republic and its ideals.
Language was to play a key role in this re-education of the French people. French, and French alone, was to be the language of freedom and the universal values embodied by the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme. While it may have, theoretically, been done in the spirit of equality and democracy – a national language ensured that all citizens had equal access to the benefits of the Revolution – the practical application of the policy and the language had a decidedly authoritarian bent.
In 1794 the revolutionary government passed a decree imposing the use of French throughout French territory, private schools were converted into state schools in which the language of instruction was to be French. The revolutionary wish was to see all French citizens understanding ‘the language of liberty’ and using it in their daily lives.
The mastermind of the Rapport du Comité de salut public sur les idiomes – out of which the law of 1794 was produced – was Bertrand Barère. In his report he claimed that, in Brittany:
‘Ignorance perpetuates…they do not even know that new laws exist…The inhabitants of the countryside understand only Breton; it is with this barbaric instrument of their superstitious ideas that the priests…hold people under their sway…and prevent citizens from knowing the laws and loving the Republic.’
Not only was French promoted as the national language of France – the sole means through which to transmit the laws of the Republic – but all other languages were viewed with, at best, derision; at worst, suspicion. To speak a language other than French was to be a potential enemy of the Revolution. Barère proclaimed that the ‘barbaric jargons’ and ‘coarse idioms’ that constituted the other languages of France could only serve fanatics and counter-revolutionaries:
‘The voice of federalism and superstition speaks Breton, the émigrés and those who hate the Republic speak German, the counter-revolution speaks Italian and the fanaticism speaks Basque.’
It wasn’t enough just to teach people French. To secure the future of the Republic, and to silence these dissenting voices, it was necessary to ‘crush’ all other languages and the ignorance and sedition they allowed to flourish.
While the Committee of Public Safety was disbanded a few months later, the nationalist, centralising language policies it created were to last much longer. Throughout the nineteenth century the government stepped up attempts to stamp out minority languages for official purposes. Appeal Court decisions in Corsica in 1830, 1859 and 1875 upheld decisions that only French could be used in legal documents. And in 1881, when universal primary education was introduced by Jules Ferry, it was in large part to ensure that all education was to be carried out in French (even though Corsica hadn’t been part
of France at the time of the Revolution).
The laws weren’t just applicable to the French hexagone either. While Napoleon may have joked that he didn’t care what language his troops spoke as long as their sabres spoke French, the French colonial Empire was also meant to be francophone. The colonies may have been thousands of miles away, but there was (in theory) to be no barrier to their eventual full assimilation into the full nation-state.
While there has been a link between language and ‘peoples’ for millennia, the direct link between nation, people and language as a defining factor in national identity was a new idea, and one that the Revolution helped to create. The role these ideas played in the nationalist movements of the nineteenth and twentieth century would be significant. Language became a tool used to shape the identity of a nation, unite its people and, where necessary, to stamp out alternative identities around which people could unite. It also became a means to influence the people within a state – to mould minds and manipulate opinions – using methods employed so frequently by the authoritarian régimes of the twentieth century, and examined so eloquently by the (other) contributors to this blog.
James Chetwood has recently completed a PhD in the University of Sheffield History Department on medieval personal naming. His research flits about aimlessly between different historical periods and language phenomena in a way that is probably detrimental to his career. He’s organising a conference that you should come to: https://namesandhistory.wordpress.com/.
Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac, ‘Rapport du Comité de salut public sur les idiomes’ (27 janvier 1794), accessed online: http://www.axl.cefan.ulaval.ca/francophonie/barere-rapport.htm
Abalain, H., Destin des langues celtiques (Gap, 1989).
Ager, D., Language Policy in Britain and France – The Processes of Policy (London, 1996).
Ager, D., Identity, Insecurity and Image: France and Language (Clevedon, 1999).
Fishman, J., Language and Nationalism: Two Integrative Essays (Rowley, 1972).
Judge, A., Linguistic Policy and the Survival of Regional Languages in France and Britain, (Basingstoke, 2007).
Lainé, N., Le droit à la parole (Rennes, 1992).
 The numerous minority languages and dialects spoken on its territory effectively carved up the map of France. With Breton in the north-west, Flemish in the north-east, German in the east and Basque, Catalan, Italian and various Occitan varieties in the south.
 Language policy today in France is, in practice, only marginally less oppressive than in Barère’s day. It wasn’t until 2001 that the then Minister of Education, Jack Lang, announced that bilingual education would be recognised for the first time in France, and, although France a signatory of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the French constitution blocks ratification of it, meaning no regional languages have protected status. They usually are taught, if at all, as optional third or fourth languages in secondary school.
Image 1: Isidore Stanislas Helman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Image 2: Jaques-Louis David [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons