Nothing illustrates this better than last weekend's final of the Spelling Championships, climax of an annual competition to find the best orthographer and grammarian in the country. Dry and dusty? Not a bit of it; popularly known as La Dictee, it is prime-time Saturday-night live television.
Bernard Pivot, the French equivalent of Melvyn Bragg but more intellectuel, who started it all 14 years ago, reads aloud a passage of prose full of difficult, ambiguous and arcane words; the 170 finalists from around the nation then scribble down what they believe to be the correct version of what he is saying. This year it took place amid the gilt splendour of the Paris Opera; once, during the secretary-generalship of the Francophone Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the final was held at the UN General Assembly.
All this in spite of - or perhaps because - French has long since lost the battle to be the world's top language and more recently saw its dreams of being the main EC language shattered by the unstoppable power of English. Les Anglais may have opted out of the euro for the moment, but anglais (small "a" for the language, capital for the people, dictation freaks please note) has undoubtedly won the international battle of words. English - above all American English - is the language of finance, of commerce, of Microsoft and McDonald's, and, most obvious of all, of pop and rock music and culture. It is the language of youth, although the French persist in calling it "the language of Shakespeare", often in a sarcastic tone of voice.
The French fight English, feebly and dustily, with their Academie Francaise and with occasional daft attempts at defensive legislation to keep foreign words out of print and off the air, if not out of usage. The Academy is working on a revision of their great dictionary and is up to the letter G - or is it H? They have along the way solemnly admitted foreign words such as "cricket" and have blessed neo-technical words like "telecarte" (telephone card) while fighting the incursion of others such as "bulldozer" and "jumbo jet". They Frenchify the new cyber-speak by using phonetic transcription. Thus CD-Rom is "cederom" and this week a cederom of the Academie's original 16th dictionary has appeared, to critical acclaim.
None the less, the year has begun badly for the purists. The introduction of the euro caused instant polemic on the word used to designate the bloc of countries using it. "Euroland" was the American suggestion and began appearing in French as "Eurolande". Alain Rey, editor of the Etymologial Dictionary of the French Language declared that the word should be banned, with or without its final "e". Without an "e" it was an Anglicism or a Germanism; with it, it was even more absurd, since the word lande in French means "wilderness". Some anti-euro analysts would be amused by that translation.
The French have consoled themselves by laughing at the Germans, who are also suffering from the English virus, creating Denglisch (the equivalent of franglais). Words such as "job" and "hit" are common and Volkswagen are publicising the revival of their most famous car as "The New Beetle" rather than "Neue Kafer". What puzzles the French is that the Germans don't seem to mind very much.
But then, unlike the natural federal Germans, the French have been inspired and ruthless centralisers since their Revolution forged a nation out of disparate regions and a far-flung empire. War and the language helped them do it. Now Europe is at peace and old, suppressed regional identities and tongues are starting to raise their heads and voices against latter- day Jacobins.
France has promised to sign the EC Charter on Regional and Minority Languages early in 1999, but is dragging its feet, citing the constitution and perhaps fearing that people may suddenly demand to be tried in Provencal or Berber. Recent months have seen speakers of Breton, Alsatian, Gallo, Occitan and Catalan taking to the streets to invoke the Declaration of Human Rights on the matter; last week more than a thousand Breton artists and intellectuals signed a petition demanding that France sign the charter forthwith.
Perhaps more insidious than the rising tide of Anglicisms and the renaissance of ancient tongues, are attempts to modernise French from within. Attempts to do away with the circumflex may have foundered, but other reforms may win because the fearsome galaxy of women in the French cabinet wants them to.
Just before Christmas the Academy turned down a demand that these be addressed officially as "Madame la Ministre" instead of the masculine "Madame le Ministre", which grammar demands. A learned committee, after a six-month investigation, ruled squarely that the word "ministre" is masculine and thus so is the office, no matter what the gender or grandeur of the person holding it. "The scope of political power is limited by the legal statutes of the language, which is the expression of national sovereignty and individual liberty," the document insists loftily. In parlance and in private conversation, "la" ministre may be acceptable, but never on public occasions and never in writing.
The female ministers - including the icy Elisabeth Guigou (Justice), Jacques Delors' daughter Martine Aubry (Employment), Segolene Royal (Education), Catherine Trautmann (Culture), and Dominique Voynet ( Environment) - regard this kind of thing as typical male grandiloquence or "simple misogyny". While academicians vaunt grammatical purity as quasi-religious truth, feminists believe that the refusal to feminise important titles such as minister and judge (never Madame la Juge, in spite of the grand array of powerful women at the top of the legal profession), is born of a wish to keep women in public life invisible, or cloaked in male authority.
Segolene Royal declared that the Academy reminded her of the Council of Trent, which debated whether women had souls. "It proves that the fight for the dignity of women is never won," she said. "If words for certain positions do not have a feminine form it is because for centuries no woman occupied those positions. The academicians should get used to a more evenly balanced society."
The academicians - also known as "the Immortals" - apparently can't, or won't. Maurice Druon, the Perpetual Secretary, confirmed the ban on "la" Ministre: "Language is eternal, ministers are not," he thundered. However the Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, in a fit of almost English pragmatism, had already authorised the use of "la".
The real trouble is that the French language has no neuter, although there are words such as concierge and librairie which can be either masculine and feminine. Some designations, such as depute (member of parliament) feminise readily by adding another final "e"; ministre just doesn't happen to be one of them.
There are, on the other hand, words that cannot be masculinised - hunky Gerard Depardieu, for example must be referred to as "une vedette" (a film star) and a king, who is referred to as "Sa Majeste", will be "elle" in subsequent references; une personne, likewise, is always "elle" whatever the gender of the individual. The opportunities for jokes are thus endless. A woman lawyer, for example, is addressed as "Maitre"; calling her "Maitresse" (mistress) could cause confusion to say the least.
In French-speaking Canada, however, feminisation has worked: professeur has a feminine form in professeure and ecrivain (writer) can be an ecrivaine; in Belgium even a sapeur-pompier (fireman) can be a sapeuse-pompiere.
It is, of course, just such complexities and contradictions that will continue to make La Dictee such a compulsive annual spectacle for years to come.Reuse content