Bastille Day 2008

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Today, July 14, is Bastille Day, the 218th anniversary of the Fête de la Fédération, the 219th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, and the national day of France. On this day we celebrate the French Revolution, the end of feudalism, the disestablishment of the church, and the promulgation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. For some of us it is also a day that reminds us of Jim McCawley.

From a linguistic point of view, however, the French Revolution was a disaster. The monarchy had been largely unconcerned with what languages its subjects spoke. At the time, the languages spoken by natives of France included six Romance languages: French, Occitan, Franco-Provencal, Walloon, Catalan, and Corsican (a dialect of Italian), the Germanic languages Flemish and German, the Celtic language Breton, and Basque. Some of these, especially French and Occitan, each had numerous divergent forms. Additional languages, such as Berber and Tahitian, now qualify as "French". A full list may be found in the Cerquiglini report Les Langues de la France.

One of the effects of the Revolution was to bring about a greatly increased centralization of the French government and a policy of establishing a standard form of French as the only language of the Republic. I emphasize that the policy adopted was not merely to ensure that all French citizens shared a common language, but to eliminate all competitors. This is readily seen in the title of the report by the Abbé Grégoire establishing the policy: Rapport sur la nécessité et les moyens d'anéantir les patois et d'universaliser la langue française "Report on the necessity and means of annihlating the dialects and of making the French Language universal". Since the Revolution, all French governments have been hostile to minority languages.

This policy has been quite successful. Today, virtually all of the minority languages of France are endangered. The only exceptions are languages such as Catalan, which is not endangered because it is spoken primarily outside of France.

Grégoire was a genuine progressive. Though a priest, he played a leading role in the abolition of the privileges of the clergy and the nobility and was the first to call for the abolition of the monarchy in the National Convention of 1792. It was he who first called for Louis XVI to be brought to trial. He was an early advocate of racial equality. Due, however, to his influence, regional and linguistic minorities in France have not enjoyed the support of the political left that they have received in some other countries.

French linguistic policy is not quite as bad as it used to be. It is, for example, now legal to teach minority languages in French schools. Even so, the situation of minority languages in France is very much that of second-class citizens. For example, in 1974 I attended high school classes in Occitan in Bergerac. Occitan was offered at five o'clock on Friday afternoons.

To this day, France has not ratified the 1992 European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which it cannot do without modifying its constitution, which makes French the sole official language of France. (Lest it be thought that this is due to a perhaps understandable unwillingness to tinker with the constitution, I note that the Constitution of the Fifth Republic has been amended 23 times since its promulgation in 1958.)


  1. James Wimberley said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 2:03 pm

    The Abbé Grégoire's shocking anéantir should not be toned down to abolish, which has the exact French equivalent abolir. I propose annihilate or wipe out.

    On the abbé's credit side, he played an important part in the abolition of torture in France; in fact that is I think what he is most remembered for.
    The French Revolution didn't abolish feudalism which had disappeared in Western Europe by 1500, unless you take your history from Karl Marx rather than Marc Bloch.

  2. Michel S. said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 2:34 pm

    Actually, 218th anniversary of the Fete de la Federation, intended to celebrate the reconciliation within the constitutional monarchy that was in power then. Unfortunately, it did not survive for long.

  3. Dan Milton said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 2:45 pm

    Why should the day remind us of Jim McCawley? Not that I need an excuse to look at my much-prized copies of Studies out in Left Field and The Eaters' Guide to Chinese Characters.

  4. Bill Poser said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 3:23 pm

    James Wimberley,

    Yes, "annihlate" is better for anéantir.

    It is true that many aspects of feudalism were already gone by the Revolution, but it is often said that feudalism in France finally came to an end on 4 August 1789 when the Assembly abolished the seigneurial rights of the Second Estate (the aristocracy) and the right to tithes of the First Estate (the church). I agree that Marc Bloch is a better guide to history than Karl Marx.

    Michel S.,

    True, but then the Fête de la Fédération in turn commemorated the fall of the Bastille. I collapsed the two.

    Dan Milton,

    Bastille Day reminds us of Jim McCawley because he used to host a party on Bastille Day.

  5. Linca said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 3:33 pm

    Last actual modification of the French constitution is a bit above one year old, dating from February 23rd, 2007

  6. Bill Poser said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 3:52 pm


    Actually, it is more recent than that. Some amendments related to the European Union were made on February 4th, 2008. See here.

  7. Benjamin Massot said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 5:14 pm

    In the time my grandfather (86) was in primary school, a pupil heard saying a patois word had to carry a baton, until he/she found another guilty pupil. The pupil carrying the baton at the end of the day got a punishment.

    My mother (57) had to quit her patois when she entered school (when she was 5). This is the time were, in my family, it disapeared – my mother nowadays just speaks French, and was somehow ashamed of this patois, til recent years.

    Of course, I learned as folklore culture that patois aren't even true languages, they're just the result of people who can't speak properly. (even colloquial French is seen this way, even at school)

    When I began to study my grandfather's patois, as a 4th-year linguistics student, I needed the whole year to convince my mother that I was studying something worth it.

    So I confirm that this policy did exist, actively, and with much efficiency.

    [PS: my region is "la Puisaye" in Burgundy, and the patois is called "le poyaudin"]

  8. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 7:15 pm

    It isn't quite correct that "[t]he monarchy had been largely unconcerned with what languages its subjects spoke." In private, perhaps, but all legal proceedings hat to be in French after 1530 (when François I issued the Edict of Villers-Cotterets), at least in the lands that were under the French crown at the time. The extension of the policy to territories occupied later was sporadic; At the time of the Revolution, revolutionary proclamations, posters and handbills were in German in Alsace and in Italian in Corsica. It was only after the introduction of universal schooling in 1881 that the "anéantissement" began in earnest.

  9. Tim McKenzie said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 4:09 am

    It sounds like there was quite a fast turnaround from "La libre communication des pensées et des opinions est un des droits les plus précieux de l'Homme" in 1789 to "anéantir les patois" in 1794. (The former is from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and is translated as "The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man" at ).

  10. Gosaca said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 9:57 am

    From reading some of the rapport of the Abbé it appears to me that his motivation is to promote the free exchange of ideas for "la conservation de la liberté". "…l'ignorance de la langue compromettrait le bonheur social ou détruirait l'égalité". I do not get the sense from the rapport that his motivations are elitist or discriminatory, or that there is anything sinister underlying his ideas.

  11. Marc A. Pelletier said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 1:47 pm

    You're correct.

    "La féodalité, qui vint ensuite morceler ce beau pays, y conserva soigneusement cette disparité d'idiomes comme un moyen de reconnaître, de ressaisir les serfs fugitifs et de river leurs chaînes"

    The Abbé clearly viewed the differing languages as divisive, and a tool for the oppression of the people that spoke them; by unifying language, he wanted to allow the whole nation to communicate. "[…] tous les citoyens qui la composent puissent sans obstacle se communiquer leurs pensées"

    It's clearly the opposite of discrimination.

  12. Tim McKenzie said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 7:03 pm

    I don't doubt your claim that the Abbé's motives were good—most people's motives are good most of the time. But the eventual and inevitable consequence of his policy to annihilate the dialects was the removal of people's freedom to communicate their ideas in whatever way they wanted to. Benjamin Massot has given us examples of this above.

    If I have freedom of expression but only when I express my ideas in a prescribed way, then I have a very limited freedom of expression indeed.

  13. Aaron Davies said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 12:51 am

    @Tim, good intentions leading to unmitigated disaster is a good summary of the French Revolution in general.

  14. Amys Welt said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 8:38 am

    Frankreich & Paris: überall…

    Seit ich mich in Paris aufgehalten habe – sei es nun durch die zeitlichen Nähe zum Nationalfeiertag oder selektive Wahrnehmung1 – sind mir besonders viele Nachrichten mit Frankreich-/Parisbezug im Feedreader aufgefallen. Eine kleine Auswahl:


  15. Jonathan said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 12:42 am

    It seems inconsistent that you praise the Revolution for stealing religion from the people, but condemn it for stealing their language. In my mind, both are quite reprehensible. It is of course in the nature of revolutions to destroy all that is most precious in a culture. But as my father observed to me, "everyone is a reactionary in the subject he knows something about".

  16. Yuval said,

    July 30, 2008 @ 11:30 am

    24 times… (July 24th, last Thursday)

  17. The failed Twitter experiment « The Outer Hoard said,

    August 14, 2008 @ 11:04 pm

    […] From Language Log again, I learned about one of the dark sides of the French Revolution. […]

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