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Can the state of the world change the linguistic order ?

Last Updated: 29 Mar 2020

Prenez soin de vous et de tous - Passen Sie auf sich und alle anderen auf - Prenditi cura di te stesso e di tutti gli altri - Cuida de ti mismo y de todos los demás - Ai grijă de tine și de toată lumea - Take care of yourself and of everyone else.


Can the state of the world change the linguistic order ? This is a question that one can legitimately ask, even if one does not have the answer. Or rather, it is obvious, the order of languages being part of the state of the world, the question is useless and to affirm it is a truism. But it could be said of everything. So the question is not a good one, we should rather say "how can the state of the world change the order of languages". On that basis, we can tell ourselves that there are very powerful forces at work that explain the state of the world at a given time, and that is what we must try to understand. But in saying this, we have not yet said much, because are these forces inexorable, which makes us sink into absolute determinism, or do they depend on our will, a little or a lot. The question then begins to become interesting.

Let us take demographics, when we improve public health and the living conditions, we increase life expectancy, which increases the population at all ages, because infant mortality has fallen by a ratio of one to ten in 50 years. This is the product of our will. But once the movement has been launched, we must wait for what is known as the "demographic transition" to take place. We can influence it marginally. Conversely, countries that have long since completed their transition, such as the European countries, are affected by rapid ageing, which will accelerate all the more as the population ages. Some are surprised or pretend to be surprised, but they are wrong because demographic developments and especially their consequences can be predicted, decades in advance. Since 1945, France has chosen to promote the compatibility of women's work and family life. Today, France is more resistant to ageing than its European neighbours. Fifty years ago, China decided to drastically curb births. Today, China's population has almost stopped growing, but it has started to age very rapidly and the population will start to decline around 2030 slowly at first and then very rapidly afterwards. Demographics have laws that we need to know more if we want to act on them.

The same goes for global warming. It has been more than fifty years since the scientists identified the phenomenon with near certainty that it is an effect of human activities. Nothing happened for fifty years, before we began to suffer from the effects of widespread pollution and increasing natural disasters. But the machine is running at full speed and it is very difficult to deflect its trajectory.

Languages, too, have a long term horizon. David Graddol, at the request of the British Council, had carried out such an exercise for English in two reports in 1997 and 2006, The future of English and English Next.

How do we explain the rapid disappearance of the languages counted in the world?

In our last editorial, as a complement to the establishment of a New Dictionary of Anglicisms1, we wondered about the reasons for the pressure of anglicisation that the French language (but also many other languages) is subjected to, the extent and importance of which no one can nowadays deny. Our approach was rather internal and tried to determine the social behaviours that favoured such a penetration of words and expressions that were simply tacked onto the language.

It is a truism to say that the state of the world today is very different from what it was in the seventies.

American domination is not what it used to be. Economically and technologically, China, which was at the beginning of its economic revolution, is now following hot on the heels of the United States and even surpassing it in 5G mobile phone technology. Russia is not the Soviet Union. Its GDP, depending on how you calculate it, is between that of France and Germany, or is barely higher than that of Spain, between 8 and 20% of that of the United States. Above all its military budget, although it tripled between 2000 and 2016, is still 12% of that of the United States and barely exceeds that of Saudi Arabia. These simple figures alone are enough to fail to take seriously the threat that Russia could pose to Europe. No one is fooled. The demonisation of Russia through Putin has, first and foremost, a strategic interest for the United States: to delay as long as possible the moment when Europe will finally come out of a long sleep. The demonisation of Russia also has the function of making real or supposed dependence pay with a generalised right of espionage, which is a very real reality and which is greatly increased by modern means, this generalised espionage having the objective of giving itself an extremely brutal right of sanction against all those who do not accept the diktat. The thing is clear: the status of Europeans has evolved from that of "vassal" (the word, widely used elsewhere, is under the pen of Zbigniew Brzezinski, international expert and former advisor to Jimmy Carter, who died in 2017) to that of quasi-enemies, which does not prevent efforts to convince them, advice of friends.

Let's now talk about political and social systems.

At the risk of shocking many people, the United States is a very special democracy where one dollar equals one vote, as Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz put it. It was not like that in the seventies, because election spending was not as astronomical as it is today. While most European countries have passed laws to regulate election spending, in the United States, where legal entities partake as such, like any citizens, of freedom of expression, it is normal, the Supreme Court ruled in its Citizens United decision of January 21, 2010, that large and small companies alike finance election campaigns. The nature of political institutions in the United States today has changed, although this is hardly noticeable in the textbooks on constitutional law and political institutions.

With regard to social systems, the question of setting up a European-style social security system has been debated in every election since the election of Bill Clinton in 1992. We are aware of the meritorious but limited efforts of Barak Obama and the symmetrical efforts of Donald Trump to destroy its effects. But the United States is very far from having a system comparable to the European systems that are a fundamental feature of our societies.

The same could be said of inequalities. Yes, lots of things are not going well in Europe, but inequality has reached such a level in the United States that the average American lives no better today than in the 1970s.

And we say nothing about the environment, violence, firearms regulations, prisons, and endless wars, never victorious. Everything indicates that the United States as a global entity (in detail, that is something else) is moving further and further away from Europe and perhaps even from the world.

Significantly, in the great global coronavirus crisis we are experiencing, the United States is largely failing, both internally and externally. It is not living up to its position as the world's leading power and leader in the Western world.

The fundamental question is whether this great changeover that is taking place can have linguistic consequences.

A very curious situation: our contemporaries, still in the midst of the "American dream", even though it the latter has been missing for decades in the United States itself, are still looking for the latest linguistic coinage that would come to us from across the Atlantic. They even invent pseudo-works such as developing co-housekeeping (Fr 2, 15 March 2020, 1:47 pm used by a minister) in the context of the health crisis, in the sense of mutualising or sharing childcare at home, whereas « housekeeping » means housecleaning service. Sorry for the anecdote, but it is significant.

We are more attracted by the larding or stuffing of our language than by learning foreign languages. One would think that there is a gap between the attraction for a culture and the reality that prevails. As if language movements were clinging to certain aspects of a culture, often marginal, based on the generally accepted idea that new ideas always come from across the Atlantic.

The idea comes from very far away. Thomas Piketty reminds us or makes us discover in Capitalism and Ideology2 the historical role played by the American educational advance in the nineteenth century and during most of the twentieth century. At the time, the United States was more than half a century ahead of Europe in terms of universal primary and then secondary schooling, with a corollary of much higher productivity and standard of living than our own. And this lead will later be reflected at university level. Hence the immediate credibility and rapid adoption in the 1950s, in the material, intellectual and moral rubble of the Second World War, of ideas from across the Atlantic, particularly in the fields of education.

Things are changing. We will take full measure of this with the climate issue that will be with us for decades to come, and today, with the health crisis. The United States has ceased to be a beacon for humanity and is perhaps even the model to be avoided at all costs. The time has come to seek within ourselves and in the dialogue with the rest of the world, the resources to overcome the enormous challenges we face. Is the future still American? We have good reasons to doubt it. This is a central question.

Let us talk about values. Let us quote George Steiner who has just died3 :

« There are no 'minor tongues'." Each language contains, articulates and transmits not only a unique load of lived memory, but also an elaborative energy of its future times, a potentiality for tomorrow. The death of a language is irreparable, it diminishes man's possibilities. Nothing poses a more radical threat to Europe - at its roots - than the exponential and detrimental growth of the Anglo-American language and the uniformity of values and world image that this devouring Esperanto brings with it. The computer, the culture of populism and the mass market speak Anglo-American from the nightclubs of Portugal to the shopping malls and fast food outlets of Vladivostok. Europe will surely perish if it does not fight for its languages, local traditions and social autonomies. If it forgets that "God resides in the detail". »

Let's pay attention to the fact that Steiner doesn't talk about English, but about Anglo-American and the values it carries with it, he who loves German, French and English. Learn English without restraint but not only, enjoy American literature but not only. Globish is not English, even if he it looks like it. But inlaying one's language indiscriminately (borrowing is perfectly acceptable, even vital to a certain extent) with so-called English words is not good practice.

Good minds will say that caring for languages is of secondary importance in the present times. Languages go hand in hand with freedom. One can die to preserve them. And we must. It's not secondary or futile. It's about survival.

In 1973, Europe had an inspiration, which soon evaporated.

On 6 November 1973, just as the Yom Kippur War had begun, the nine governments of the European Economic Community issued a joint declaration on the situation in the Middle East. While the United States had proclaimed 1973 the "Year of Europe" and invited the Europeans, as if they had been "kings of the East before the Roman Emperor "4 to sign a new Atlantic Charter, the assembled Europeans undertook, on the proposal of the Englishman Edward Heath, with the approval of France, who wrote the first version, the drafting of a declaration on European identity5. This declaration was initially intended to be only an internal document with a view to a common response to the American initiative, but in the end, the new Atlantic Charter having fallen through, it was published quietly at the European summit in Copenhagen on 14-15 December 1973.

There followed a long parenthesis that culminated in the invasion of Iraq, which was triggered on the basis of the most considerable state lie (fake news or infox) in the history of mankind, with the approval of all the European governments standing at attention except France and Germany.

It is time to rediscover the inspiration of the Declaration on European Identity, which identity is not a cult, but an idea to be built for the world of tomorrow.


2Capitalisme et idéologie, 2019, p. 636

3Georges Steiner, Une certaine idée de l’Europe, 2005 (in : « Une certaine idée de l’Europe », Actes Sud, 2005, pages 52-53)

4Expression of Georges Pompidou