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Linguistic sovereignty? (I)

Last Updated: 13 Jun 2020

There is a lot of talk these days about "economic sovereignty". Could we talk about "linguistic sovereignty"?

The word "sovereignty" is essential. If the concept itself appeared with the birth of the modern state and expresses the superior power of the state over any other kind of power, and since the state ceased to owe its existence to God, it had to draw its legitimacy from the people who are the true sovereign. And if the people cannot find their juridical expression in the State, they cease to be sovereign. There are peoples on this Earth who are in the situation of not having a State, who aspire to sovereignty but are unable to obtain it for lack of a State.

"Sovereignty" is often confused with independence. This is not false, for just as there is no such thing as absolute independence, there is no such thing as absolute sovereign power, if only because sovereign power meets other sovereign powers.

The French economist and philosopher François Perroux, to explain that absolute economic independence does not exist when there is an exchange, found a very suggestive formulation, which was the notion of modality of interdependence, and said that in the real world there are strong modalities of interdependence and weak modalities of interdependence. Only in textbooks or in political declarations can one speak of equality, although it is well known that, beyond the equality of rights, it is observed that some are more equal than others, as the expression goes. In an economy where inequality is the rule, one will seek to build a strong modality of interdependence to one’s advantage at the collective and individual level. Aspiring to have more influence on one's partner or competitor than the opposite is part of life, even if one does not seek it a priori. Since we have to live with the others, we are going to set rules for ourselves, and these rules, which we hope will be fair, will, whether we like it or not, reflect the state of power relations as they exist in a given historical period. This is how international relations will evolve over time between various levels of unilateralism and multilateralism.

In linguistic matters, a parallel can be drawn with state sovereignty and with the economy, but with fundamental differences.

The first difference, an existential one, is that if you can appropriate a territory, if you can make something your own and if territory or goods can be exchanged or negotiated, you cannot appropriate a word invented by yourself or someone else. Once a word has begun to express a piece of reality (material or imaginary) and is shared by the community, it can begin to circulate like a virus.

A writer is the author of a work over which in modern society he has acquired proprietary rights, but he cannot appropriate the words he has used, even if he was the first to use them.

This is why the expression 'linguistic borrowing' is rather misleading and out of place. Indeed for a loan to exist, there must be a borrower and a lender. And, generally speaking, a borrower in principle must repay the amount of his debt. There is no such thing with the language. It would be more appropriate to speak of "captation" or "adoption". When we adopt pizza or couscous as one of our favourite dishes, it is the idea that we take without the intention of giving it back, and the people where the idea was born do not have to suffer so much because they are not deprived of their pleasure and can instead take some pride in being the source of such shared pleasure.

In some cases linguistic "borrowing" is exactly the opposite of an adoption and is more akin to forced sale.

One will have observed in this exceptional period of coronavirus lockdown that in all the languages people have been very creative linguistically. Many words of circumstance will be ephemeral, such as "coronapéro" or "workers' teleday", but others are bound to last. This is the case, for example, of the word cluster (of contamination) which is directly imposed on us by scientific circles without any linguistic or scientific justification, replacing words that are understandable to everyone, in particular "outbreak of contamination" or "concentration of cases of contamination. "It is a clear fact of linguistic domination which can be explained by the fact that the language used in scientific circles has become the English langage and that for some decades now, no one has a point of translating or using pre-existing vocabulary. It is being replaced. If we take the word "tracking" or "tracing", we can make the same observation. However, "tracking" (the term used in one of the few scientific articles on the subject with a French translation) or "tracing" would have its raison d'être. Verification is easy: the word "traçage" lends itself to a quite powerful paradigm: trace, trace, tracer, trace, trace, trace, trace, etc. that can be very easily taught and which offers in itself an intellectual richness that any student can easily appropriate, which neither "cluster" nor "tracing" allows. Anglicisms in these cases are disturbing factors that impoverish the language and disrupt the natural processes of understanding and transmission. It is necessary to understand the processes underlying these phenomena, which are not "borrowed" and whose social significance is profound. How and why do we, whether politicians, journalists or scientists use terms that are not understood by all and which conceptually add nothing to the language?

Another major difference is that of territorialization and borders.

A simplistic idea would be that linguistic boundaries correspond to political boundaries. Reality is quite far from this representation. First of all, the idea of linguistic boundaries is of a completely different nature from political boundaries. If in large conurbations such as Paris, London, New York, Lagos or Abidjan, in certain neighbourhoods we see populations of the same origins grouping together, is it legitimate to speak of borders? Incidentally, the modern situation is no different from what it was already during Antiquity and the Middle Ages in the great trading cities on the Mediterranean region, which were very cosmopolitan cities. Louis-Jean Calvet describes and explains all this very well in La Méditerranée, mer de nos langues1.

let's take a different approach to the problem, from the political borders. As the states we know today were being formed, the very changing borders have moved a great deal over the centuries as a result of wars, treaty redrawings, accompanied or not by migrations and population movements.

Take the case of France, for example. An inaccurate picture would have us believe that the expansion of the French language coincided with the territorial progress of the French monarchy. It is an almost universal fact that linguistic expansion goes hand in hand with the power of the states, and we would like to track this quasi-law on the history of the French language. But this remains a very superficial view of things, because for example, in the 12th century, when the kingdom of France was a small kingdom, the territories where the French language was already present were much larger than the kingdom was.

The kingdom was roughly divided between the domain of the « langue d'oïl » and the domain of the « langue d'oc ». The « pays d'oïl » encompassed regions totally outside the authority of the King of France, including Wallonia, most of Lorraine and Franche-Comté and as far south-east as Neuchâtel in Switzerland. But there were usages of French, Old French at that time, far beyond, in the Italian peninsula and in the Middle East, not to mention the fact that French was the language of the courts and classes cultivated in England, Germany and Flanders2. Obviously, not all the populations in the territories concerned spoke this French, far from it. But this means that as early as the 11th and 12th centuries, and no doubt much earlier, French was already the common language of a ruling class and literary koinè that expanded with the development of the urban bourgeoisie, without much relationship with the kingdom of France.

The non-correspondence between state borders and linguistic areas is a fairly general rule, correspondence being the exception, even if in the 19th century the movement of nationalities tended to make the political borders correspond, yet in a very imperfect way, with linguistic geography. In any case, this non-correspondence has the effect of making more complex all reflection on the idea of linguistic sovereignty.

We must now consider language first and foremost as a social and anthropological fact.

The idea is not really new because we have to go back at least to Plato and Aristotle to see it expressed in a very strong way.

To oversimplify, before Plato, one believed that the word was the thing. With Plato one understands that words are used to designate things, and that eventually several words can designate the same thing, without forgetting that the fact of designating is not an individual fact. The word only becomes a word when it is shared by society. Language is indeed a human creation. The name, distinct from the thing, serves to distinguish reality. It is therefore an instrument of knowledge3. Aristotle went further by linking language and thought: "Belongs to thought all that must be established by language "4.

From the moment when we associate language with knowledge and thought, we see that the "I think therefore I am" can easily be reformulated as "I speak therefore I am". Language, a social fact, is therefore also a formidable power, even the power par excellence, which comes before physical strength.

We must question this disturbing shortcut.

A fundamental question is the relationship of language to the real world. To say that the name makes it possible to distinguish reality, does it mean that the name, the word, does not belong or is external to reality. This is difficult to argue, even though this idea has dominated Western philosophy for centuries and we are not yet rid of this unfortunate representation. Here is a simple example. Everybody knows today what a fake news is, in French a "fake information" or an "infox". One of the most extraordinary infoxes in the history of mankind was the invention of "weapons of mass destruction" by President G.W. Bush, in order to allow the United States to wage a war aimed at restoring American domination over the Middle East. The so-called "weapons of mass destruction", as we know and the authors have confessed, never existed, but the war did. How could such a war, which did exist, have been triggered by something that does not exist? So the word is not external to the real world, it is part of it, and more than being part of it, it contributes to transforming it. We know, thanks to astrophysics and quantum physics, the infinite and infinitely expanding world. The only limit to the power of speech is its relationship of complex power to the real world to which it belongs.

At this point, we must point out two paradoxes that clash.

The first is how in the West we have managed to define language as an instrument of communication.

Is it possible that the mathematical theory of communication5 has been able to exert such an influence on linguists that language can be summed up as an exchange of messages between at least two interlocutors in which language is reduced to a code. According to this theory, the sender's thought is transformed into a code, the natural language, and is then decoded by the receiver, the natural language, the code, being free from any link with the world of knowledge. If the language of the transmitter differs from that of the receiver, all that is required is to match two codes, and that's it. This representation of delirious language is still very present in the world of research, including linguistics, and is certainly the one that predominates in common sense. This situation is so serious that the most famous linguist of this century, who is not the only one to denounce this view of things, Noam Chomsky, expressed his concern about it vigorously in a recent essay, denying any scientific basis for this simplistic representation of language as a means of communication and reminding us of the need to return to classical thinking which claims that language is above all "an instrument of thought "6.

In an excellent novel, The Seventh Function of Langauge, prix Interallié 2015, Laurent Binet bases his entire plot, in the style of a thriller, on this forgotten function of language, which is power.

The other paradox is the opposite, "postmodern" trend, according to which language is the only reality. The real would only exist through language. This means that everything that is written and said has the same value. So the truth does not exist, or rather everything is true, which amounts to the same thing. Everyone can create their own reality. There are only power struggles. Apart from the generalized war, this is a problem without a solution.

This is not the approach of plurilingualism.

Language is part of the world, but the world is not reduced to the language. Each language can be analysed as an infinite effort to understand the world, an infinite and infinitely evolving world, in specific historical and geographical contexts, sources of an infinite diversity of experiences, and therefore, despite massive communication, no language can claim to be able to say everything about the world. This is the meaning to be given to Wittgenstein's famous aphorism "the limits of my language mean the limits of my own world".

We must therefore understand that there is no essence of language and that no language has an essence. Each language as a social reality is the product of the historical experiences of the peoples who speak it, and since these are in contact with each other, languages themselves will evolve through contact with the others. Essentializing languages means reducing them. "Absolutizing one's language condemns it to finitude. Only the angel of Relativism can open its dungeon", François Vaucluse rightly says7.

And this is where the question of sovereignty really comes into play.

"To name is to exist! ». It is through language that peoples exist.

We modern people have conceptualized language, conceptualized culture, power and so on.

Language does not merge with culture, it can accommodate multiple cultures, and cultures themselves include other cultures. Is there a European culture? Yes of course, even if we cannot define it, and as a culture it welcomes a multiplicity of languages and other cultures. All this intertwines and interacts at the pace of economic exchanges and according to technical means. They are therefore both open and closed groups, constituting environments that are eminently but unequally rich and varied for individuals. Environments from which it is not easy to free oneself, but the freedom of the individual can also be this capacity to rise and escape in part from his culture. Only in part. The literature on uprooting is immense.

It is obvious that the individual does not exist outside the environment(s) in which he or she has developed or in which, more rarely, he or she has been able to take root.

Therefore, to exist individually and collectively is to be able to say things, to speak about the world, the world before or after, and to be heard, to be able to act, it is something eminently concrete, and in one's own language or languages. Michel Serres forcefully reminded us of this: "A country which loses its language loses its culture; a country that loses its culture loses its identity; a country which loses its identity no longer exists. This is the greatest catastrophe that can happen to it"8.

Whoever doubts the relationship between language and culture should make the exercise of comparing how one express and thought secularism in different languages. This is just one example.

To want to be "sovereign" without the power of language is nonsense. But, above all, we must not misunderstand the notion of power. It is the creative power, the power of the tree that grows and rises, it is not the power to subdue. Unfortunately and tragically, the two are indissolubly linked like the obverse and reverse sides of the medal.

Can and must there be linguistic sovereignty? Yes, certainly, but States are only actors among others where communities of speakers (writers, scientists, advertisers, companies, trade unions, associations, etc.) act. Moreover, States always have language policies, even without knowing or saying so, if only through education and teaching. A policy of linguistic sovereignty can and must be eminently open to other languages without denying itself.

In a landmark book, Pascale Casanova explained how the world republic of letters9 has functioned from the Middle Ages to the present day. It should be possible to integrate into it scientific production and all the cultural production outside the literary world. The world republic would then become the republic of languages.

1Louis-Jean Calvet, La Méditerranée, mer de nos langues, CNRS Éditions, 2016, Paris, 328 p.

Jacques Chaurand (dir.), 1999, Nouvelle histoire de la langue française, Seuil, pp. 38, 98–99; Colette Beaune, 1985, Naissance de la nation française, Gallimard, p. 296

3 Voir Julia Kristeva, 1969, Le langage, cet inconnu, Seuil, p. 109

4 Aristote, La poétique (1456b), cité par J. Kristeva, ibid. p. 115

5 C.E Shannon et W. Weaver, The Mathematical Theory of Communication, Urbana, 1949

6 N. Chomsky, Quelle sorte de créatures sommes-nous ?, Lux, 2016

7 Dir. Samia Kassab-Charfi et François Rastier, Mille langues et une œuvre, 2016, Éditions des archives contemporaines, p.5.

8 Michel Serres - Défense et illustration de la langue française aujourd'hui, 2018, p. 55

9 Pascale Casanova, La république mondiale des lettres, Seuil, Paris, 1999, 491 p.