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Linguistic sovereignty ? (II)

Last Updated: 6 Sep 2020

In our previous editorial, we made it clear that language was not at all the means of communication that a narrow conception of language has managed to impose, but the immense power it has always been.

The idea of bringing "sovereignty" and "language" closer together may come as a surprise since sovereignty is simply the basis of international relations and the UN is founded on the sovereign equality of all its members. But when we talk about "sovereign Europe", "digital sovereignty", it is no exaggeration to talk about "linguistic sovereignty". Provided, of course, that we manage to define the concept.

After more than half a century of vassalage1 , faced with the enormous power of constraint accumulated by the United States towards them, European countries are beginning to think that perhaps the idea of sovereignty makes sense. This is sometimes doubtful. When we learn that Poland is prepared to pay most of the costs of receiving US forces on its soil (Russia has a GDP between that of Spain and France and a military budget barely higher than that of France, i.e. a tenth of that of the United States), we may wonder. But after all, we can hope that little by little the European countries will finally come out of their lethargy and regain a foothold in a world that is slipping away from them.

This power of constraint also has a linguistic dimension that did not exist in the past.

The relationship to language changed greatly in the 19th and 20th centuries with the break-up of multinational and multilingual empires. As far as France is concerned, until the Revolution, it cannot be said that kings had language policies. Contrary to the linguistic novel that is spreading today, the emergence of French owes nothing to the imperialism of the monarchy, but to the need to develop a written language that could not replace but play the role that Latin had been able to play in society and which had been largely lost on the ruins of the Roman Empire. And the Villers-Cotterêts ordinance should be seen first and foremost as a law on the organisation of the administration and justice, with a linguistic component inspired by the need to render justice in a language that is comprehensible to all. Article 111 of this law states that all legal and notarial deeds are henceforth drafted in "the French mother tongue and not otherwise". In fact, this article could be seen as the first definition of what is now called an official language. Much later, with the Jules Ferry laws on public education, at a time when about half of the French population could neither read nor write, with very wide variations between the departments, the imperative was to make the population literate.

Language and identity

At the same time, from the 19th century onwards, with the beginnings of industrialisation and the awakening of nationalities, language really became the first marker of identity.

Today, we are gradually becoming aware that we exist individually and collectively through language.

This gradual awareness is opposed to a certain ambient, summary and reductive universalism, which would have us believe that we can say everything with a language and that, whatever the language, it does not matter whether it is the language of the powerful of the day, as long as we have only one.

As anthropology makes us aware, the rebirth of cultural identities is a pure product of the society of communication, which is what it develops. The utopia of generalised communication does not lead to generalised harmony, but to an awareness of identities, which can take radical forms, by exacerbating a deviant identity quest.

In L'identité culturelle2 Sélim Abou links the aspiration to identity to the "most constitutive need of the human person: that of recognition". For him, the process of recognition lies at the "crossroads « junction »of three powers of the symbolic: desire, power and language. »... "Language is that which expresses the aim of desire and power and assigns to recognition its ultimate purpose: that of being, at any moment of existence and even at the end of it, a triumph of life over death, of meaning over nonsense. »

It is as a communication theorist that Dominique Wolton in his recent essay Vive l'incommunication, la victoire de l'Europe, first explains that information is not communication, and that the utopia of communication comes up against a major phenomenon that he calls "incommunication" which makes communication a permanent attempt to negotiate not only interests, but also perceptions, different visions. Every interindividual conversation is a negotiation about the meaning we give to things and the interest of the conversation, what the interlocutors and actors expect from it, lies in the gain of meaning. The result of a successful conversation is an enrichment which should be reciprocal, but which is not always so if one of the actors, out of deafness and pride, absolutely wants to be right, which may be true, but above all to make it known.

The linguist Alain Bentolila has nicely titled one of his recent articles, which we strongly recommend3 " The child does not learn to speak as he grows up, it is the language that makes him grow up ". This means that for the child, language is above all a conquest. Look and listen to the two-year-old child who comes to you and starts babbling sounds that he would like to be words. He does not ask you to teach him to speak, but first tries to make himself understood. And his victory will come from the fact that he will see that you have understood what he wanted to tell you.
A good conversation, like a successful negotiation, is a conquest. If we analyse a conversation that is not strictly utilitarian, we see that one part is devoted to making sure that the interlocutor understands the same thing as you and vice versa. Another part is devoted to exploring areas that have their share of unknowns, and all the salt of the conversation comes from the fact that these unknowns
elements are not the same in each of the interlocutors. Finally, a third part of the conversation focuses on the progress made by each of the interlocutors through the conversation. And the feeling of this progress is the source of immense satisfaction. Of course, in a real conversation, all these elements are mixed, but are nevertheless mobilised at varying levels during the course of the conversation.

It should also be seen that differences in the level of understanding and the unknown have two sources.

First of all, each person carries with him or her throughout his or her life a kind of corpus that never ceases to evolve, made up of individual stories of all kinds in defined social contexts, readings, contact with nature and with others, sensations, feelings, emotions, passions, memories, sounds, visions, dreams, and so on. It is this stable and evolving corpus that constitutes identity, both individual and collective, for there is no individual identity that is not also collective.

Each person also carries with him or her a certain vision of the world, of the world around him or her and of the world beyond. And life in society is made up of this perpetual adjustment of different world views to varying degrees.

What is true at the individual level is obviously true at the collective level.

At the collective level absolute knowledge is unattainable, and absolutely unattainable. We have seen that generations of philosophers teach us that the world is infinite and infinitely expanding. This means that universal knowledge, even by uniting all the world's scholars, is simply impossible and will never be possible. If we doubt it, an example experienced today by billions of humans is there to remind us. Before the coronavirus began to spread, it was unknown and did not exist, at least not in its present form. So, for us, at a glance one could say, the world is changing. And tens of thousands of researchers around the world are mobilising to learn about it and to find cures and vaccines. Waiting for the next one.

It is therefore not abnormal that individual and collective world views differ from one individual to another, from one people to another. There is no difference in nature between the individual level and the collective level. Simply the complexity at the collective level is infinitely greater than at the individual level, which is already extremely complex.

Collectively as well as individually, there are open or closed identities. There is a close relationship between identity and otherness. A well-constituted identity, free of threats or exaggerated feelings of threat, is an assurance of openness to the other. A fairly evocative index at the collective level is the proportion of books translated according to country. United States: 0.7%, France: 15%, Germany: 11%4. Something to think about.

We fully agree with the notion developed by Dominique Wolton of incommunication. The whole area of vagueness and uncertainty that characterises any conversation, like any negotiation, grows in complexity with the level at which they are placed. Think of the government of a country, but also the government of a group of countries such as the European Union. And indeed incommunication is the field of negotiation to find the adjustments that will take us collectively forward, provided we want to. This is an absolutely unprecedented human adventure, in which Europe is unquestionably objectively a leader in today's world, but is not aware of it.

We can return to language and sovereignty.

Linguistics and communication

Language is first and foremost the power to name things. In the beginning was the verb. It is not a small thing. Then comes the exchange, because if you have nothing to say, you have nothing to exchange.

This may seem obvious. Yet it is not clear to everyone. We have seen that many linguists, and not the least of them, were in the eighties falling into the field of the mathematical theory of communication. Today, it seems that we are going in the opposite direction. As information and communication theories have shown their limits, they are discovering the linguistic question in all its depth, and Dominique Wolton is a good illustration of how far we have come and how far we still have to go.

In an article published in the daily newspaper La Croix5 , a reflection challenged us.

"In just a few months, these new terms have become part of our daily lives. According to the semiologist Mariette Darrigrand, this is explained by the historical character of the period: "During a crisis, we need more than usual to create terms capable of giving meaning to what is happening. This is all the more true with the one we are going through since, compared to 2008, the crisis is generalised and multidimensional. The extent of the renewal is such that we are experiencing a paradigm shift, i.e. a change in grammar, in language models, with a real effort in terms of vocabulary. »

A symbol par excellence of language renewal, the word "cluster" is on everyone's lips. And if its meaning now contains a negative connotation, this has not always been the case: "Cluster is a very old word, which comes from Saxon languages. It first translated the fertility of nature, capable of reproducing itself, as in a bunch of grapes. As a metaphor, the term was then used to refer to a group of people. In the 1990s, the word was revived to be applied to the world of start-ups clustered around Silicon Valley. It was even theorised by strategy professor Michael Porter in his book Clusters and the New Economics of Competition," says Mariette Darrigrand. »

Incommmunication and metaphor

In fact what the semiologist does not see or say is that while the word cluster may have a metaphorical value in English, it loses this value in French, as in any other language in which it has not taken root, and if this happens, it will not be with the same metaphorical value. Metaphorical value is in no way transferable from one language to another. Therefore, for a French cluster does not a priori mean anything, as long as the word is not brought into people's heads by dint of media repetition.

And nothing justifies a transfer from English to French since the metaphorical dimension is already the characteristic of the word foyer, which, long used by scientists for epidemics, is based on the rather obvious metaphor of fire and the place from which the fire develops. The word outbreak metaphorically shows the reality of pathological development better than a word precisely devoid of metaphorical value, a code word of some sort, such as a chemical code. If the word cluster replaces the word foyer in the scientific world, it is not for a semiotic or scientific reason, it is simply because the word is English and most scientific articles today are written in English. There is no reason why the lingua franca used by scientists should reflect common usage. Descartes was much wiser, having published his Discourse on the Method in French for the broad educated public of his time who no longer understood Latin, and then translated it into Latin for scientists who did not all understand French.

The semiologist indicates that the word cluster was already used in astronomy. For our part, we discovered in the 1980s the word cluster, which was used to designate the blocs of data on the hard disks of computers, the French word still being used in computer manuals. The word was later reused to refer to computer clusters. Then, we found it again in the 2000s to replace in economics the notion of pôle de développement or pôle de compétitivité, following an article (and not a book) published by Harvard professor Michael Porter. But the concept of pôle de développement, slightly transformed in the French law in 2005 into a pôle de compétitivité, had been invented fifty years earlier by the French economist, historian and philosopher François Perroux, whose main weakness was not being American. The metaphorical power of the term cluster cannot escape anyone's notice, a power that the English term cluster is once again totally lacking, outside the scope of the English language6.

Even more worrying is the more systematic abandonment by our Italian friends of words common to their language in favour of English words to designate situations that are as ordinary as possible. Thus the word confinement, in Italian, confinamento, has given way to the English word lockdown.

If Michel Serres were still with us, there is no doubt that he would see this as an incomprehensible debasement.

It goes without saying that language is not managed by decree and that language policies are only effective in synergy with usage.

The replacement of a language which is essentially metaphorical, and which draws its power from metaphor, by a lingua franca, a sanitised language, even if it was used by the scientific community, is an aggression against language, not an enrichment. For scientific English resembles English but is not English. It is a service language, in the sense given to it by Heinz Wismann and Pierre Judet de La Combe7 , closely subject to immediate but invasive usefulness, by the mere force of the media and the bad example set by some of our elites. It is a language representative of the technical society and managerial ideology from which it is urgently necessary to free ourselves.

They have the natural balance of power. Self-awareness and attachment to life's instincts are forces that are just as natural, which can be countered by translating them into civic and linguistic awareness. Nothing could be more legitimate. It is at the level of individual consciousness that linguistic sovereignty, as we try to define it here, takes its source. In our democracies, it is the people who are sovereign, so it is with the citizen that we should start.

Sovereign actions and policies

But political power and public authorities in general obviously have their role to play. And the first role, before any regulation or directive, is to set an example. In this respect, there is much to be said that goes far beyond the limits of this article.

But of course, public authorities can take far-reaching decisions, which can in turn have massive effects on uses and behaviour.

We will take two very strong examples.

The first is that of the Italian Constitutional Court in a fundamental decision taken in 2018, in which the Court declares practices such as those developed by the Milan Polytechnic Institute, which had decided to switch exclusively to English all training provided from the master's level upwards, to be unconstitutional. A very short excerpt is given below:

"The phenomena of internationalisation must not force the Italian language "into a position of marginality": on the contrary, and precisely because of their emergence, the primacy of the Italian language is not only constitutionally unassailable, but - far from being a formal defence of a heritage of the past, incapable of grasping the changes of modernity - it becomes even more decisive for the continuous transmission of the historical heritage and identity of the Republic, as well as a guarantee of the preservation and valorisation of Italian as a cultural asset in itself. »8

The second example is largely valid for the future.

Machine translation has made its discreet entrance on the website of the German Presidency of the European Union9. It is a small revolution and we have high hopes for the development of machine translation in language management at the level of the European institutions. We are well aware that automatic translation has made considerable progress in recent years, but not to the point of dispensing with any proofreading of published documents. However, apart from texts in German, English and French, which are originals, for the other languages it is the direct result of computer processing that is put into the hands of Internet users. This is why the OEP is calling on its Internet users to take part in an evaluation of this experiment. We are well aware that, at the end of the road, it is the obligation that is now imposed on all editors within the institutions to write in English, which may be called into question. Ideally, drafters could write in their mother tongue and produce translations in the other European languages they know. The consequences of these changes in practice would be considerable, thanks to the resulting rebalancing between the official languages of the EU, which would put an end to the completely abusive dominance of English.

Let's stay with machine translation: this, if used properly, can also reverse the habit in the scientific world that today 80%, if not in some sectors 100% of publications are written in English. This too would be called into question by the development of machine translation. A researcher, Nicolas Bacaer, has started translating scientific articles and publishing them10 in an open archive, an example of which is given below. It opens up a completely reasonable and realistic perspective.

Under the general title "When Europe Wakes Up! "we had subtitled Letter No. 71, "Reclaiming the use of the spoken word". It was, of course, its power to name things and its ability to reinterpret the world we were aiming at. Nothing is more necessary today.

1Cf. Zbiniew Brzezinski, Le Grand Échiquier, Payot, 1997

2Sélim Abou, 1981, Éditions Antropos, collection Pluriel, Paris, p. 17


4Index translationum, Unesco, dernière année connue 2007-2008.


6Christian Tremblay, 2012, « le concept de cluster : un exemple de rupture mémorielle », dans Terminologie (II), comparaisons, transferts, (in)traductions, éd. Jean-Jacques Briu, Peter Lang

7L’Avenir des langues, 2004, Les éditions du Cerf, Paris