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Linguistic sovereignty? (IV and end)

Last Updated: 28 Oct 2020

We have come to the end of our investigation into linguistic sovereignty. We have seen that languages cross borders in many ways, although they are always rooted in territories, even when they have characteristics of common languages or lingua franca. Unlike economic properties which must be disposed of when they are passed on to someone else, in the case of languages and everything they carry within them, they enrich those who appropriate them, but no one is dispossessed of them. Among the quotations that the OEP highlights, that of Michel Serres is at the heart of our subject: "A country which loses its language loses its culture; a country which 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"1. One cannot formulate better that language is an attribute, an essential element of sovereignty. But just as language can be shared, so can linguistic sovereignty. It is an essential and absolutely miraculous civilizational process, so miraculous that one is hardly aware of it, to the extent that the linguistic fact is not present in any school curriculum and that ignorance of the linguistic fact in our societies is almost total.

But more substantially, what can "linguistic sovereignty" mean? To surprise you, we are going to use an English buzzword, "empowerment".

In a recent article entitled "Notion: 'Empowerment' or the 'power to act'", the newspaper Le Monde explains to us that the term, which appeared in the 1970s in the United States, "without any real equivalent in French", evokes the capacity of each of us to empower ourselves and to act on our environment.

Rather than saying that empowerment has no equivalent in French, the journalist should rather have said that there is no perfect equivalent, which would have been a truism, because the reverse is also true, and that it is very rare that there are perfect equivalents from one language to another language. And the strength of the speaker will depend on his ability to find in the words of his own language, and why not in other languages, what he wants to say, but beware, he can only do so if he does indeed possess the language of the other, far from any mimicry that makes him ridiculous in the eyes of the one who really possesses the source language. Nothing is more ridiculous than a Frenchman who mimes English thinking he knows it. It is better to really know it.

In the usual bilingual dictionaries, one will find "empowered by or to" for "habilité par ou à », "giving the means to" or "giving oneself the means to", "receiving the means to", and besides, it is not uncommon to read on packing boxes "empowered by Microsoft or by Google" etc. So the emergence of the word empowerment is not foreign to a certain economic context and borrows from the language of business and management at the same time as it is linked to movements defending the rights of minorities and feminist movements. For example, on the Saint-Gobain website, you will find "Empowerment: tomorrow, everyone in power in the company? "on the https://femmedinfluence.fr/ portal, a section on the front page Empowerment.

In fact, in French, there is no lack of approximate equivalents and what matters is not that French (the same can be said of German, Italian, Spanish, etc., it is up to each one to transpose it) is behind a standard that comes from another universe, but above all that there is a difference in approach that protects us from ideological pressure, without ignoring the phenomena that are happening in our societies, including those on the other side of the Atlantic. We must digest anglicisms rather than « platings/ veneerings » out of sheer imitation without making a distinction. This is the type of exercise the OEP is engaged in on its website https://nda.observatoireplurilinguisme.eu.

Thus, depending on the context, one could say "collective power to act", "power to act as a citizen", "citizen action", "taking or regaining control", "participating in the exercise of power", "conquering autonomy", etc. The concepts and paraphrases are infinite.

In matters of language we prefer the word 'sovereignty', because it qualifies the power to determine oneself in the last resort. Dictators know this...You remove words, you put in other words, and you control thought. So we do not hesitate to see in the idea of language and plurilingualism (plurilingualism means that there cannot be only one language), a metaphysics of freedom. This principle is essential: freedom to say and think, to think and say. This is plurilingualism. And speaking of "linguistic sovereignty" is only the affirmation of this fundamental principle.

Concretely, we must now look in the present context at how to reaffirm a linguistic sovereignty which must not be mixed up with some kind of nationalism, we hope that this has been clear since the beginning of our investigation.

One must start with what is obvious or should be obvious.

To learn the language and to learn the language of the country you live in. This is essential and it is a conquest. The right to education is a fundamental right which is acquired through language.

The value of language has been undermined for decades in the education system. We have taken the wrong path. But turning the tide is not easy. Above all, fundamentally, language in our education is still seen as a tool, a subject like any other. Even when we say that it is the subject that enables us to learn other subjects, we have only come part of the way. Language allows us to think. It's extraordinary, but that's the way it is. No thought exists outside language. Language and thought go together. This means that any degradation in language leads to a degradation in thought.

So in concrete terms, when the State signs an agreement with the Hauts de France Region to fight illiteracy, it is an act of linguistic sovereignty. When it splits in two the primary school classes in areas targeted for special help in education, it is also an act of sovereignty. To bring the cohorts of children starting secondary school classes without mastering the fundamentals from the fifth of a generation, (i.e. around 160,000 students), to half (i.e. 80,000 students) is a great ambition, even if one would like to do better.

But it is not enough: at all levels one must instil a different relationship with language. Language is not a tool, it is the dynamic process by which thought is achieved.

Of course, as soon as one speaks of "sovereignty", the question which is on everyone's lips is the question of anglicisms.

We must be clear, linguistic borrowings are part of the life of languages. Languages change, because the world is changing, and over the centuries, those who make languages evolve never stopped creating new concepts and words. Who are they? Historically, they were poets, writers, clerics, scholars, legists who enriched languages and gave birth to our modern languages by drawing on multiple sources, in the language itself, in local dialects, in Latin, Greek, Arabic, in the languages of neighbouring countries, etc. For these people travelled a lot, exchanged a lot, and knew how to spot the gems of knowledge to take them home and continue to exchange with their peers. This is how the "great languages" were born. Marie-Hélène Lafon, winner of the Prix Femina 2020, is right to say that a writer is "an adventurer of the word". Anne-Marie Garat, Femina and Renaudot prize of High School Students in 1992, who kindly accepted our invitation in 2008 to the cultural event that we organised at the UNESCO as part of the International Year of Languages on the theme "Intellectuals and artists for plurilingualism and linguistic and cultural diversity", explained the same thing to us: writers are creators of languages.

The mistake is to believe or make people believe that the creation of language is a spontaneous process and that it is usage which creates new words. Put that way, it's a real joke. No, usage may or may not end up consecrating the new words, but it has nothing to do with the mechanisms which are at the source and which will influence or direct usage.

Thus the word cluster, about which we have already talked a lot, has nothing to do with usage. It was imposed by scientists for reasons that are neither linguistic nor scientific. In the field of hard sciences, most researchers are currently writing their articles directly in English, and they have simply reproduced the English word, and said that it was the word to use, making an impact on ministerial cabinets and the media, which for a time made the English word and the French word "foyer" coexist in the same sentences, which is its strict equivalent in the context of the pandemic, and in this context alone, to finally use only the English word, considering that the number of repetitions was sufficient to think that the word had finally entered the willingly rebellious, though not always well-intentioned, skulls of the French. In the case of cluster, the "linguistic well" was therefore scientific, the scientific community having played a highly questionable normative role in its very principle.

But it is clear that behind the scientific ukase, there is an interplay of power.

The balance of power is more present today than it has ever been in history. It is well known that during the Renaissance, many Italian words slipped intothe French language and all the European languages. This was the product of the first Italian Renaissance, in which Italian culture shone brightly, without the support of any political power, much to the great regret of Dante, who watched with envy as the French monarchy gained in prestige and power.

The situation of languages in the European institutions is a perfect expression of the balance of power at the time of the last wave of expansion of the European Union in 2005-2007. Having barely emancipated themselves from the Soviet Union, the future new members were to join the European Union and NATO simultaneously which were in a way two sides of the same coin. It was inconceivable that the negotiating languages could be any other than English, especially as the British were in the room. If the British had not been at the helm in the negotiations, the Romanians would not have had to reformulate their application files, initially prepared in French, in English. Perhaps other countries such as the Czech Republic or Slovakia had the means and the desire to use German. But we are not rewriting history. The fact is that it was a geostrategic balance of power that tipped the whole linguistic balance of the European Union. Another geostrategic context, such as it is today, would have led to a probably different result.

Obviously, in the current period other purely economic factors are at work. We mentioned the word empowerment at the beginning of this article, even though conceptually it brings almost nothing new to the linguistic material we have in the French-speaking world, and it is likely that the same is true with our European neighbours. It is simply a word in vogue in the United States, carried by both marketing and social movements and amplified by social networks, which contribute, as Le Monde Diplomatique of this month of January forcefully underlines, to the "Americanisation of public polemics", since there is nothing left for debate. We have not waited for the breath of America to speak of participation (the word was popularised by General de Gaulle in 1968) or of participatory democracy, collective action, being master of, being actor of, etc.

Therefore, it is important to be able to exercise a filter on all linguistic movements, not in a normative way, which would be vain, but in a reflexive way, i.e. to understand and interpret linguistic movements, essentially Anglicisms, to also welcome what comes from the outside and to ensure the perfect breathing of the language, its freshness and vitality. Such an approach is proposed by the site set up at the OEP under the title New dictionary of Anglicisms and Neologisms2, in synergy with standard-setting institutions such as FranceTerme3. It is also a similar approach, both critical and benevolent, that Jean Pruvost proposes in his recent book La story de la langue française-ce que le français doit à l'anglais et vice-versa4.

This work is also a manifestation of linguistic sovereignty. And this reflexive work, in order for it to be produced, must be underpinned by something very strong, so strong that to designate it we have no other word than resistance, which we understand to be an individual and collective choice.

This action is crucial, but there are others.

The OEP held a virtual colloquium with the University of Paris on automatic translation and its social uses. All the presentations and discussions can be reviewed online5 , until the publication of the book which gathers them together in the Plurilinguisme collection.

There are two crucial areas where really, there is a lot to be done. The first is that of the European institutions, the second is the field of research and scientific publication.

As far as the European institutions are concerned, we have already observed that since English has imposed itself against all the rules established as the sole working language, with the others being only figurative, all editors, whatever their mother tongue, have indeed been forced to do first-level translation work. Their English text is then revised by the translation services, and it is from the translation services that a text that they wrote themselves in English will come out in their mother tongue. This is the Brussels mould. As there are no written rules that require them to work in this way, the writer can perfectly well produce his text in his own language and simultaneously produce his text in English and possibly in one or two other languages using automatic translation tools. Any professional translator knows that this is possible, and any seasoned user of these tools, whether professional or general public, knows that it is perfectly feasible as long as the editor knows how to proofread, which is a matter of course. If we change the way of working, which only made sense in the days when high-performance machine translation did not exist, we will no longer see 80% of the texts produced by European services in English.

But in any case, automatic translation can also revolutionise a lot of things in the communication of the European Commission and the European Councils and the European Union. The sites of the europa.eu platform will at last be in 24 languages, public consultations will finally be open to European citizens, and press releases and rapid information, which everyone can receive by simple subscription, will finally be accessible to all.

Another area where automatic translation can bring about a revolution is in the publication of works of research.

We are in a situation quite similar to that of European civil servants.

In order to satisfy the great international scientific journals, which are commercial companies, many researchers, especially in the hard sciences, have given up publishing in their own language and write in English. While this facilitates the circulation of articles in scientific communities, the negative effects are disastrous. At least three can be targeted. The first is that the language in which the researcher conducts his or her research - a distinction must be made between the language of research and the language of publication - are no longer used in research work, and are no longer supplied with new concepts. This is what Pierre Frath calls a loss of domain6. The second effect is to prevent transmission. Enlightened audiences, who are not researchers in the same discipline or researchers themselves, cannot easily read scientific articles in English, and when these works feed reviews or popular scientific works, the documents are larded with English concepts that are not even transposed, making it difficult to understand the results of the research and their social consequences. The third effect is that the capture of the scientific publishing market by oligopolistic commercial companies has meant that the prices of books have soared to the point where they are no longer accessible either to individuals or to under-funded universities. The scientific community is thus cut off from the public conceptually and materially. This deadly situation can only be remedied through general accessibility to scientific publications and translation.

The final effect of the process thus initiated is not only the scientific community being cut off from the population, but also the devaluation of the language spoken by the population, which may thus lose territories of knowledge and be relegated to purely private and family use.

Today, automatic translation can help to overcome this kind of difficulty.

Automatic translation is thus a means of regaining full control of one's linguistic expression while ensuring optimal dissemination of one's work.

But beyond autonomous machine translation, there is translation itself, because machine translation is only an aid to translation, which professionals use extensively for themselves.

In the 12th century a vast movement of translation began throughout Europe, whereby Europe discovered or rediscovered the sciences and letters of Ancient Greece and the Arab world, at a time when the Arab world, severely plagued by divisions, was nevertheless flourishing intellectually and scientifically. It was from this vast movement of translation that two centuries later the so-called Renaissance emerged.

Today, a new trend is taking shape in world publishing. As Patrick Chardenet7 points out, "The fundamental question is not the codification of specialised articles, the translation for publication in a scientific, supposedly universal language. The question is that of the reception in such and such a language of articles produced in such and such a language. Entering into a process of understanding a stabilised article in its original language is certainly more enriching for the researcher-reader (and therefore for his scientific productivity), than accepting the translated article which would seem identical to the one in the original language. »

Conducting an active policy of production in the original language and translation is what the French committee Ouvrir la science8 invites us to do. It is also a means of linguistic sovereignty.
Perhaps do we need a new intellectual and moral reform? From this point of view, raising the linguistic level of the entire population, strengthening the teaching of modern languages within the framework of plurilingual and intercultural education and developing translation are the priority instruments for regaining linguistic sovereignty, which is clearly indispensable and even vital.

1Michel Serres - Défense et illustration de la langue française aujourd'hui, 2018, p.55




6Pierre Frath, 2017, « Anthropologie de l’anglicisation des formations supérieures et de la recherche », dans Plurilinguisme et créativité scientifique, collection Plurilinguisme.