Regional and minority languages should be protected, in France, and elsewhere.
Quelle horreur ! The 40 élite members of the Académie française are jumping out of their fauteuils, incensed that legislation passed by France's National Assembly would put regional languages such as Breton, Occitan, Corse, Alsatian, Catalan and Basque into the constitution as part of the national heritage. The members are particularly outraged that the regional languages would get a mention in the first article of the constitution — which defines France as an “indivisible, lay, democratic and social republic” — ahead of the second article, which designates French as the official language. The academy, created in 1635 to guard the purity of the French language, voted unanimously this month to condemn the move as “defying logic”, and being a threat to the nation.
Actually, “defying logic”, is an apt description of the vote itself. Globalization is already threatening to extinguish half the world's 6,000–7,000 languages. That would be a tragic loss to humanity and our understanding of it, if only because knowledge and culture are inescapably interwined with the languages within which they evolved. Languages also enrich each other, and provide a trove of data for research in linguistics and history. The other main French academy, the Académie des Sciences, should make itself heard on the matter.
Multilingualism has other practical benefits. French scientists who speak regional languages in addition to the national tongue testify that early bilingualism has helped them go on to master English and other languages. Some even argue that the thought processes involved have helped them to be better and more creative scientists.
The Académie française argues that France's regional languages are so obviously part of its heritage that there is no need for constitutional safeguards. That is disingenuous. It is precisely the lack of constitutional recognition that has blocked France from ratifying key international treaties to conserve minority languages: the courts have ruled that ratification is forbidden by existing constitutional principles, such as the indivisibility of the Republic and the unity of the French people.
Indeed, if earlier French governments had had their way, Breton, which is spoken in Brittany, would have been eradicated long ago. Only stubborn Breton persistence has prevented this from happening, notably through the creation of the Diwan Breton-language schools from the 1970s onwards.
Yec'hed mat (to your health) to that — because regional and minority languages, like endangered species, merit protection. Languages that aren't revitalized through constant exercise die out. It's hypocritical that France, which is one of the first to staunchly defend its own elegant national language, should deny that same right to regions that wish to keep their own languages alive and vibrant. The National Assembly's legislation was rejected last week by France's conservative Senate. But it could yet be reintroduced, and should be: for the sake of both science and its own rich heritage, France should remove the constitutional obstacles as quickly as possible, and ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.
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Comédie-Française . Nature 453, 1144 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/4531144b