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Seduction Still Works : French--a Language in Decline

March 01, 1986|STANLEY MEISLER | Times Staff Writer

The influence of the French language dates back to the Middle Ages, when Latin, the language of the Roman Catholic Church, was the official language of most kingdoms. The importance of the French court, however, made French the second international language. The Italian Marco Polo, in fact, used French in 1298 to write the famous account of his travels.

By the time of the French Revolution, in 1789, the courts of the German and Russian kings conducted all their business in French. In the 19th Century, as France expanded its empire in Asia and Africa, French was solidified as Europe's language of diplomacy. As late as 1914, Czar Nicholas II wrote all his letters to the czarina in French.

A Diplomatic Blow

But the importance of English accelerated with the growth of the British Empire and the emergence of the United States as a world power. The first real diplomatic blow to French came in 1919, when the Allied powers decided to write the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I in English as well as French. From then on, there has been a steady erosion of the importance of French, with English overtaking it as the language of trade, science and diplomacy.

Sometimes these days France seems locked in a continual struggle in defense of the French language against the English language. It is chic in France these days to use English expressions. The popular Paris newspaper Liberation has at least one headline in English almost every day. But the battle against what the French call "Franglais" strikes an outsider as a wasted effort.

The French language is not weakened when it absorbs English words. Moreover, the struggle against the use of English words in France seems to overlook the heart of the problem--the influence of English elsewhere in the world.

In their recent summit conference on what the French call "Francophonie"--a term invented in the 19th Century by a French geographer who wanted the word to denote a combination of French language, civilization, and territory--the leaders of the governments of France, Canada and many other countries that use French came up with a host of projects designed to strengthen the worldwide use of French. The projects would encourage the use of French in computer software, in television, in other audio-visual techniques, in publishing, and in other means of communication.

Largest World Market

All these projects seem to make sense, and probably will strengthen the use of French. But it is hard to think of French regaining its old influence. English has more influence than French now not because of any special merit in the language but only because an old colony of Britain, the United States, is the most powerful country and the largest market in the world.

It all goes back to 1759. If Gen. James Wolfe of Britain had not defeated Gen. Louis Joseph de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec, France might have maintained a major position in North America, guaranteeing a vital place for the French language there.

All the French government commercials attacking young Frenchmen for trying to seduce French women with English words cannot change that history.

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