Lecture on Centrifugal, Centripetal and Archipelago: Three epochs in the pas de deux of French and English:
French and English have enjoyed nearly a millennium of vigorous linguistic and cultural interchange. For most of this period French has been the model and the source. It has been centrifugally donating its vocabulary, usage and style. Not only to English, but to all the languages of Europe. 75% of the vocabulary of modern English comes from non-English sources. 29% comes from French, and a further 29% from Latin, predominantly via French. With the exception of nouns in ‑ing, the abstract vocabulary of English is overwhelmingly French in origin or formation.
But in the late 19c the direction of flow reversed, from centrifugal to centripetal. French started to experience a growing influx of English vocabulary. Despite concerted and sometimes desperate and defensive efforts of bodies like the Académie Française. In this ingestion of English, French is anything but alone: I have yet to find a national language which does not show a substantial imprint of English.
Many commentators have highlighted, and regretted, this development, which has fundamentally altered the composition and character of French. But it is not only the vocabulary. In his 2003 book and television series The adventure of English. The biography of a language, Lord Melvyn Bragge muses over the capacity of English “to absorb others”, and to include non-English material in its ongoing evolution. In many respects French has been, in policy if not always in practice, the antithesis of English.
In March 2018 Emmanuel Macron addressed the Académie Française in his capacity as its president. He laid out a new policy direction for the Académie: to step back from the defensive, citadel-French model of a château behind a moat, and to embrace a perspective which he called “langue archipel”, or language-archipelago: something distributed, discontinuous, far-reaching and, in his view, able to regain much of the ground lost to English, especially in Africa. The norms of French in this redefined profile of Francophonie will be not only educated Parisian, but representative of the growth and regrowth of French which will inevitably, on demographic grounds, take place outside of France.
President Macron’s vision bears an uncanny resemblance to Lord Bragge’s image of English. The centripetal flood carries not merely language material like vocabulary, but also a fundamental shift of posture in relation to French and the world beyond its borders.
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