“Literally speaking it means the French speaking community and nothing else.”
It’s not very formal: the international Francophonie organization is a grouping of 55-states. It’s not so much about their language use; French is an official language in only 32 of them. It’s more about an identification with French culture. Along with Belgium and Canada, members include countries in North and West Africa. For them, the presence of the French language and culture is a vestige of a colonial past:
“French was the language of an empire. And in many ways French played the same role as English today- enforcing itself on other cultures. But it is not the case anymore. And the message conveyed from Francophone is a message of cultural diversity.”
But there wasn’t always a focus on diversity. The governmental body that Xavier North works for was born as the High committee for the defense and expansion of the French language in 1966. In 2001 it was renamed as the delegation for the “French language and languages of France.” A recognition that there are—or were--other languages in the country.
“There are a number of regional languages in France, up until the mid 20th century- all these languages were actually chased, and- I would say perhaps fatally wounded. Today we try to revive them. But it’s more and more difficult to find families who actually transmit their regional language to their children.”
There’s been a shift from talking about the spread of French, to recognizing diversity. Perhaps a humble recognition that France is no longer dominant. But also a worldwide appreciation for the diversity of languages.
These days, of course, the focus is on protecting languages from English. North considers himself a cultural diplomat, and is appropriate tactful when discussing English words entering the French language.
“There’s no such thing as foreign words in French, but words of foreign origin. Which is not the same thing. There are a number of English words that are entering our language. We should be very cool about it. In the 16th century, hundreds, thousands of Italian words were entering the French language. They were expelled- they left [laugh] French- 50 years afterwards. Uh- the same thing might happen with English words in French.”
Whether or not English is here to stay, his job is to make sure it enters slowly. He oversees the commission that keeps watch over the French language, finding equivalents, particularly of technology terms.
He says he has no real means to enforce this. His mission is to inform them of the alternatives. And that’s why there is this yearly day of Francophonie.
As part of the event, the ministry of culture chooses ten words around a theme. This year is around “rencontre” or meeting and coming together.
A series TV spots have been airing all week featuring each word. Children wearing white T-shirts dance around with giant colored letters.
A voiceover reads a text about each word—this includes ‘boussole’, which means compass; ‘jubilatoire’, which means happy and exhilarated or ‘passerelle’, a footbridge.
“I like ‘apprivoiser’ very much. It doesn’t mean exactly to tame. It’s much sweeter than that. It’s convincing people to come into your familiarity- uh- it’s difficult to find an equivalent. Everybody has in mind Le Petit Prince and le renard.”
In Le Petit Prince, the little prince meets a fox who asks him to “apprivoise” him, to tame him, but it’s not just about taming. Perhaps it’s only fitting that this is indeed Xavier North’s favorite word in this year’s Francophonie. He’s creating links, but ultimately, it’s to tame the spread of English, to keep it from encroaching too much on the French language.Listen to the report:
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