In the 18th Century, the French language was so influential that King Frederick the Great of German-speaking Prussia, an ardent admirer of French philosophers, sponsored a contest throughout Europe for the best essay, written in French, on "the universality of the French language."
Now, President Francois Mitterrand of France continually makes speeches warning that the French language is in danger. According to a report prepared recently for the first summit conference of French-speaking countries, the world has only 69 million native speakers of French and only 39 million others who use French as a second language.
That total of 108 million French speakers means that French ranks as only the 12th most commonly used language in the world, behind Mandarin Chinese, English, Russian, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Portuguese, Malay-Indonesian, Japanese and German.
A Slap in the Face
There are constant efforts to reverse the trend. A French government television commercial, which has been shown often in the past few weeks, shows a trendy young man trying to entice a beautiful young woman to his apartment. He suggests it would be "cool" for them to have a "drink" in his "living." She slaps him across the face. With good sense now knocked into him, he changes his pitch and propositions her entirely in French. She falls into his arms.
French officials are less troubled by the use of English in seduction scenes than by its use in high technology. In a speech to the French Academy last December, Mitterrand said that the French language had reached a crucial moment in its history.
"Either the French language learns to master computer technology," he said, "or, in a few years, it ceases to be one of the great means of communication in the world. Does a country that knows how to build the Ariane space rocket have the right to lose its language?"
On a similarly philosophical note, Mitterrand wrote in a recently published book on foreign policy, "No one listens any more to a people that lose their words."
The recent official report on the status of the French language is one of the most realistic ever presented. Admirers of the French language often like to stand before a map of the world and point out the impressive number of "French-speaking" countries. But the report, which was prepared by the High Council of Francophonie in Paris, shows just how flimsy that definition can be.
A Favored Colony
Take the case of Senegal. The French ruled it for almost 300 years, until 1960. It was a favored colony: The Africans of its four main towns had had the right to vote in French elections since the French Revolution. The politician who led Senegal to independence, former President Leopold Senghor, is a French poet who now sits in the French Academy. French is the official language of the country. Everybody looks on Senegal as a French-speaking country in Africa.
But the report shows that Senegal, with a population of 6.5 million, has only 60,000 people who speak French as a mother tongue and 700,000 others who speak it as a second language--a language, in other words, that they have learned outside their homes, most likely at school, and use in their work. Most Senegalese speak their tribal languages, not French.
In North Africa, the report shows, French is receding in the face of government drives to use Arabic as the language of instruction in the schools. Algeria, with a population of 21 million, was once classified as a province of France. But the report shows that independent Algeria has only 150,000 speakers of French as a mother tongue and 6.5 million speakers of French as a second language.
Unlike the relationship of Spain with Spanish, Portugal with Portuguese and Britain with English, France--with its 51.5 million speakers of French as a mother tongue and its 4.5 million speakers of French as a second language--overwhelmingly dominates the statistics of use of the French language.
Only three other countries in the world have even as many as a million speakers of French as a mother tongue: Canada, with 7 million (mostly in the province of Quebec); Belgium, with 4.2 million, and Switzerland, with 1.3 million. Only Algeria has more speakers of French as a second language than France itself.
Official U.N. Language
The High Council of Francophonie did present statistics as evidence of the continued influence of French: 35 countries and 3 provinces give French some kind of official status; 25 million students learn it as a foreign language; France is the second-largest exporter of movies in the world; 2,000 publishers produce books in French; French is one of the two official languages of everyday work at the United Nations, though it continually loses ground to English, the other official language.
Yet these achievements of the language pale beside the basic fact that French is losing influence in the world and that English has become the language of modern science and technology and of international trade.
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.