Solidarity blog: Oiseaux

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I had my mom at phone lately. Before the second lockdown in France (it started the 29th of October) she went a last time to the theatre. It was a linguist performing, and he explained through different examples how French language is absurd in its rules and structure. If you don’t know anything about French, we have, for example, 40 different spelling for the sound /ɛ̃/ or sometimes we don’t pronounce all letters in a word. It means, if you don’t know the word, you probably couldn’t guess the writing. To make a better picture of how all of this is absurd, the linguist made an interesting exercise. He created a 4 syllables imaginary word that sounds French, and he asked the public how much spellings were possible for this word, according the French rules. And of course, for the exact same pronunciation. He created an algorithm to calculate all the combinations. People were trying: 16, 24, 36, 54, 81 for the most daring. You think it’s already huge right? Personally, I said something between 20 and 30. The answer of the algorithm was a number around 240 different possible spellings, for the exact pronunciation, I insist on that. HOW CONVENIENT RIGHT? At this moment, I had a little thought for all foreigners trying to learn French, especially for my students.

 At different times, government tried to reform the spelling, to make it easier, more logic or even less sexist (with the inclusive writing for example) but it almost always faces a wall. French language is considered by as a monument that shouldn’t be touch, and the French Academia is the guardian of this monument. But I will come back to this later.

This anecdote reminded me something else. In French, in the word “oiseaux” (“birds” in French), none of the letters are pronounced as they should be individually. In Croatian, to find more or less the same pronunciation, you could write it this way: “wazo”. And actually, even for me, I realised that by barely writing, I forgot how to write correctly many words (I didn’t have to write that much the past years and I stopped studying French when I was done with high school). Making mistakes in French is a bit considered as a sacrilege, or you may be judged for this. And actually, this is the same for the way of speaking: I think in most languages there is a difference between the writing way and the speaking way. But in France, more the way of speaking is close to the way of writing, and more you will be perceived as educated, or from the ‘high” society. If you speak by making mistakes, even if the meaning is completely understandable, either they will take you back or judging you for this mistake. So the language, the tool whose primary function is to unify people and make the communication more easily between them, becomes a tool to prioritize people. Then, if the language is a tool of power, its structure influences the way we consider each other. I said earlier that some reforms were about introducing the inclusive writing in the common use (it was born from the desire to change mentalities about gender equality through language.) In French, we only have two genders: feminine and masculine. Our adjectives take the gender of the subject, and we have a very famous rule we learn since primary school which is: in grammar, the masculine prevails over the feminine. For example:

Marc et Lily sont beaux (Marc and Lily are beautiful). The subject has a male element and a female element, but the adjective is always matched with the male element. Even if the female element is 1 million girls and the male element 1 boy, the adjective will turn in its masculine form. This rule has been established in the 17th century (before the rule of proximity was used), with a bunch of other rules which aimed to masculinize the language. All those rules led to put the feminine in the background, to make it less important. And I think it’s not without any impact about the consideration of women in French society. Nowadays, there is a will to make the feminine as the level of masculine, by saying both in our way of speaking and writing. The French Academia (created in 1635) sees in it “a mortal danger for the French language”, considering that this kind of writing “creates confusion bordering on illegibility”, and some politics (from extreme right) made a proposition of law to forbid the use of inclusive writing. Whether we are for or against, some ways of inclusive writing are already used in administrative documents, in journalism, in the education field, which are the most important vectors of a language. For example, for a job offer, an employer must write both masculine and feminine form of the job he wants to provide (example: Recherche conducteur/conductrice de bus), so there is no discrimination in hiring.

As you can see, it’s a very controversial topic and animates heated debates, but it shows how a language and its constitution impacts our mental construction and social life. The language is an entity that is always moving, getting transformed across the centuries to adapt itself to the population using it. We do many things that are technically considered as wrong according to the French Academia, but at some point, the language belong to people who are using it and not to an institution. I’m sorry for you, foreigners who are trying to learn French…

To write this, I did my best to inform myself about the topic, but there is a linguist explaining very well all this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cGl95gRjA88&t=121s

If you don’t speak French, you won’t understand anything but for the others, it’s very interesting! (and much more complete than the text I wrote).

Have fun watching it, and for those who won’t, have a nice day (:

In any case, see you next time!

Mathilde