Discovery of France, ch4:

the Abbé Henri Grégoire had more serious matters on his mind. Four years before, he had sent a questionnaire to town halls all over France on the subject of patois. ('Patois' was the derogatory term for dialects other than the official state idiom in its standard form. According to the Encyclopédie, it meant 'Corrupt language as spoken in almost all the provinces. . . . "Language" proper is spoken only in the capital.') The key questions were these: Did the people of the region have their own patois? Could it be used to express intellectual concepts or was it riddled with obscenities and oaths? Were the country people patriotic? and, most importantly of all, How could their patois be destroyed?
The Abbé Grégoire was not a linguistic terrorist. He had campaigned for the abolition of slavery and the death penalty; he called for Jews to be given full citizenship and tried to save national treasures from revolutionary 'vandalism' (the word 'vandalism' was his invention). He wanted to cover the country with libraries and schools, but none of this would be possible, he believed, without a common tongue. Without a national language, there could be no nation.
Grégoire himself came from a poor family in Lorraine. He knew that an ignorant, divided population was easily exploited. To his ears, patois was the voice of superstition and subservience. As a fellow revolutionary put it, linguistic diversity was 'one of the sturdiest flying-buttresses of despotism'. The government had already spent a small fortune having its decrees translated into Catalan, Basque, Breton, Provençal and Alsatian, but the only lasting solution, in Grégoire's mind, was to silence those ancient tongues for good.
Replies to the questionnaire had straggled in from representatives, mayors, lawyers, clerics and a semi-literate farmer from Brittany. From some regions - Picardy, the centre of France, much of the Auvergne and most of Brittany - there was no response, either because no one had the necessary information or because no one cared about the incomprehensible jabbering of peasants...The fringes of France were already known to be dominated by languages quite different from French: Basque, Breton, Flemish and Alsatian. But the two Romanic languages that covered most of the country - French in the north, Occitan in the south - also turned out to be a muddle of incomprehensible dialects. In many parts, the dialect changed at the village boundary. Several respondents claimed that differences were perceptible at a distance of one league (less than three miles) and sometimes just a few feet, as the writer from Périgueux explained: 'The patois's reign ends at the river Nizonne. It is amazing to cross this little stream and to hear an entirely different patois, which sounds more like French.' In the Jura, there were 'almost as many different patois as there are villages'. Even plants and stars had their own local names, as if each little region lived under a different sky.
The reports confirmed the Abbé's fears. Peasants in the Armagnac were 'too ignorant to be patriotic'. News of important events and government decrees left the capital on the broad river of French only to run aground in the muddy creeks of patois. A landowner from Montauban found the same startling ignorance in the Quercy: the peasants might talk of Revolution and the Constitution, but when they are asked whose cause they support, 'they answer without hesitation, "the King's".' If there were people who thought that the King was still alive and on the throne, how could they be taught the principles of liberty and equality?...Foreign visitors often claimed to find Latin more useful than French...The Abbé's survey was a revelation. According to his estimate, more than six million French citizens were completely ignorant of the national language. Another six million could barely conduct a conversation in it. While French was the language of civilized Europe, France itself had no more than three million 'pure' French-speakers (11 percent of the population), and many of them were unable to write it correctly. The official idiom of the French Republic was a minority language. 'In liberty, we are the advance-guard of nations. In language, we are still at the Tower of Babel.'...Seventy years later, when official statistics treated a few days at school or the merest smattering of French as evidence of an ability to speak the language, many or most of the communes in fifty-three out of eighty-nine départements were said to be non-French-speaking. In 1880, the number of people who felt comfortable speaking French was estimated to be about eight million (just over one-fifth of the population). In some parts, prefects, doctors, priests and policemen were like colonial officials, baffled by the natives and forced to use interpreters.


As the Abbé pointed out, the National Convention itself was a little Babel of regional accents. However, the representatives were educated men who owed their advancement in part to their knowledge of French. Any other dialect was likely to be seen as a corrupt and ancient idiom. Standard French had been tamed and regulated, notably by the French Academy. The size of the Academy's official dictionary (about fifteen thousand words, compared to forty thousand in Furetière's dictionary of 1690) showed its determination to eradicate the rabble of synonyms, onomatopoeias and vulgarities. French was supposed to be a product of the rational mind, a beautiful estate carved out of a jungle of strange sounds and obscenities. Dialects were seen as natural excrescences of the landscape. The nineteenth-century Larousse encyclopedia described the Limousin dialect as the audible form of peasant apathy (too many diminutives and words of one syllable). The Poitevin dialect had 'a rough quality, like the soil'. In Bourg d'Oisans, in the Alpine Écrins massif,

    the language is slow, heavy and unfigurative, due to the inhabitants' physical and moral ill health and the nature of the country, which is covered with high, barren mountains.

Words for 'gibberish' still reflect this political-linguistic geography: charabia (from charabiat, a migrant worker from the Auvergne), baragouin (from the Breton bara, 'bread', and gwin, 'wine') or 'parler comme une vache espagnole' (the 'cow' was originally a 'Basque').
By the time of the Revolution, most dialects had no written form. For those that did, spelling was largely a matter of individual choice. Dictionaries of regional languages were rarely taken seriously, even by their authors.

...Educated travellers were constantly amazed to find that their French was quite useless.

   I was never able to make myself understood by the peasants I met along the way. I spoke to them in French; I used the patois of my region; I tried speaking to them in Latin, but all in vain. Finally, when I was tired of talking without being understood, they spoke to me in turn using a language which I found completely incomprehensible.

This was written by a priest from the Provençal Alps travelling in the Limagne region of the Auvergne in the late 1770s. Similar accounts can be found from the Ancien Régime to the First World War. The disorientation of Jean Racine, when he found himself linguistically stranded in Provence in 1661, was a common experience in some parts of France even two centuries later. Racine wrote to his friend La Fontaine about a trip to his uncle's home in Uzès, fifteen miles north of Nîmes. (This was several years before he wrote the plays that would be hailed as the purest expression of classical French.)

   By the time I reached Lyon, the local language was already becoming incomprehensible, and so was I. This misfortune increased at Valence, and God so willed it that when I asked a maid for a chamber-pot, she put a warming-pan in my bed. But it's even worse in this pays. I swear to you that I need an interpreter as much as a Muscovite would need one in Paris.

   A few days later, he told another correspondent, 'I cannot understand the French of this region and no one can understand mine.'

If an educated man with relatives in Provence was unable to order a chamber-pot in Valence, was effectively illiterate further south and failed even to identify the language he was hearing, it is no wonder that 'France' sometimes seemed a rather abstract concept.

...Even if a place was known to outsiders, its language might remain a secret. The Pyrenean village of Aas, at the foot of the Col d'Aubisque, above the spa town of Eax-Bonnes, had its own whistling language which was unknown even in the neighbouring valleys until it was mentioned on a television programme in 1959. Shepherds who spent the summer months in lonely cabins had evolved an ear-splitting, hundred-decibel language that could be understood at a distance of up to two miles. It was also used by the women who worked in the surrounding fields and was apparently versatile enough in the early twentieth century to convey the contents of the local newspaper. Its last known use was during the Nazi Occupation, when shepherds helped Jewish refugees, Résistants and stranded pilots to cross the border into Spain. A few people in Aas today remember hearing the language, but no one can reproduce the sounds and no recordings were ever made.

Later, the impressions of the monolingual elite would be confirmed by professional linguists who identified variant forms of sub-dialects in tiny areas, sometimes in a single village and, in one case, in a single family.

Even mountains and gorges were not insuperable barriers. An isolated village that was forced to find resources in the world beyond was more likely to be bilingual than a community that could feed itself. Travelling teachers in the Dauphiné and Provence who walked among the livestock at fairs with an ink-bottle tied to their buttonhole crying 'Maître d'école!' traditionally came from the mountainous area around Briançon, where seasonal migration had produced a population of polyglots. The Provençal shepherds who walked two hundred miles from Arles to the Oisans could converse with locals all along the route and, when they arrived in the Alps, negotiate the rental of summer pastures with people who, from a linguist's point of view, spoke a different language.

Conscription spread the national language but it could also preserve the older forms of patois, and some recruits never learned French at all. There are several reports of Breton soldiers being shot by their comrades in the First World War because they were mistaken for Germans or because they failed to obey incomprehensible orders.
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