There’s nothing inherently wrong with French. It’s a perfectly good language, neither better nor worse than most other modern languages.
But, over the past century, French has lost its status as the preeminent language for international discourse. This is especially true in diplomatic communications, but also true in business and academe.
Francophones – people whose native language is French – blame English and anglophones. They claim that English has gained international use as a result of American military and cultural agression. When the United States military invades yet another country, the local population learns English as a matter of survival. When foreign countries need to purchase American products, or more commonly, establish factories to produce American products, businessmen have to conduct their affairs in English. When the most prestigious academic journals publish in English, academics must write in English.
Francophones never blame themselves for the decline in use of French.
Francophones have a reputation for being snobby about their language. That’s because they are. In 1634, Cardinal Richelieu established l’Académie française to maintain the purity of the French language. Francophones are prone to waxing poetic about the beauty of their language. Francophones with only a middling facility with their own language and a weak understanding of English have been known to lecture Anglophones about proper English because, as a result of their culture and breeding, they consider themselves to be master linguists.
Francophones tend to be extremely intolerant of any trace of foreign accent, non-standard grammar, or minor linguistic error. They respond either by insulting the speaker or by pretending not to understand and ignoring him. They project the attitude that anyone who does not speak French perfectly is uneducated and not worthy of their consideration.
This attitude extends to francophones from other countries. I have heard Egyptians sneer at quebecois vocabulary. In turn, people from Quebec will sneer at an Acadian accent, then turn around and speak English in Paris so that Parisiens cannot sneer at their French-Canadian accent.
Francophones do not ridicule non-francophones merely for the fun of it. They do it because it puts the foreigner at a disadvantage in any negotiation. The foreigner is immediately put on the defensive. He automatically struggles to please the francophone while the francophone can selectively acknowledge the parts of the discussion that he prefers and pretend to misunderstand the parts that he does not like.
But non-francophones are not stupid. They know that they being put at a disadvantage and resent it. So it is no surprise that they so eagerly embraced English as an alternative to working in French.
Speaking English gives them the exact opposite experience of speaking French.
There is no “English Academy” maintaining the purity of the language. English has always been a free-for-all. When the native Celts and Picts were conquered by the Romans, their language was infused with Latin. The Saxons were driven into England in the fifth century and brought generous amounts of Germanic language with them. Then the Viking invasions threw Scandinavian into the linguistic stew. In 1066, the Normans conquered England and made French the language of the nobility for more than three centuries. It was inevitable that much of the French vocabulary would drift out the court and into the common tongue. And when England finally grew strong enough to repel further invasions, they went forth to colonize the world and bring new words back home.
The unofficial standard for English vocabulary is the Oxford English Dictionary, twenty volumes that contain more than ten times as many words as the official French dictionary published by l’Académie française. And, because even the OED is not the final arbitrator, anglophones are free to keep creating new English words as fast as they want.
No single person knows all the words in the English language. If you use a word and claim that it’s English, no one can tell you that you are wrong. Not even if they fail to find it in the OED.
It helps that America has long differed from England in spelling and pronunciation. The Americans don’t care if the Brits think they talk wrong and spell funny. Every English speaker is expected to make his own way in the linguistic landscape.
The consequence of the mongrel genealogy of English is that anglophones are happy if they can understand another anglophone. They don’t demand accent-less grammatical perfection. They don’t demand pure, official vocabulary. Who cares if someone’s accent is Cockney, kiwi, or Caribbean? All anglophones ask is that you be able to communicate with them with some form of English.
And what about those francophones who decided that they knew English better than anglophones? They got that impression because their accents and awkward grammar was routinely tolerated and humored. They were wrong to think that they communicated well because they were so good at English. They communicated well because anglophones were so good at understanding them despite their poor English.
Anglophones, more than other linguistic groups, tend to treat everyone as linguistically equal when they speak English.
That is the formula for a good international language.
It’s not anglophones’ fault if francophones’ behavior has have ensured that French falls short of that ideal. After spending two hundred years using their native language to take advantage of people, they shouldn’t be surprised if people no longer bother learning it.
Though I’m sure that Lynne Truss and other English language snobs are wonderful people, for the sake of the English language, I hope that they remain the ridiculed and reviled minority that they are.
I don’t want my grandchildren to have to learn Chinese to speak to people from France.