That’s how many words the French Ministry of Education has decided to change in order to simplify the language, making it easier for ‘disadvantaged’ pupils to learn.
By being able to spell oignon as ognon, such pauvres will now be empowered to tread a shining path to social advancement, at the end of which they’ll be trading, if not necessarily understanding, obtuse philosophical concepts with the graduates of France’s best Ecoles (most of whom don’t understand such concepts either, but have been expertly trained to hide these gaps behind obfuscation).
While at it, the French Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem will land a few other blows on the jaw of ‘elitism’, her bogeyman, by, for example, getting rid of a few confusing verbal tenses. (As a side benefit, she’ll make it easier for her Moroccan relations to write applications for benefits when they join her in France.)
There goes the last bastion of Europe’s linguistic propriety, and just to think that this latest act of subversion was recommended by the Académie française, a body created in 1635 specifically to protect the French language from populist onslaught. Cardinal Richelieu must be spinning like a top in his grave.
Now even though I spend almost half my time in France, my own French ill-qualifies me to act as a guardian of this beautiful language. However, I can’t help making a few observations.
Tyranny is an omnipresent part of the human condition, and despotic governments have popped up throughout history. However, modern, post-Enlightenment tyranny has a certain je ne sais quoi that’s all its own.
For modern despots are without exception populists – they tyrannise people in the name of the people, pretending that the people are governing themselves. Since they can’t claim divine right as a legitimising factor, they seek legitimacy in the mythical ‘will of the people’ or ‘consent of the governed’.
No one ever specifies when such will was expressed or such consent given, nor how, short of a violent outburst, the people can change their mind. Hence the people’s reluctance to overthrow the government by force is taken as consent.
Being populist, modern governments seek, or rather pretend to seek, popular support. This is where democratic and totalitarian regimes converge. Where they differ is in the methods by which they create the façade of people’s enthusiasm.
Totalitarian regimes rely on violence, supported by mass propaganda. Democratic regimes more or less eschew violence, which leaves propaganda as the most productive mechanism of power.
Both types correctly see an ability to control language as a sine qua non of their self-perpetuation. George Orwell satirised this brilliantly, but he focused only on totalitarian regimes.
Being an excellent writer but not much of a political thinker, he failed to notice that all modern regimes are populist and therefore tyrannical, for people can’t govern themselves. The control of their lives remains in the hands of a small elite, and whether it ascends to power via a coup or the voting booth is immaterial.
Since all modern regimes are populist, and since they largely govern by what I call glossocracy, control of language, they have to make language populist too. Part and parcel of the whole process is their desire to smash tradition, for traditional governments had no room for the likes of modern glossocrats.
Hence you’ll notice that all manifestly modern governments, regardless of their self-professed politics, seek to smash linguistic tradition as well. This destructive urge is always camouflaged as making the language more accessible to ‘disadvantaged’ hoi polloi.
Thus traditional English spelling had to be changed in revolutionary America, traditional Russian spelling in revolutionary Russia, traditional Chinese spelling in revolutionary China – and in revolutionary Turkey Atatürk imposed a whole new alphabet.
Controlling the language is tantamount to controlling the people – on this score all modern governments agree. Never mind that linguistic tradition has developed over centuries, if not millennia, to reflect the unique character of the nation using the language.
Never mind that the structure of a language is shaped around the way people think, and the spelling around the way they speak. It’s no accident, for example, that a rigidly disciplined word order is more characteristic of the languages spoken in Western than Eastern Europe. It’s not a random coincidence that the dynamic English language revolves around the verb, the action word, while Russian favours nouns, often inflected to convey static nuances of emotion.
A government messing with language by decree is therefore implicitly stating its desire to change the people’s nature, making it more amenable to being ruled by decree.
This is despotism pure and simple and, as if to vindicate my argument that all modern governments are tyrannical to various extents, the French state has now obligingly followed suit.
Cardinal Richelieu, where are you when we, and not just the French, need you?