The Destruction of the Langues d’Oil Was a Deliberate Project

I got this from a paper on Academia. We see many typical arguments here against the use of dialects and sub-languages of the main prescriptive official language – that speaking them indicates that one is rural, uneducated, backwards, stupid, and not modern, cool, hip, urban, intelligent, and educated. Hence this process of wanting to dissociate with the old backwards ways and associate with the new modern ways continues today.

I was involved for a bit with a German woman in the US. She spoken Hessian, which is actually a separate language under the rubric of High German or Standard German. It is spoken in the Hesse, a wine-growing region in the central-west. She still spoke Hessian, but she told me it was not popular for the reasons above – it meant you were backwards, stupid and uneducated.

She also said something interesting about mutual intelligibility.

We see also the unifying effect of the Jacobin French Revolution, one of the most progressive revolutions the world had seen up until that time. In fact the American and French revolutions were modeled on each other. This was a progressive, modernizing revolution the likes of which had never been seen before. Egalite, liberte, and fraternite – Equality, freedom, and fraternity. It was also quite anti-religious, giving rise to something called laicism or extreme secularism in France.

The idea was to unify all Frenchmen under a single language. The local patois in addition to the other languages non-related to French such as Flemish, Basque, Catalan, the various Occitan and Arpetin languages, Breton, Alsatian, Moselle Franconian, etc. were seen as impeding in particular the fraternite or assimilitory aspects of the Revolution. They also kept people backwards, stupid and perhaps even promoted inequality and lack of freedom, both of which were associated with the ancien regime.

We also see how the local patois were tied into the land, the landscape, the stars, the times of day, the seasons, the foods, the plants and animals, the very lifeblood of the people. To uproot the patois would be to destroy people’s intimate connection with all of these things.

As all of these earthly connections were considered the realm of savagery – after all, the modern man was to liberate himself from the natural world and rule over or move beyond it – the civilization versus savagery motif also came into play. As you can see, lack of patois was seen as due to healthier lives, better food and water, more human interaction, and more money and higher level of civilization. Patois was associated with poor food and water, even poor weather, lack of sociability, poverty, and lack of integration into the monied economy.

As you can see, the development of capitalism in France also played a role here. The rural areas were to be forced into the capitalist mode whether they wanted to or not.

In epistemological terms the aim of Modernity is unequivocally to do away with the Old World, and the French Revolution provided precisely that opportunity. In order to align nature with productive forces, existing environmental regulations had to be done away with at the end of the 18th century (Chappey & Vincent, 2019, p. 109).

Not coincidentally it was also at that same period, from 1790 on, that the Revolutionary governments of France sought to survey the use of ‘patois’ in order to uproot them and replace them with the language of Reason (Certeau, Julia, & Revel, 1975) or at least a revolutionary version of it (Steuckardt, 2011). In line with the Ideologues’ project, this linguistic project was devised to gain knowledge and use this knowledge to transform (and improve) living conditions in the country.

So next, language.

Nowhere is the pre-modern vernacular connection between language and what we now call ‘nature’ better expressed than in a response given to Grégoire’s 1790 survey on patois by the Société des Amis de la Constitutions of Perpignan, in the Catalan-speaking part of France. Asked about how to eradicate the local patois, they retorted:

To destroy it, one would have to destroy the sun, the freshness of the nights, the kind of foods, the quality of waters, man in its entirety. (Certeau et al., 1975, p. 182).

Conversely, in a 1776 account of life in Burgundy, Rétif de la Bretonne accounted for the lack of patois in the village of Nitry in contrast with surrounding areas by resorting to natural explanations: purer air, better grains producing better bread, dairy products, superior eggs, and animal flesh. All those elements were then correlated with the practice of commerce, which brought inhabitants in contact with other localities and generated the need to speak politely (Certeau et al., 1975, pp. 277–278).

In the next village of Saci [where patois was apparently still spoken] one mile away, however, stagnant waters caused the air to be “devouring,” and the local inhabitants to be “heavy, ruminative, and taciturn” (ibid. 278).

In France, the patois are forms of non-language that index a state of wilderness and superstition and point to the savage (Certeau et al., 1975, Chapter 8) – forms of knowledge and practices which were to be uprooted pointing to an absence of a rational outlook on the world and a lack of industriousness (Bonneuil & Fressoz, 2016) and lust for more money over time.

In that particular view, the patois are immediately transparent forms of language: they are isomorphous with nature and with emotions. Along with the ways of life of their speakers and mores, they are susceptible to description in the natural science sense of the term: mere mechanical facts to be described (Certeau et al., 1975, p. 154). In this representation, mores are opposed to civilization (ibid. 155), rurality to urban life, and patois to language; access to language is thus tantamount to access to civilization.

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9 thoughts on “The Destruction of the Langues d’Oil Was a Deliberate Project”

  1. Standard Dutch used to be called ABN = Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands = General Civilized Dutch. It is no longer called that. Now it is simply called de standaardtaal = the standard language. It is arrogant, disrespectful and prejudiced to call dialects uncivilized and their speakers barbarians.

    On the other hand, dialects are often lexically inferior to the standard language because they are only used in the daily life of ordinary people, not in science, technology, philosophy, politics, law, religion or higher education. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any dialect, but most dialects are not what the Germans call a Kultursprache. Many aren’t even written languages.

    There is a huge difference between advocating linguistic unity in the country because of its practical advantages and by demanding that there be only one language of instruction and administration, and between advocating the complete suppression of dialects because they are contemptible patois. One position is pragmatic, and the other repressive.

    Dialects can very well coexist with a standard language. If the standard language is the language of writing, instruction and administration, and if everybody is literate, then there can be diglossia for many people. They use their dialect to talk to their friends, relatives and neighbors, and they use the standard language in other contexts and for all their reading and writing. My parents spoke a dialect, but every written word they ever encountered was in standard Dutch.

      1. The dialect that they spoke was Drents, which roughly covers the province of Drenthe. In Northern Drenthe, the dialect is Gronings. Groningen lies between Friesland and Germany. Gronings has a Frisian substrate, which is manifested for instance in the ending st for all second persons of the singular, which is found in Frisian too.

        1. I’m familiar with both lects. They are part of a language called North Saxon. I think it is related to Dutch. Can a Dutch speaker understand a Drents speaker? Can a Drents speaker understand a Gronings speaker? Are Dutch and Gronings still widely spoken?

          1. Aren’t they part of Lower Saxon? If I’m not mistaken, the Dutch lects can be divided into three groups: Frisian, Lower Saxon (spoken in the north), and Lower Frankish (spoken in the rest of the NL and Flanders).

            I would say that mutual intelligibility between Dutch and Drents is greater than between Dutch and Gronings. It probably is hard to measure because unilingual Drents-speakers and Gronings-speakers have died out. My father, who left the NL in 1953, spoke Drents with Dutch, while his brothers, who never emigrated, spoke Dutch with Drents toward the end of their lives. I’m sure that television played a big role in that.

            As to the today’s usage, a few years ago I got on a bus in Hoogeveen (population 60,000) and when I heard the driver, a female of about 30, I thought: “Wow, she sounds exactly like my mother.” On a train ride in Drenthe, also a few years ago, a young couple sitting in front of me was speaking Drents, and a middle-aged couple sitting behind was doing the same. The Dutch Wikipedia says that Drents is still spoken by half of the population of Drenthe.

            Drenthe is losing people of working age to the west of the country, but is attracting many retirees form the west. There was even a verb created for them: drentenieren. Rentenieren means to be retired, and drentenieren means to be retired in Drenthe.

          2. Yes, Low Saxon, not North Saxon.

            I would mean how much can a Dutch speaker understand of Drents or Groningen?

            How much can you understand of the other Low Saxon lects?

  2. I can’t really give you a definite answer to the question about the ability of a Dutch-speaker to understand Drents. I hazard the guess that a Dutch-speaker from the West who goes to retire in a Drents village will be able to understand the local dialect-speakers after a few months.

    A cousin of mine who lives in Groningen once played a tape of a Groninger speaking Gronings. I understood everything.

    The lect in the NL which is really different from the others is Frisian. Sometimes they have quite different words.

    English: father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, child, grandchild, girl, to give, to do, to make, to see, horse, chicken.

    Dutch: vader, moeder, opa, oma, kind, kleinkind, meisje, geven, doen, maken, zien, paard, kip.

    Frisian: heit, mem, pake, beppe, bern, pakesizzer or beppesizer, famke, jaan, dwaan, meitsje, sjen, hynder, hin.

    1. That’s about 40-55% intelligibility, if it takes them three months to learn it. Looks like the various Low Saxon lects understand each other pretty well. Frisian-Dutch intelligibility is said to be 54%, about like Spanish and Portuguese. Dutch-Afrikaans intelligibility is 65%.

  3. If the mutual intelligibility between Dutch and Frisian is 54%, then that between Drents or Gronings and Dutch has to be much higher, 80% maybe.

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