Language: French takes leave of Belgium
22 December 2009
Not just in international institutions but everywhere in Brussels the French language continues to lose ground to English. As Le Monde's Belgian correspondent explains, in a country with no lingua franca, the language of Shakespeare allows speakers to avoid choosing between French and Flemish.
At the daily dog and pony show, which is the European Commission's press conference for the hundreds of correspondents reporting from Brussels, French is increasingly fighting for survival. Along with English, it is one of the two official languages authorized at these rather gloomy events, where spokespersons for President Barroso and diverse commissioners come to field questions from the media. An increasing number of these officials – through absentmindedness, for political reasons, or simply because they do not feel comfortable with the Gallic tongue – tend to avoid using French. On occasion, they are called to order by francophone journalists, who can count on the support of colleagues from Latin countries and Eastern Europe, as well as a sizeable contingent of Germans, who have no trouble speaking English, but simply believe that proceedings should not be dominated by one single language.
Elsewhere in the Belgian capital, at NATO headquarters, the French language is even more endangered. Notwithstanding its status as the Atlantic Alliance's second language, it is hardly ever used at official meetings and information sessions. American hegemony, a succession of mainly anglophone general secretaries, the complex situation of France – which has one foot in the alliance and another elsewhere – and the limited numbers of francophone media correspondents have all contributed to the overwhelming dominance of English.
Going to the "Bozar"
In the largely bilingual Brussels region, where 90% of people speak French, the progressive erosion of the language is not only confined to large international institutions. According to the Maison de la Francité (MdF), an organization, which is financed by the regional parliament, to promote francophone culture, English is making increasing inroads in everyday speech. In a recently published brochure, MdF highlighted a level of anglicization that may be explained by Brussels' role as an international capital, but which is nonetheless alarming. "English enables organizations and companies to escape from the logic of multilingualism, but it also minimizes the real importance of French," explains Serge Moureaux, President of the MdF.
What can the defenders of the language of Voltaire do to stem the rising tide of anglicisms? Apparently, not much. The official report from the MdF is under no illusions. In official communiques from the Belgian administration, from companies (both public and private), and in the worlds of culture and the media, English is increasingly prevalent – almost comically so. In offices, people pour over "prints" with "slashs en bold," the slogan for the national airline is "Flying your way," and the Belgian capital has just inaugurated a new a conference facility, which has been officially christened "Brussels Meeting Center." And the prevalence of English is not only a matter of loan words, French spelling is also under attack in a city where locals buy commuter tickets from a "Bootik," declare their incomes via a "Tax on Web" service, and watch movies at the "Cinamatek," or attend exhibitions at the "Bozar" (Beaux Arts i.e. Fine Arts).
A glossary of approved words
But why, you may ask, would French speakers subject their mother tongue to such shoddy treatment? Because English is now acknowledged as a common idiom, which establishes a basic understanding between people. Because it enables people to diplomatically avoid using either Flemish or French, two of Belgium's three official languages – the third one being German. Because, as writer and journalist Nichola Crousse explains in Le Complexe belge (Anabet Editions), in a region where "language is a loaded issue," English is perceived as neutral. Not only is Belgium a country without a lingua franca – after all, no one speaks Belgian – but Belgians are tired of being patronized by their neighbours in France and the Netherlands who perceive Belgian French and Flemish as quaint local dialects. Perhaps they have heard it said once too often that so-and-so is very "well-spoken for a Belgian."
In a touching and slightly desperate attempt to reclaim lost territory, the MdF has brought out a glossary which aims to limit the spread of anglicisms, which it divides into two categories: those that are appropriate for circulation, and those which should be replaced by arcane French equivalents. Francophone Belgians will no doubt heave a sigh of relief, now that they have been granted official sanction to make use of such handy terms as "milk-shake," "call-girl" and "pole position." But it is hard to know how they will respond to restrictions on "bulldozer," "chatter" and "camping-car," which the authors of the glossary want to see replaced by "bouteur," "clavarder," and "autocaravane."