French was once the dominant language of the world and the one language you had to learn if you wished to be cultured and worldly.
Times change. It’s perhaps the one rule of existence that applies to just about every aspect of that existence – from the humble translation business to space itself, things are always changing.
It’s problematic for creatures like human beings, with our limited ability to comprehend what’s going on around us (and I include myself in that description) because we have to put a lot of time and energy into understanding just the little bit of the universe we’re dealing with and when things change on us it can be traumatic.
On a larger scale, the same thing happens to languages and societies. For all the English-speakers in the world who feel smug and secure in their linguistic dominance because English is spoken so widely and is considered to be so vital to world society, I’d to remind you of French, which was once (and in some places, still is) considered the global language of society and diplomacy.
History is, of course, a study of the way things have changed. For the bulk of the people reading this who were born in a post-World War II era, France has always been a nice country to visit, with a reputation for great food, wine, and perhaps a slightly superior attitude. It’s easy to forget that France was once one of the greatest empires in the world, and dominated world politics and military campaigns for centuries.
The French language was the most widely-spoken language in Europe by the 14th Century, and in 1539 the French Court declared French to be the official language of its government. This sparked a high-water mark for French as it became absolutely necessary for anyone with an interest in world matters to learn French. French thus became the language of diplomacy for the simple reason that France was involved in just about every diplomatic effort around the world. At the same time, France was building a huge empire that spread French everywhere, from North America to Africa.
French and Higher Education
As a result, anyone who wished to appear worldly and well-bred learned French. Even in a time when women were not expected to be educated or trained for any particular work, ladies of high birth or rich background learned French solely so they could converse with foreign guests at parties. French was the de facto language of the world at large.
France’s decline in national prestige was coupled to a decline in the language itself. As England and, later, the USA rose in prominence, more and more people chose to learn English instead as a practical matter – it was the language of business and the language of the winners from the mid-19th Century to the present day. French has retained some of its glamour, but it’s not the most practical language to learn any more – that has become English.
The one thing this translation pro can tell you to count on? That this will change again, soon enough.
Image courtesy commons.wikimedia.org