February 15, 2007

Is French the safest language for legal purposes?

Beth Milton wrote to remind us all of the recent efforts by the Committee for the Language of European Law -- or rather, we should say, le Comité Pour la Langue du Droit Européen (CPLDE) -- to make French the official legal language of Europe. There's a good description at EurActiv.com: "Group pushes to bolster French-language legal supremacy", 2/12/2007. (This article is also available as "Une campagne pour défendre la suprématie du français sur le plan juridique" and "Initiative zur Förderung von Französisch als erste Amtssprache"). Other stories on the same topic: "Campaign to make French sole legal language in EU", IHT, 2/7/2007; "Francophiles seek primacy for language of Montesquieu", EU Observer, 2/8/2007; David Charter, "French wheel out Napoleon to lay down the law", Times Online, 2/9/2007.

My favorite part of the EurActiv story:

CPLDE leader Maurice Druon, well-known author and Academie Française secretary said: "All languages are equal and all the national sensitivities are duly protected. However, as regards the interpretation of texts it is better to be certain what we are writing. The Italian language is the language of song, German is good for philosophy and English for poetry. French is best at precision, it has a rigour to it. It is the safest language for legal purposes...The language of Montesquieu is unbeatable."

Or, in the language of Montesquieu himself:

Selon le président du CPLDE, Maurice Druon, auteur renommé et secrétaire de l'Académie Française: "Toutes les langues sont égales et toutes les sensibilités nationales sont dûment protégées. Cependant, en ce qui concerne l'intérprétation des textes, il vaut mieux être certain de ce que l'on écrit. L'italien est la langue des chansons, l'allemand est bon pour la philosophie et l'anglais pour la poésie. Le français est une langue plus précise et rigoureuse. C'est la langue la plus sûre pour les questions juridiques... la langue de Montesquieu est imbattable".

Though I'm hesitant to question one of the forty immortals, I believe that M. Druon has remembered the joke incorrectly. At least, the version that I've heard is different:

In Heaven, the cooks are French, the policemen are English, the mechanics are German, the lovers are Italian, and it's all organized by the Swiss. But in Hell, the cooks are English, the policemen are German, the mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss, and it's all organized by the Italians.

I haven't heard a variant that mentions lawyers and judges, but I suppose that the category of "policemen" might be extended to cover the legal system as a whole. Or perhaps we ought to assign law to the general governance function that's stereotypically handled by the Swiss in heaven and the Italians in Hell.

The CPLDE is mostly backwash from French internal politics, I think -- but let's treat it temporarily as if it were an intellectually serious endeavor. Or rather, I should say, "treat it permanently as if it were serious", by which I should be understood to mean "treat it seriously until I stop doing so".

This emendation is suggested by the last line of Maurice Druon's biography at the French Academy's web site:

Élu secrétaire perpétuel le 7 novembre 1985. Démissionne de cette fonction en octobre 1999. Secrétaire perpétuel honoraire à partir du 1er janvier 2000.

Elected perpetual secretary on 7 November, 1985. Resigns from this post in October 1999. Honorary perpetual secretary since the 1 st of January, 2000.

The Academy's page about "the immortals" explains that

La qualité d’académicien est une dignité inamovible. Nul ne peut démissionner de l’Académie française. Des exclusions peuvent être prononcées par la Compagnie pour de graves motifs entachant l’honneur ; ces exclusions au cours de l’histoire ont été rarissimes.

The position of academician is a never-changing honor. No one can resign from the French Academy. Expulsions can be announced by the Company for serious reasons of sullied honor; these expulsions in the course of history have been extremely rare.

We have here, I think, a truly impressive demonstration of the precise and rigorous nature of the French language. Because the position of academician is in fact perpetual, it it would be inappropriately redundant and even insulting to call it that. Académicien perpétuel? As drone man might say, is there any other kind of academician? You tell me right now! On the other hand, the essentially temporary nature of the post of secretary makes the designation secrétaire perpétuel relevant and even necessary. Similarly, because of the temporary character of my seriousness about the question of French as the best language for the law, we should describe it as permanent.

I hope that's clear.

In any case , in the interests of a serious discussion of the suitability of various European languages for legal discourse, I suggest that we ought to arrange a debate between M. Druon of the CPLDE and Jean-Claude Sergeant, professeur de civilisation britannique at the University of Paris III, who wrote not long ago in the Courrier International:

Dans sa configuration actuelle, l'anglais courant se caractérise d'abord par un extrême souci de cohérence et d'explicitation proche de la redondance.

In its present configuration, everyday English is characterized first by an extreme concern for coherence and for explicitness approaching redundancy.

Perhaps this is also what makes it best for poetry, and inappropriate for the law, from a French point of view.

At some point, I'll see if I can find a serious comparison of legal French and legal English. We'd start with the observation that legal English is full of terms borrowed from Norman French, though this was the result of military conquest rather than arguments about superior rigor and precision.

Meanwhile, here is a sample of previous Language Log posts about the politics of the French language:

Clarity and respect (1/5/2005)
France officially adopts the German pronunciation of "blog" (6/3/2005)
She's working from her coffeepot (7/15/2005)
Roll over Bourbaki, and tell Cholesky the news (7/19/2005)
If we look, simply, to the French (7/29/2005)
Paradoxes of the imagination (9/29/2005)
The miserable French language and its inadequacies (9/30/2005)
The truth about French (9/30/2005)
Another overearnest comedy of fact checking (10/1/2005)
Warmth and the French language (10/3/2005)
The discreet charm of French orthography (5/7/2006)
Dietetic phonetics, exposed! (10/15/2006)
French report: It's lucky Copernicus had grammar (12/18/2006)
Cultural specificity and universal values (12/22/2006)

[Updates --

Geoff Nunberg adds to the lore of national stereotyping in the afterlife: "And in hell, one version continues, every summer the American tourists come." But since the fall of the dollar against the euro, not so much.

Steve Treuer draws our attention to the related quotation, attributed to Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire (Charles I of Spain): "I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse." Or (since at the time he was presumably speaking to a man), "Je parle espagnol a Dieu, italien aux femmes, francais aux hommes at allemand a mon cheval." There's a thread with many other versions in the Humanist archives from 1991. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 15, 2007 07:34 AM