Tearing Down the Tower of Babel: Grégoire and French Multilingualism

  • David A. Bell
Part of the Archives Internationales D’Histoire des Idées / International Archives of the History of Ideas book series (ARCH, volume 169)


In the winter of 1789–90, a wave of rioting, verging on rebellion, swept over southwestern France. In area after area, peasants attacked the agents and symbols of the seigneurial system that the National Assembly had supposedly ‘abolished’ the previous August, and demanded the return of seigneurial dues they had paid in the past. In some places, particularly in the departments of the Dordogne and the Lot, public order collapsed almost entirely, and representatives of the new, revolutionary government ventured abroad at their peril.1


Language Policy French Revolution French Language Regional Language Linguistic Difference 
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  1. 1.
    For the most recent studies of the disturbances, see Jean Boutier, Campagnes en émoi: Révoltes et Révolution en Bas-Limousin, 1789–1800 (Treignac, 1987), and John Markoff, The Abolition of Feudalism: Peasants, Lords and Legislators in the French Revolution (University Park, Penn., 1996), esp. pp. 203-426.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Réimpression de l’ancien moniteur, 32 vols. (Paris, 1847), vol. III, pp. 336-339. See also Markoff, pp. 542-547. For a bibliographical survey of the debate over the revolts, see Boutier, pp. 282-283.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Réimpression de l’ancien Moniteur, vol. III, pp. 336-337.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    On Grégoire’s linguistic initiatives, see above all Michel de Certeau, Dominique Julia and Jacques Revel, Une politique de la langue: La Révolution française et les patois (Paris, 1975). The questionnaire Grégoire used in the inquiry is reprinted on pp. 12-14, and the report to the Convention (“Rapport sur la nécessité et les moyens d’anéantir les patois et d’universaliser l’usage de la langue française,” 16 prairial an II) on pp. 300-317. In the report, Grégoire repeated the anecdote about décrets de l’Assemblée Nationale and décrets de prise de corps. Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Boutier’s book, the most systematic recent study, barely mentions the language issue at all, and does not consider it an important cause of the revolts (see esp. pp. 263-266). Markoff raises it only in passing, on p. 342.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    For a fuller discussion of these issues, see David A. Bell, “Lingua Populi, Lingua Dei: Language, Religion and the Origins of French Revolutionary Nationalism,” American Historical Review, vol. C (1995), pp. 1403-1437, esp. pp. 1411-1412. In order not to burden the following discussion with excessively extensive footnotes, in some cases I will instead cite the relevant sections of this previous, more in-depth article, which also contains extensive bibliographical references on the general issue of Revolutionary language policy.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Ibid., pp. 1410-1411.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Bertrand Barère, “Rapport du Comité de Salut Public sur les idiomes,” 8 plûviôse an II, reprinted in De Certeau et al, pp. 291-299, esp. p. 292.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Claire Asselin and Anne McLaughlin, “Patois ou français la langue de la Nouvelle France au dix-septième siècle,” Langage et société, no. 17 (1981), pp. 3-57.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    He summarized this aspect of his research in Yves Castan, “Les languedociens du 18e siècle et l’obstacle de la langue écrite,” 96e Congrès national des Sociétés savantes, Toulouse, 1971: Section d’histoire moderne et contemporaine (Paris, 1976), vol. I, pp. 73-84.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    This is not to suggest that significant dialectical differences did not exist, or that they did not inhibit communication. However, it seems clear to me, on the basis of the studies by Asselin and McLaughlin and Castan, and my own research, that the difficulties involved in communication have been systematically exaggerated, both by French republicans, and also by regionalist militants who have sought for their own reasons to differentiate their language as starkly as possible from French (see for instance Robert Lafont, Lettre ouverte aux Français d’un Occitan [Paris, 1973]). Grégoire is notably the most important eighteenth-century source for Eugen Weber’s chapter on language in Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870–1914 (Stanford, 1976), pp. 67-94.Google Scholar
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    On these points see Louis-Jean Chalvet, La sociolinguistique (Paris, 1993); Pierre Bourdieu, Language and Symbolic Power, Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson, trans. (Oxford, 1991).Google Scholar
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    Grégoire, in De Certeau et al., p. 302.Google Scholar
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    On this subject, see Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen; James R. Lehning, Peasant and French: Cultural Contact in Rural France during the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, 1995).Google Scholar
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  19. 19.
    Antoine Court de Gébelin, Le Monde primitif analysé et comparé avec le monde moderne (Paris, 1775); De Brosses, Traité de la formation méchanique des langues (Paris, 1765). See also Jeremias-Jakob Oberlin, Essai sur le patois lorrain (Strasbourg, 1775), which actually puts samples of lorrain, bourguignon and Old French side by side for purposes of comparison, and the survey of this literature in De Certeau et al., pp. 82-98.Google Scholar
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    Grégoire, in De Certeau et al., p. 304.Google Scholar
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    Ferdinand Brunot et al., Histoire de la Langue Française, des origines à 1900, 13 vols. (Paris, 1905-53).Google Scholar
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    Grégoire, in De Certeau et al., pp. 301, 306.Google Scholar
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    Henri Grégoire, Essai sur la régénération physique, morale et politique des Juifs (Metz, 1789), pp. 160, 161.Google Scholar
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    Napian, Eloge du patois (Toulouse, 1781, repr. Foix, 1890), p. 8. See also Antoine Gautier-Sauzin, “Réflexions sur le genre d’instruction publique qui conviendrait à nos campagnes méridionaux,” Archives nationales F171309, reprinted in De Certeau et al., pp. 259-263.Google Scholar
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    See Bell, “Lingua Populi, Lingua Dei,” pp. 1425-1431. They did not, however, do the same for northern French dialects.Google Scholar
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    See A. Brun, Recherches historiques sur l’introduction du français dans les provinces du midi (Paris, 1923), and L’introduction de la langue française en Béarn et Roussillon (Paris, 1923).Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    “… la causa damnada/ de nosta lenga mesprezada […] Cadun la leixa e desempara./ Tot lo mond l’apera barbara.” Pey de Garros, Poesias (Toulouse, 1887), p. 299.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    La douctrino crestiano meso en rimos (Toulouse, 1641), pp. 5-6. A copy of this rare publication can be found in the Bibliothèque Municipal de Toulouse, Réserve Dxviii 371.Google Scholar
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    The responses to Grégoire are dispersed among three locations: Augustin Gazier (éd.), Lettres à Grégoire sur les patois de France, 1790–1794 (Paris, 1880); Bibliothèque Nationale, Cabinet des Manuscrits, Nouvelles Acquisitions Françaises 2798; Bibliothèque de la Société de Port-Royal, Mss. Rév. 222-223. See the discussion in Bell, “Lingua Populi, Lingua Dei,” pp. 1425-1429.Google Scholar
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    For a more detailed discussion of this material, see ibid., pp. 1432-1434. Cf. V. E. Durkacz, The Decline of the Celtic Languages: A Study of Linguistic and Cultural Conflict in Scotland, Wales and Ireland from the Reformation to the Twentieth Century (Edinburgh, 1983); Geoffrey Parker, “Success and Failure During the First Century of the Reformation,” Past and Present, no. 136 (1992), pp. 43-82; Brunot, vol. V. In Protestant states, exceptions occurred mostly in regions where the language barriers were simply too high to easily eliminate, making the translation of scripture a necessity (for instance Wales, where the survival of the principality as a distinct political entity probably made the decision to translate an easier one).Google Scholar
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    See Brunot, vol. IX, part I, pp. 155-162; Dentzel, Rapport et projet de décret faits au nom de la commission de traduction, par le citoyen Dentzel, de Landau (Paris, 1792); also Brigitte Schlieben-Lange, “La politique des traductions,” Lengas, no. 17 (1985), pp. 97-126. The records of the official translation projects are located in Archives Nationales, AA 32.Google Scholar
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    See Bell, “Lingua Populi, Lingua Dei,” pp. 1419-1425.Google Scholar
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    See especially Antoine-Pascal-Hyacinthe Sermet, Discours prounounçat dabant la legiou de Sant-Ginest, Pel R. P. Sermet, Exproubincial des Carmes Descaussés, Predicairé ourdinari del Rey, & co. (Toulouse, 1790). A copy of this rare text can be found in Bibliothèque Municipal de Toulouse, Réserve Dxix 134, no. 4. It was reprinted in three other cities with minor dialectical alterations. For a detailed publishing history, and a list of Sermet’s other publications, see Henri Boyer, Georges Fournier, et al., Le texte occitan de la période révolutionnaire: Inventaire, approches, lectures (Montpellier, 1989).Google Scholar
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    See Bell, “Lingua Populi, Lingua Dei,” p. 1424.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., pp. 1424-1425.Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    Barère, in De Certeau et al., pp. 292-293. For his discussion of the Basques as a “new people” in danger of falling victim to priestly “fanaticism,” see p. 294.Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    See Bernard Plongeron, L’abbé Grégoire (1750-1831), ou l’Arche de la Fraternité (Paris, 1989); Ruth F. Necheles, The Abbé Grégoire, 1787-1831: The Odyssey of an Egalitarian (Westport, Connecticut, 1971).Google Scholar
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    See Grégoire, Essai sur la régénération …, pp. 188-189.Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    Ibid., p. 161.Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    Cited in De Certeau et al., p. 13.Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    See Michel Peronnet, “Réflexions sur ‘une série de questions relatives aux patois et aux moeurs des gens de la campagne,’ proposée par l’abbé Grégoire le 13 août 1790,” Lengas, no. 17 (1985), pp. 79-96.Google Scholar
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    De Certeau et al., p. 30.Google Scholar
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    See Brunot, vol. IX, part I, pp. 374-378, 396-397.Google Scholar
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    The “father of modern Breton” was the Jesuit Julien Maunoir. See Yannick Pelletier, ed., Histoire générale de la Bretagne et des Bretons, 2 vols. (Paris, 1990), vol. II, p. 508. Obviously, Breton, Basque, Flemish and German were not seen as forms of French.Google Scholar
  48. 48.
    Réimpression de l’ancien Moniteur, 22 December 1792, pp. 802-803.Google Scholar
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    On this circle, see David A. Bell, “Nation-Building and Cultural Particularism in Eighteenth-Century France: The Case of Alsace,” Eighteenth Century Studies, vol. 21, no. 4 (1988), pp. 472-490.Google Scholar
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    See Bibliothèque de la Société de Port-Royal, Correspondance Grégoire, Bas-Rhin, esp. lett. 7; cf. Brunot, vol. IX, pt. 1, p. 377.Google Scholar
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    See Ch. Pfister, Lettres de Grégoire à Jérémie-Jacques Oberlin (Nancy, n.d.). Oberlin participated in Grégoire’s inquiry on language, as well. See Gazier, Lettres à Grégoire, pp. 229-231; Jeremias-Jakob Oberlin, Observations concernant le patois et les moeurs des gens de la campagne (Strasbourg, 1791); letters by Oberlin to Grégoire in Bibliothèque Nationale, Cabinet des Manuscrits, Nouvelles Acquisitions Françaises 2798, ff. 95-96. See also Alyssa Sepinwall, “Regenerating France, Regenerating the World: The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution, 1750-1831,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Stanford University, 1998, pp. 35-68.Google Scholar
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    See Kurtz, pp. 56-57.Google Scholar
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    Henri Grégoire, Promenade dans les Vosges, ed. Arthur Benoît (Epinal, 1895), pp. 31-33; Kurtz, pp. 230-231, 276-277.Google Scholar
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    On the way in which the experience of the Revolution led to changing perceptions of France’s provinces, see the important article by Mona Ozouf, “La Révolution française et la perception de l’espace national: fédérations, fédéralisme et stéréotypes régionaux,” in L’école de la France: Essais sur la Révolution, l’utopie et l’enseignement (Paris, 1984), pp. 27-54.Google Scholar
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    Although they are too accepting of the regionalists’ claims, see R. D. Grillo, Dominant Languages: Language and Hierarchy in Britain and France (Cambridge, 1989), and Geneviève Verities and Josiane Boutet, eds., France, pays multilangue, 2 vols. (Paris, 1987).Google Scholar

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