International language(s)

Many non-native English speakers, speak the language fluently and often with hardly an accent, such as the Dutch. Since there are not too many Dutch speakers outside of The Netherlands, English is the common language that allows the Dutch to communicate with people around the world. This story repeats itself in many other countries around the world. English is, undoubtedly, today’s international language, the current lingua franca. However, this was not always the case. There was a time when Latin and later French were linguae francae.

Neo-Latin as Lingua Franca

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1648 Signing of the treaties of Osnabrück and Münster

Neo-Latin (aka New Latin and Modern Latin) the Latin of the Renaissance used for scholarly and scientific works between c.1375 ad c.1900. It was also the European common language, or lingua franca, and the language or diplomacy.

The 1648 treaties of Osnabrück and Münster ending the Thirty Years War that devastated Europe, were written in Latin because, in the 17th century, it was easier to find someone who could interpret Latin than English, French or Spanish.

Paradise-Lost International language(s)
Paradise Lost, epic poem by John Milton

In 1649, Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the “British Republic”, (1654 to 1658) appointed John Milton  Secretary for Foreign Tongues. Since Latin was the common language, John Milton’s job consisted of translating communications with foreign governments to and from Latin. When the Stuarts came back to power in 1660, John Milton returned to private life and wrote his  History of Britain and his famous and timeless epic poem, Paradise Lost.

 

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Martin Luther’s German Bible 

King George I of Great Britain, born Georg Ludwig, of Hanover, Germany did not master the English language, so he used Latin to communicate with Sir Robert Walpole, the first British prime minister between 1721 and 1742, who spoke neither English nor French.

Due to the growing movement toward national languages, the use of Neo-Latin declined in the 1700’s. In 1704, Isaac Newton, who started writing Optiks in Neo-Latin, finished it in English. Galileo Galilei, wrote in Latin c. 1600, but also in Italian to reach a larger audience. Christian Wolff, German philosopher  (1679–1754), wrote some works in German but used Latin primarily to reach a larger international audience (e.g., Philosophia moralis, 1750–53).  Martin Luther published the Bible in German because he believed that the Bible should be in the language of the people, rather than the traditional Latin. During the second half of the 18th Century, Latin ceased to be the main academic language in most of Europe but continued to be used until the 20th century when classical languages were no longer required study in academia.

French as the Language of Diplomacy

The last major international treaty written in Latin was the Treaty of Vienna signed 1738, ending the war of Polish succession. At the start of the 18th century,  French replaced Latin as the diplomatic language. Historically, this made sense. France had surpassed Spain as the most powerful country in Europe already in the 1600’s. Louis XIV, the Sun King, ushered in France’s golden age of art and literature, fashion, design, and architecture. The French economy was the most powerful in the world and other nations tried to emulate France.

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Peter the Great of Russia
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Catherine the Great of Russia

Tsar Peter the Great of Russia , was fascinated with the French nation and, during his reign (1682- 1696) and his wife Catherine the Great who succeeded him, began a forced modernization of Russia based on importing French culture. They directed Russian nobility to speak mainly French with each other and use Russian only to communicate with their servants and the Russian masses. This widened the cultural divide between the nobility and the Russian people and proved disastrous when Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 because the nobility spoke the enemy’s language and the Russian people suspected that they were spies. Not surprisingly, there was a revival of the Russian language after the Napoleonic wars (1803 – 1815).

The first treaty written in French was the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 that ended the war of Spanish succession was the first one to be drafted in French but by the 1770’s even treaties not involving France were being written in her language, such as the Treaty of Kutchuck Kainardji between Russia and Turkey in 1774.

Frederick-the-Great International language(s)
Frederick the Great of Prussia

In 1743, King Frederick the Great of Prussia ordered the proceedings of the Berlin Academy to be published in French, saying that “to be useful, academies should communicate their discoveries in the universal language, and that language is French”. In his “Mémoires pour servir a l’histoire de Brandebourg”, Frederik wrote that it had been writers during the reign of Louis XIV who made French the universal language of scholars, politicians, women and courtiers, replacing Latin as the lingua franca. King Frederik predicted that French would be heard in every civilized part of the continent, and become a requirement of polite society. He defended his decision to write in French instead of in his own language saying that it was not any stranger than it had been for a Roman during the time of Cicero to write in Greek. (Ref: The Pursuit of Glory: Europe, 1648-1815, By T. C. W. Blanning)

 English as lingua franca

In the aftermath of World War I, English began surpassing French on its way to becoming the world’s lingua franca. The movement toward English began with the colonization efforts of the British Empire that brought English to many regions of the world, such as Africa, Australia, India, New Zealand, and North America. Some regions maintained English as their language to avoid the complications of advancing one indigenous language over the others.

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The Treaty of Versailles – English version

The 1919 Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I – the war to end all wars (President Woodrow Wilson), was the first international treaty in both English and French. The treaty articulated the compromises reached at the conference, including the planned formation of the League of Nations that the U.S. President, Woodrow Wilson believed would serve to prevent future wars.

 

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President Wilson and dove of Peace

Unfortunately for President Wilson, his efforts on behalf of the League of Nations, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, fell short when the U.S. did not join. The British magazine Punch published a cartoon of Wilson offering an olive branch representing the League of Nations to a dove that is obviously too small to grasp it.

However, other nations moved forward with the formation of the League of Nations. The official languages were French, English, and Spanish. There was a move toward adding Esperanto as a lingua franca, but it did not materialize. The emblem of the League of Nations was imprinted with English on top and French at the bottom, perhaps a signal that English was climbing to the top as the new language of diplomacy.

The official languages of the League of Nations were French, English, and Spanish. There was a move toward adding Esperanto, a lingua franca, but this did not materialize. The emblem of the League of Nations was imprinted with English on top and French at the bottom, perhaps a signal that English was climbing to the top as the new language of diplomacy.

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Declaration by the United Nations

The League of Nations was powerless in the face of the Second World War and was dissolved in April 1946 at a final Assembly held in Geneva. But the seed for a union of nations working together for world peace had been planted and, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, coined the term “United Nations”. On January 1, 1942, representatives of 26 nations at war with the Axis powers met in Washington and signed the Declaration of the United Nations endorsing the Atlantic Charter, pledging to use their full resources against the Axis and agreeing not to make a separate peace. The League of Nations handed over its properties and assets to the United States Organization, including its crown jewel, the Palais des Nations, in Geneva.

Hollywood International language(s)
Proliferation of English language media

In the aftermath of World War II, the movement toward English as a lingua franca was significantly strengthened by the economic, financial, scientific, military and cultural pre-eminence of English-speaking countries, particularly the United States and the proliferation of English language media. It is difficult to pinpoint when the switch from French to English reached “critical mass’, but it was probably in the early days of the 20th century.

Approximately 330 to 360 million people speak English as their first language. It is the third largest language after Mandarin and Spanish. but add the hundreds of millions of people around the world who speak English as their second language, and English is easily the most widely spoken language in the world. Estimates including second language speakers vary between 470 million to more than 1 billion. English is the common language of international Air Traffic Control communications. Much to the chagrin of the French, English has become the most widely used language of diplomacy. But France has not given up on its quest to remain the language of diplomacy and they may be tilting at windmills in their quest to maintain the French language free from anglicisms.

The 1994 Toubon law decreed that all advertising in France must be in French, and public services are expected to find French equivalents for any English words that make their way into the language. The reason why it is easier for France to maintain the purity of the languages where other countries would not is that few languages are as protected as French is in France. Her language is protected by the laws of the Académie Française, founded in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister to King Louis XIII; the government limits the number of non-French songs that may be played on the radio and, now and again, a company will be prosecuted for an excess of anglicisms. History and tradition are two of the reasons why after more than a century, French remains as one of the two UN working languages. After all this time French-language diplomatic education is excellent; there are very well trained French translators in international organizations, like the International Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières, that prefer French; diplomatic traditionalists lean toward French, and French is the official language of several African nations. However, in the Johnson blog, The Economist correspondents argue that the motivation to keep French is due more to tradition than economics. Languages, like Arabic and Spanish, would yield a higher return on investment because both languages have a larger number of speakers than French and are geographically widespread, but also, Spanish-speaking countries are enthusiastic participants in international bodies.

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UN headquarters in New York, along the East River in Manhattan
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Palais des Nations overlooking Lake Geneva

However, after more than a century, French remains as one of the two UN working languages. This makes sense considering that, after all, this time, French-language diplomatic education is excellent; there are very well trained French translators in international organizations, like the International Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières, that prefer French; diplomatic traditionalists lean toward French, and French is the official language of several African nations. However, a blog named Johnson, after the dictionary-maker, Samuel Johnson, where The Economist correspondents argue about the uses and abuses of languages, reports that the motivation to keep French is due more to tradition than economics. Languages, like Arabic and Spanish, would yield a higher return on investment. Both languages have a larger number of speakers than French and are geographically widespread, but also, Spanish-speaking countries are enthusiastic participants in international bodies.

It is fairly common knowledge that the headquarters of the UN are in New York,  in a prime location stretching along the East River, but what may not be so well-known is that the second largest United Nations center is the Office at Geneva (UNOG), Switzerland, housed in the Palais des Nations, in a beautiful park overlooking Lake Geneva. UNOG is a focal point for multilateral diplomacy, and one of the world’s busiest conference centers. As long as Geneva remains an international center, do not say “au revoir” to French.

References:

The Formation of the United Nations, 1945
https://history.state.gov/milestones/1937-1945/un

Simeon Potter. Our Language (Penguin Books, 1964), p. 180.

Languages of diplomacy – Towards a fairer distribution, The Economist Apr 2nd 2013, 1:56 BY S.A.P. | GENEVA  http://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2013/04/languages-diplomacy

Don’t say au revoir to French just yet – Marie-Helene Martin https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/feb/11/france-official-language-battle

English Speaking World
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English-speaking_world

As the Johnson blog concludes, as long as Geneva remains an international center, French is not going anywhere.

 

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