By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
July 07, 2016
For all intents and purposes, GB (Great Britain) has not only lost its political and economic standing within the EU (European Union), it has also lost its linguistic clout. English, French and German are the three working languages of the EU. Documents are published in these three languages, but its business is conducted primarily in English. Now, the EU has demanded that Great Britain take its language and leave. It’s almost like asking Great Britain to take the great out of its name.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the French language ruled the world, Trinidad was part of that mix. In the 19th century 75 percent of Trinidadians spoke French and a nice patois. Our newspapers were published in French and English simultaneously and even some of our early calypsos were rendered in patois.
In that period our leading scholars were versed in French and Latin and were acquainted with the classics. When J. J. Thomas published his Theory and Practices of Creole Grammar (1869), it was meant to assist court proceedings and other institutions in which the official business was carried on in English although ordinary people spoke Creole. Thomas claimed that Creole was a combination of French and African languages.
During that period we, in Trinidad, by virtue of our immersion in what was the most important language in the Western world, were in the forefront of intellectual thought and ideas. This helps to explain the international reach of thinkers such as Thomas, L. B. Tronchin-the foremost intellectual of the time, and Michel Maxwell Philip, author of Emmanuel Appadocca (1854), perhaps the first novel in the British West Indies.
The rise of the English language in the twentieth century (“the sun never sets on the British Empire”) and the dominant presence of the United States globally led to a guerilla takeover by the English language. By the end of the century English became the dominant language in the Western world. Anyone who wishes to participate in international trade and/or science must be acquainted with it. Within the EU, English gradually established itself “as the main medium of communication between Eurocrats who do not share a common language” (Financial Times, June 28.)
Here’s the paradox. When Britain leaves the Union, English would still remain the most widely used language in the EU even though France is kicking hell against the idea. Only two EU member states, Ireland and Malta, with a combined population of 5 million out of a total EU population of 500 million people, are English-speaking states. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a French presidential candidate, has declared that “the English language has no legitimacy in Brussels,” the headquarters of the EU.
But we in Trinidad have had a long association with French. On August 1, 1849, during an Emancipation dinner, John O’Brien boasted of our French connection. He noted that Alexandre Dumas, “a descendant of a son of still degraded Africa…prides himself upon it [his blackness] and lest he should be mistaken, he nobly and exultingly points to his curly hair” (The Trinidadian, August 8, 1849).
Such pride in race was reinforced by the fact that Alex Dumas, Alexandre’s father, was “the most imposing as well as possibly the most respected” of Napoleon’s officers when Napoleon invaded Egypt (Tom Reis, The Black Count). What many did not know was that Alex, the son of Marquis de la Pailleterie and his black slave Ceselle, was born in Haiti.
The French have always taken pride that its writers and thinkers best reflect the French mindset. Sudhir Hazareesingh, an Oxford scholar, has argued that “Alexandre Dumas’ novels gave the French people more of an impression of their royalist past than all the historians of the age” (How to Think in French). They have always been proud of their reflective thinking as opposed to the British, a practical community, “solid and not given to chasing bubbles.”
One is not too sure how solid and practical the Brits’ decision to leave the Union was. However, one thing is sure. The rest of the community, particularly the French, are happy they have taken back their language and restored it to its rightful linguistic glory: a language that expresses “a confident optimism, underpinned by a belief in France’s cultural superiority.”
It may have been a long hiatus but soon the French language, “the instrument of universal reason” will prevail against the melancholic characteristic of the English language. As for we in Trinidad and Tobago, now that the French language may return to its former glory, one hopes that intellectual sophistication and joie de vivre (cheerful enjoyment of life) returns to our happy isles once more. Go on France, T&T is behind you.