2022-11-23 兰陵笑笑生 5964

When did English truly overtake French as the language of diplomacy?


Alexey Tereshchenko
On 28 June 1919.
On this date, the Treaty of Versailles was signed. Instead of being composed solely in French, as tradition demanded, it had two equivalent versions, in French and in English.
The French language, popular since Middle Ages, became even more so during the reign of Louis XIV when France was the strongest power in Europe. Displacing Latin and Italian, it became the language of European diplomacy.
After the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, France had irreversibly lost its status of leading power to Britain. However, it did not affect the status of the French language. Britain became an undisputed leader of the world, a hegemonic power. By 1914 it controlled one quarter of the world. But only businessmen and sea captains learned English. Diplomats and international organizations continued to use French.


Most British who went abroad learned French, although British diplomats made it their point to speak English and have translators. A Briton who lived abroad but did not want to learn the international language was one of the typical images of 19th-century literature and was ridiculed by both British and continental authors (though British authors saw this refusal as patriotic and, while laughable, deserving some respect).
Even in 1870, when France was crushed and humiliated by the Germans, the text of the peace treaty was uniquely in French. So when the Paris Peace Conference started in 1919, after the long-awaited French revanche against the Germans, French prime minister Georges Clemenceau and his associate Stephen Pichon proposed to draft the new peace treaty in French and they did not expect any obxtions.


Georges Clemenceau and Stéphen Pichon
However, one person obxted. It was the US President Woodrow Wilson. He acknowledged that French had been the language of diplomacy in Europe but stated there was a new great power that was not European and spoke only English.
Pichon obxted, mentioning that the US had already participated in diplomatic conferences where French had been the only official language. Furthermore, he said that it was unjust to rob France of its historic privilege in the wake of the war that caused so much suffering to the French people. Wilson was adamant: according to the US Constitution, all treaties had to be submitted to the Senate where they did not know any French. He found support from British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who emphasized that the number of English speakers worldwide was much bigger than the number of French speakers.


Woodrow Wilson and David Lloyd George
The French delegates made a last ditch effort to salvage the prestige of French: they proposed to include Italian as a third official language of the peace conference and the treaty. It would have downplayed the status of English. However, the proposal was defeated. According to a historian,
Thus, more than 200 years of French language dominance on the international scene came to an end.
Neither Wilson nor Lloyd George spoke any French while Clemenceau spoke perfect English, having lived in the US and having married an American. As a result, English became the dominant language of the Paris Peace Conference: of the ‘Big Four’, only Vittorio Emanuele Orlando of Italy could not speak English.


‘Big Four’ of the Paris Peace Conference: David Lloyd George, Vittorio Orlando, Georges Clemenceau and Woodrow Wilson
Thus, ironically, the hard-won French victory in World War I marked the first step in the decline of the French language as an international one. The numerical and economic strength of English speakers meant it could only go downhill. Now that English was given an equal status, it was only a matter of time for it to become the sole international language.

巴黎和平会议的 "四巨头"。大卫-劳埃德-乔治、维托里奥-奥兰多、乔治-克里蒙梭和伍德罗-威尔逊

John Cate
I’m kind of surprised that the Germans didn’t force the French to sign the Treaty of Frankfurt in German. I guess custom was so well-seated by 1871 that they never thought of it.
I guess it was humiliating enough to the French with the location where Wilhelm I was crowned as Deutscher Kaiser.


Alexey Tereshchenko
I was surprised, too. I think I’ve read the story for the first time in Kissinger’s book on history of diplomacy (quite well written, btw).


Ray Hart
The book is quite well edited. He is actually a horrible prose writer by all accounts.


Loic Caquelard
It never bothered me. I assume the Prussians still had the same respect for the French language and its symbolic importance. France eternal enemy had always been the Britains until World War 1 and still they spoke a varying amount of French in varying layers of their society.
Besides, what the Prussians - and the other countries that were after our skin at that time - had against France was mostly our republic and Naopleon’s legacy. There would have been no Franco-German war in 1870 if the French Revolution had not put the French monarchy to rest. The language having been officialised as a symbol of the monarchy, the kingdom and its unity, I don’t think it was associated with the republican madness that our


Robin Nicollet
Those people don’t think like us. They don’t care at all about their languages in these occasions.
They just have customs and habits to respect.


Evangelos Lolos
Thus, more than 200 years of French language dominance on the international scene came to an end.
While I definitely agree that English became a very strong challenger at that time, I’m not quite sure whether it actually surpassed French after WWI or after WWII.
For example, the Treaty of Sèvres signed in 1920 had French as its primary language with English and Italian being secondary.
Another case from WWII, when the Italian envoy presented an ultimatum to the Greek prime minister Ioannis Metaxas, his reply was "Alors, c'est la guerre", even though Metaxas had received German education.
Of course, those might be not enough to make the case for French remaining predominant (even if less so), one would have to do an analysis of all major treaties, but I’d dare say that just looking at the Treaty of Versailles isn’t enough.

二战中的另一个案例是,当意大利特使向希腊总理伊奥尼斯-梅塔克萨斯提出最后通牒时,他的回答是 "Alors, c'est la guerre(那么,这是一场战争)",尽管梅塔克萨斯曾接受过德国教育。

Alexey Tereshchenko
In 1919, English was accepted as equal to French. It was beginning of the end. Of course, there are still some relics of the past such as Médecins Sans Frontières.


Allan Richardson
Just checking Wikipedia and other sources, the Treaty of Paris (1783), which recognized the United States as an independent nation, apparently was in both English and French, but was negotiated between the two English speaking nations in English. Apparently, the French translation, which was “packaged” with other treaties signed at Versailles, was for the benefit of the other nations tangentially involved (France, Spain, and the Dutch Republic). So the US and UK treated the English version as official, and the other nations the French version. This could have been the first international treaty in English. I’m not sure about the treaty which ended the US-British War of 1812.

原创翻译:龙腾网 http://www.ltaaa.cn 转载请注明出处

Evangelos Lolos
My point was that maybe this was a one-off thing, at least until WWII of course, due to the realities of WWI with the Allies being composed of several English speaking nations, because in 1920 (Treaty of Sèvres) and 1923 (Treaty of Lausanne), French was again the primary language of international treaties that involved both the British Empire and France.


Alexey Tereshchenko
Treaties of Sevres and Lausanne followed the ancient tradition. But they were infinitesmally less important than the Treaty of Versailles.

原创翻译:龙腾网 http://www.ltaaa.cn 转载请注明出处

Evangelos Lolos
If the languages used in the most important treaty are both English and French, while French continues to be the primary language for less (not infinitessimally, that’s absurd) important treaties, how does this mean that English overtook French as the question suggests?

原创翻译:龙腾网 http://www.ltaaa.cn 转载请注明出处

Alexey Tereshchenko
As far as I know, nobody pretends that World War II started because of the Treaty of Sevres or Lausanne. For me, it is enough to qualify these treaties as infinitesmally less important.
Of course, English did not become overnight more important in all the domains. Even today in countries such as Ivory Coast and even Morocco it is less important than French. But the space controlled by the English languages increased very much in 1919. Even before that, English was much more used in many domains. It had obxtively stronger leverage than French. However, in diplomacy it was held back by the power of the tradition.
If the space of two languages can be expressed in percents, in 1919 English was allocated 50%. Starting from that moment, thanks to the leverage it had, it could only grow. 50.1% for English meant 49.9% for French. Et caetera.


Evangelos Lolos
Starting from that moment, thanks to the leverage it had, it could only grow.
This is not necessarily true. It could go down to, say 30% for 20 years and then leap again after WWII. In the absence of compelling evidence, I’m not prepared to accept your argument.
If only someone had compiled a list of treaties between 1919 and 1945, we could run an analysis and find out the actual percentage.


Alexey Tereshchenko
Well, such a research is not that difficult to do. It would just take time - and I have lots of work so I am not ready to do it right now.
However, we spoke about preeminence. 50.1% is preeminence. Of course, there was a new leap in the importance of English after WW2 because US became a world hegemon. But I am positive that English was preeminent way before (though in Soviet interwar schools, for instance, they studied mostly German).


Nikhil Bellarykar
Very interesting information. I read War and Peace by Tolstoy (in English of course), where the Russian nobles speak in French and even apologize that their Russian is not very good! It was all pretty puzzling for me- why would the proud Russians who defeated the great Napoleon surrender to the language of their defeated foes? I read about the continental French dominance only later on. Your answer clarified the temporal location of the first nail in the coffin of French dominance really well. Thanks.


Alexey Tereshchenko
The greatest German commander who ever lived, Frederick II the Great of Prussia, who made his country into a great power and laid the foundation of future Germany, despised German language and only used it when unavoidable, preferring French.


Helene Chambert
Todays correct pronounciation in German is actually copying the French pron. Again because German nobles often prefered to speak French instead of G. they started to even pronounce German the French Way.


Helene Chambert
Also Aristocrats often married somebody with a different mothertonque, but both spoke french, ergo the new family´s language became often french.

原创翻译:龙腾网 http://www.ltaaa.cn 转载请注明出处

Nikhil Bellarykar
Very interesting. He was an aristocrat, so yes his attitude towards the German language is understandable indeed. The other answer is also pretty interesting.


Helene Chambert
Because all nobles in Europe spoke French, the native language was often jut for the commons


Pat McCormack
There are people who belong to countries…
And people to whom countries belong.
This is the basic difference between aristocrats and commoners.
A commoner is loyal to their country, an aristocrat to their family.


John Cowan
Russian aristocrats in the 18–19C tended to learn Russian from their nannies, and then from house servants and peasants; to their equals and superiors they spoke French. So their Russian “wasn’t very good” in the sense of being lower-class rather than in the sense of being a language they did not know well. Modern Standard Russian is basically townsman Russian.


Nikhil Bellarykar
That makes sense and further underscores how much elite Russians loved French more than their own language at that time.


Alistair R. Thompson
And as I understand it, to add the absurdity of the situation, many Russian nobles were of at least partial German descent, but I don’t think Catherine the Great or any other leader of the Russian Empire encouraged French immigration.


Nikhil Bellarykar
What is the reason behind many Russian nobles being of partial German descent?


Alistair R. Thompson
I remember reading it somewhere, but can't remember where I read it. I think it's just because so many Germans, both nobles and peasants, were encouraged to settle in Russia by various tsars. Much as they were in the US and in other countries where they settled, Germans were admired as being industrious and innovative. Moreover, there was so much intermarriage amongst noble families.


Alice Ponomareva
Not surrender ) Russian nobility first spoke French and then Napoleon arrived )

不是投降 ) 俄国贵族早就说法语了,后面拿破仑才来的 )
原创翻译:龙腾网 http://www.ltaaa.cn 转载请注明出处

Luke Proctor
There is some irony then, in that the only British Prime Minister to have not spoken English as his 1st Language, was also the same Prime Minister who assisted the most in endorsing English as the global lingua franca in the decades to come afterwards.


Alexey Tereshchenko
Yes. History is full of such ironies.


Vinícius Emygdio Chaulet
What was the native language of the British Prime Minister?


Luke Proctor


Lisha Ruan
Excellent answer! Do you know of any other good resources on the battle for linguistic dominance between French and English? It’s a question that I’m quite interested in.


Helene Chambert
Saw recently a statistic from Switzerland, where F. is obligatory in school and was fairly unpopular for years among students. (hard to learn, difficult prononciation, not cool. english was COOL.
Now the tide is turning, as almost anybody is at lat sort of fluent in English….English lost the prestige factor….but being fluent in French set you more apart . Plus the underpriviliged cant understand…


Stuart Thompson
Presumably that’s not in the French speaking area of Switzerland? I think over half of them speak German as a mother tongue but a good few of them have French as their mother tongue, while a few have Italian, Romansch etc. as their native language.


David Frazier
President Wilson said “no” to French. But most importantly he said “no” to moustaches, much to the befuddlement of all of the European leaders.

威尔逊总统对法国人说 "不"。但最重要的是,他对小胡子说了 "不",这让所有欧洲领导人感到困惑。

Geoffrey Richard Driscoll-Tobin
Given that Brittany’s wealth and its sons and daughters made both France and England into global powers, all treaties should be in Breton. :)
Don't let's get into whether the world diplomatic language should be KLT (Cornish) or Vannetais (Welsh).

鉴于布列塔尼的财富和它的儿女们使法国和英国都成为了全球大国,所有的条约都应该用布列塔尼语。 :)

Rik Osborne
And as a result, I got to watch (on YouTube) a Bulgarian pianist competing on “Norway’s Got Talent”, and hear both the contestant and the judges seamlessly switch to English when speaking to each other, because they didn’t speak each other’s languages.


Richard Chapman
Good post - although it engenders more anti-Americanism in me. Your depiction of the US Senate shows that it isn’t just the current one full of hicks and country bumpkins, but that it has been like this for ever. You can’t imagine the House of Lords unable to read a treaty in French.


Alexey Tereshchenko
Well, this is why the world speaks English and not French.
Perhaps the Senate and Wilson were right, after all?


Pierre Johnson
As Alexey explained it was stipulated by the United States Constitution that any foreign diplomatic treadty submitted to the upper house legislature have to be also written in English if not it will be rejected. Nothing do with a perceived ignorance.


Alistair R. Thompson
Oddly enough, maybe you know this already, but uniquely for a British Prime Minister, Lloyd George’s first language wasn’t actually English, but Welsh.

原创翻译:龙腾网 http://www.ltaaa.cn 转载请注明出处

Aj. Raymond James Ritchie
There is another factor that is important and that is science. French ceased to be the language of science in the 19th century, one of the reasons was that the French Academy could not keep up with inventing new words. After serious rivalry from German, English became the standard language of science and has been so since WWI. It is amusing to read how Darwin was very concerned about a French version of The Origin coming out. No sane person today would give a damn if a French edition of their book ever came out.
I am a biologist; I read hundreds of papers a year. In over 35y I have never come across a paper written in French or any other language that needed translating. A colleague of mine is a taxonomist, she does have to be able to read 18th and 19th century stuff in French and German (she never uses the spoken languages) and needs to understand Botanical Latin (Botanical Latin is actually a different beast to literate Latin).


原创翻译:龙腾网 http://www.ltaaa.cn 转载请注明出处