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Ma patrie, c'est la langue que j'ecris. Antoine Rivarol (qtd. in Le francais hors de France 19) My homeland is the language I write.
"In 1915, Edmond Laforest, a prominent member of the Haitian literary movement called La Ronde [...] stood upon a bridge, calmly tied a Larousse dictionary around his neck, then proceeded to leap to his death by drowning."
This astonishing event, as reported by Henry Louis Gates (66), brings into relief the dilemma of the non-European writer trapped in the language of the colonizer (past or present). In particular, it can be seen as symbolic of the problematic linguistic legacy bequeathed by France to her colonial peoples in sub-Saharan Africa. (1) For Africans colonized by the British, similar burdens exist, to be sure, but, as I will argue here, French colonial policies had far more serious consequences for African literatures than did those of Great Britain. As one considers the literary output of Africa south of the Sahara, one is struck by two phenomena: first, the vast bulk of writing in African languages is to be found in the former British colonies and, second, those writing in English have, on the whole, demonstrated a greater degree of adaptability of African speech patterns to the language of the colonizer. How can one account for this paucity of African language literatures and a greater fidelity to the "mother tongue"--i.e., French--in francophone Africa? I believe that at the outset it is essential to examine the unique importance that the French attach to their language and culture. How this vision was translated into certain specific policies in the colonies will then be compared with the attitudes and policies of the British. Finally, the ways in which these differing policies resulted in divergent linguistic legacies will be outlined and briefly illustrated by comparative literary texts. It is important to understand that, insofar as writing in English and French is concerned, what is being discussed here involves relative, not absolute, divergences, and any such demonstration would be misleading if it did not take into account the few francophone writers who do not fit the theoretical mold.
"Tout Francais, ou presque, se sent ou se croit grammairien de droit divin" 'Almost every Frenchman believes himself to be a grammarian by divine right.' (2) This tongue-in-cheek remark by the linguist Pierre Alexandre (35) contains more than a grain of truth. Indeed, he goes on to note that, "La France est, autant que je sache, le seul pays au monde ou la plupart des journaux populaires possedent une chronique grammaticale reguliere" (35) 'France is, as far as I know, the only country in the world where most popular newspapers have a regular column on grammatical usage.' More alarming (and even less comprehensible to native English speakers) is the declaration by Sorbonne professor Rene Etiemble: "The French language is a treasure. To violate it is a crime. Persons were shot during the war for treason. They should be punished for degrading the language" (qtd. in Lockwood). Surely, few native French speakers would subscribe to this extreme position, but the foregoing does reflect the unique preoccupation--some would say, obsession--the French have exhibited with their language for centuries. The British, by contrast, have rarely displayed this protectiveness of and almost mystical attachment to their native tongue. In 1539, Francois I signed an ordinance at Villers-Cotterets imposing the use of French in all official documents. This historic event not only signaled one of the first French acts of liberation from the Latin, but also marked the beginning of a policy suppressing other languages spoken throughout France in the affirmation of centralized power. The 16th century also saw the publication of DuBellay's celebrated Defense et illustration de la langue francaise (1549), a manifesto of the Pleiade group affirming the excellence of French as a literary language. But it is in the 17th century, with the writings of the poet Malherbe and the grammarian Vaugelas and the founding of the Academie Francaise by Richelieu (an institution that has survived into the 20th century) that the purification and reform of the language began in earnest. The claim of the superiority of French, owing to its crystal clarity and rigor which dates from this period, as well as a vigorous defense of it from outside impurities, continues even to our day, as the above quotation from Etiemble attests. A recent New York Times article reported on the French government's proposal of a law to prohibit the use of foreign words from virtually all public government and commercial communications "whenever a 'suitable local equivalent' exists in French" (Simmons A 1). This attempt by the French at legislating …