Skip to main content

Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 2 page 08


Franglais: a modest proposal

by Ian Allaby

The issue which most threatens Canada’s survival is the division between the two major languages: if this split could be peacefully resolved, the country would have a new lease on life. How surprising it is, then, that one approach to solving the language problem has been completely ignored. Yet it is an approach that deserves consideration, if only as a standard against which to measure our idealism. The idea is that it is possible to create from a synthesis of English and French a new common language.

Language in general is a technology, in the sense that it is a system of manipulable codes, an organizational tool, a means towards social objectives. The deliberate engineering of a national language is not a totally novel concept. Indonesia gives us an example of a relatively recent success in this realm.

Indonesia is a sprawl of 13,000 islands whose over 200 million people are divided into at least 250 language groups. To address the obvious problem of communication, the Indonesian literati and intelligentsia early in the twentieth century promoted the idea of building a single national language. Javanese happened to be the mother-tongue of the largest portion of the population, but if Javanese were chosen as the official language then (so it was argued) the whole national project would collapse due to resentment on the part of non-Javanese speakers.

The language we call Malay, on the other hand, was mother-tongue for few Indonesians, but it had a long history of use among South Pacific traders and as a pidgin in port cities. So a committee of scholars set to work updating and expanding Malay, and devising a consistent grammar for it. The final product, called “Indonesian”, was declared the official language in 1949. The 250 vernaculars survive, but they may be doomed, since Indonesian is used exclusively in schooling after the junior years and is a first or second language for the vast majority of the population. Given that Indonesia is now the world's fourth most populous country, its officially engineered language is climbing the ranks of the world's most widely spoken tongues.