David Leask: There is a vein of state nationalism within opposition to minority languages

Name. Surname. Nationality.

These three English words have sparked a brittle, viscerally chauvinistic response in France.

Why? Because they are being added to the identity cards almost every citizen carries.

Some commentators have already dubbed the move, first announced in the spring by the government of President Emmanuel Macron in line with an EU directive, as “symbolic stupidity”.

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Others warned that this was another ravage of “globish”, a pejorative term for the soulless but utile lingua franca more normally called “international English”.

Last week sociologist Mathieu Bock-Côté, exploded in rage. Mr Macron, the Quebec-born commentator told Le Figaro, was stripping France of its “fundamental identity”. 

French is one of the world’s most spoken and most studied languages. It is not under threat. 

And far from everybody is worried about having English on their ID cards, even if just to avoid confusion between “nom” – which means surname – and “name” when dealing with foreigners.

But there are clearly French speakers who bristle at any potential threat to their language’s hegemony, its prestige.

There was something that Mr Bock-Côté said that really stood out.  Mr Macron, he alleged, had relegated France to a “small nation”. French, he added, was being treated like a “regional, provincial language”.

A regional language? Hardly. But attitudes to other languages – including indigenous “provincial” ones – in France are well worth a bit of Scottish attention.

Because we too are fighting nationalistic language wars, at least online. 

READ MORE: David Leask: How can unionism deal with its Gaelophobic fringe?

There are English speakers – admittedly a minority and usually only from the more chauvinistic and very online section of British nationalism – who are every bit as hostile to other languages in official contexts as Mr Bock-Côté. But not usually as polite as he is.

This summer, for example, some more radical pro-UK voices have once again been triggered by Gaelic on police vehicles and uniforms. 

Online activists have doubled down on lies and myths about minority language policies, including the bizarre old trope that putting Gaelic words on a panda car costs more than adding English (or Latin) ones.

Scots speakers, especially women, who share poems and songs on social media are routinely abused and berated for doing so. 

George Galloway, the Kremlin TV personality whose brand of British nationalism failed to gain any purchase when he stood for Holyrood in May’s election, has tweeted “what is wrong with you?” at a St Andrews language student, Len Pennie, who does a popular Scots word of the day video. Ms Pennie has suffered repeated pile-ons. 

It is tempting to see the ugly bigotry against Scots and Gaelic as a product of online radicalisation, a revulsion among a certain calibre of unionist for anything, however small, that makes Scotland feel different to England. 

But there is more to it than that. Language is visceral and it is personal. Most of us may know nothing of linguistics or socio-linguistics but we know how we think we should speak, what we think is right and what we think is wrong. 

Take England. A whole media debate has begun there about the importance – or otherwise – “talking properly” after a peer, the preposterously ignorant Digby Jones, criticised TV sports presenter Alex Scott for her mild abut crystal clear London accent. Almost no Scot, I imagine, could meet the entirely arbitrary and ridiculous standard of spoken English Lord Jones requires for broadcasting.

But there is a wider context to these attitudes.

Regional and substate national languages took a hammering in the 19th and 20th centuries all across Europe.  Governments were hostile and everything from national broadcasting to the dawn of railways and motorways chipped away at their prestige. That is changing, though. And not just in Scotland. We are not the only place with multi-lingual signage on roads, railways and police cars or with immersion schools for minority speakers. Indeed, we are well behind some other countries.

Authorities across the EU now tend to see cultural and linguistic diversity as a strength. But there has been a backlash. And not just from cyberbullies.

This spring France finally passed a law for the protection and promotion of regional and minority languages, such as Breton, Alsatian, Occitan and Corsican. Mr Macron’s government was not happy with two of its provisions: immersion schools, where teaching would be carried out in local languages, and the acceptance of non-French diacritical marks, such as accents, in names. Last month France’s Constitutional Court declared these parts of the law to be unconstitutional. Now 125 national politicians have called on Mr Macron to support changes in the constitution to allow people to write their names – or have their children taught – in their own languages. France, after all, only made French the official state language 30 years ago. 

As in the UK, there is a vein of state nationalism within opposition to minority languages. 

In an interview with Parliament magazine, left-wing French MEP Younous Omarjee said: “The Constitutional Court’s decision to censor the law on regional languages unfortunately comes in a poisonous atmosphere in France, where the government has decided, through its speeches on ‘separatism’, to make minorities and diversity the enemies of the republic.”

Language activists are making formal complaint about the French court’s decisions to international bodies. 

This is another French lesson for those who wish to curtail the rights of speakers of Gaelic and Scots. Our two minority languages are internationally recognised and protected by a Europe-wide convention signed by the UK.  The languages might be local. A real-world attack on policies to support them might not be. It could be a breach of Britain’s international obligations.

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