For Americans, the French language is baguettes and croissants. It is the Eiffel Tower, poodles, and recently, “Emily in Paris.” For many, it’s not even a question if French is a European language-–a white European–language.
However, French is the official language of more than 25 countries. 49 million Africans speak French as a first or second language across 24 African countries. Besides Africa, French is spoken by people in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia—not to mention the Francophone areas of Belgium, Canada, and Switzerland.
So, if 62% of French users are in Africa, why is the French language always imagined as the language of Parisians? It would be easy to say that it’s because stereotypical French representation almost always occurs in Paris in the media.
It would be easy to claim that it’s because, in the media, French representation almost always takes place in France/Paris.
But, when you look at the history of French racism and colonialism, it is clear that the idea of “real French” is defined as the language spoken by white people who live in France is all but accidental.
Specifically, the designated “real french” from “l’academie française”, a French elitist institution created in 1635, is designed to maintain the “purity” of the language as it was spread to its colonies. The Academy publishes opinions regarding changes to the “pure” language (i.e., the style used in France) and is often controversial. For example, the Academy stands strong against the “anglicization” of French, or the incorporation of English into French, and has also shot down suggestions of more gender-inclusive language into the “official” French rulebook.
You can imagine, with the Academy’s reaction to English-French linguistic changes, that the ancient institution isn’t even willing to address African variations of French. Besides, those speaking Maghreb French in North Africa or Qubeçoise French in Canada are unlikely to pay attention to the rulings of the Academy anyways. However, the Academy still is a symbol of French colonization—as is the French spoken in Africa at all. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E3UWF6H05cw
This doesn’t mean that the French that was initially forced onto African countries doesn’t belong to them anymore, despite the decolonization that occurred after World War II. Rather, it is a testimony to how the many variations of French spoken across the world vary in ways that show the beauty of linguistic diversity.
Merci beaucoup (“thank you very much”) becomes Merci mingi in the Democratic Republic of Congo (which, by the way, is home to the world’s largest Francophone city-–that’s right, bigger than Paris). Tu vas où (“where are you going?”) becomes Tu go où in Cameroon, where a dialect known as “Camfranglais” is spoken.
Once you escape the borders of France itself, the study of French becomes so much livelier and more interesting Because it’s Black History Month in the United States, those studying French there ought to take a look into the language everywhere–not just as it is at the Champs-Elysées.
Because at the end of the day, diverse language deserves diverse representation. The French language belongs to the people of Cameroon, Senegal, and Côte D’Ivoire just as much as it does to the people of Paris, Marseilles, and Bordeaux.