This week, the French government announced a plan to standardize the French-language computer keyboard, as part of an effort to help protect and nurture the language. The ministry of culture and communication says it’s “nearly impossible to correctly write French” on keyboards sold in the country today, meaning that the language’s strict grammatical rules are being flouted more regularly. The ministry has partnered with a standardization group to develop a new keyboard norm, which will be presented for public feedback this summer.
To many monolingual people – especially those in English-speaking countries – the idea of a keyboard layout influencing a language as a whole often seems insane. It happens, though, and it’s very real – I talked about this before, but for Dutch. Modern technology really is changing language in multiple ways all over the place. This really isn’t up for debate.
The question, however, is not if technology can change language; no, the real question is whether or not you should care. I personally believe that no, you should not. Language has always been ever-changing, is ever-changing, and always will be ever-changing. The idea that one particular set of rules for English, French, or Dutch from a very particular area and from a very particular timeframe is somehow more or less correct is not only wrong, it’s downright insulting.
Much like other aspects of culture, language is often used as a means to discriminate, insult, or ridicule. A great – and sad – example of this is African American Vernacular English, which was often seen as dumb, stupid, and incorrect, reflecting the perceived social position of African-Americans in American society and emphasizing stereotypes about African-Americans. However, when linguists actually started studying AAVE, they found out it was incredibly rich in grammatical rules and constructs that are very different from regular English, but not dumber or less complex.
Coincidentally, AAVE sounds beautiful. It flows really well.
The point being, the idea that you somehow need to “protect” language is kind of silly. Stopping a language from changing – which is exactly what “protecting language” means – is like trying to make it stop raining. If you start to try and stop a language from changing, basically all you’re doing is trying to create an ever-widening rift between written language and spoken language, up to a point where the written word deviates so much from the spoken word it starts to get troublesome.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting a standardised French keyboard – even if only for something as important as accessibility – but it’s not going to stop the French language from changing, being influenced, and modernising itself.