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The Language of Diplomacy

 
French as a Medium of Diplomacy
 

In the second half of the seventeenth century, the pre-eminence of Louis XIV, the “Sun King” (le Roi Soleil) helped to consolidate the position of French, which became the diplomatic language, replacing Latin, a position it retained until the twentieth century. The French diplomatic machine was larger than any other. For over 150 years, until the Revolution, France remained supreme in international diplomacy, setting the diplomatic pattern for the world.

 
 

Until the seventeenth century, when the author of Paradise Lost served as one of Cromwell’s political secretaries, Latin was still the official language of European diplomacy. It was in the reign (1643-1715) of the Grand Monarch, Louis XIV, that French, the most precise and lucid of all living tongues, superseded Latin as the recognized medium of international negotiations. This was brought about by a fortunate combination of circumstances, and the disinterested philologist, whatever his nationality, cannot fail to deplore the declining part played by the French language in world diplomacy since the formulation of the treaty of Versailles in 1919.

Simeon Potter. Our Language (Penguin Books, 1964), p. 180.

The intrinsic qualities of the French language itself made it a medium most suitable for diplomatic discourse. Strict rules of syntax guaranteed the precision of the sentence, while its vocabulary was constantly supervised by the Académie Française, which, in purging the language of its corruptions, guaranteed its incontrovertible accuracy of meaning and constant lucidity.

Today French diplomats still like to regard their native tongue as the main language of diplomacy. But French is fighting a loosing battle with English, which has largely superseded it in this role in many parts of the world. However, even non-French diplomats regret the downgrading of French. It is, they maintain, the perfect diplomatic language because of its precision and clarity. It is noteworthy that all British career diplomats have a good knowledge of French.

Although on the retreat, French is still far from defeated. Multilateral treaties are usually concluded in two languages – English and French – with both texts considered equally authoritative. English and French became the first two working languages at the United Nations, when on 1 February 1946, during the first part of its first session, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution entitled “Rules of Procedure Concerning Languages” of which the Annex, paragraph 1, reads as follows:

 

In all the organs of the United Nations, other than the International Court of Justice, Chinese, French, English, Russian and Spanish shall be the official languages, and English and French the working languages.

This meant in effect that speeches made in one working language were interpreted into the other, and speeches made in the official languages were interpreted into both working languages. By the mid-seventies all the official languages of the United Nations had, in addition, acquired the status of working languages. 

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THE LANGUAGE OF DIPLOMACY

  Historical Background

  French as a Medium of Diplomacy

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  Niceties of the Diplomatic Protocol

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