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Thursday, 2 August, 2001, 21:39 GMT 22:39 UK
French clean up their language
By Hugh Schofield in Paris

If you have ever had to fill out an official form in France, you will know that even for a native-speaker it is not the most straight-forward of tasks.

Never use one word when five will do, appears to be the watchword, and make sure as many as possible are archaic and incomprehensible.

But help may be at hand. A government body has just been set up with the task of simplifying the language of the bureaucracy.


Article R 49-8 of the code of penal procedure stipulates that the officer of the public ministry, given charge of a receivable claim, informs the treasury accountant without delay of the cancellation of the contested executory titles

French official document
Rather inaptly it goes by the cumbersome name of The Orientation Committee for the Simplification of Administrative Language - or Cosla.

It was in 1539 that King Francois the First decided to change the language of the administration from Latin to French so that it could be more readily understood.

This time the task is to sweep out the mounds of circumlocution, legalese and pompous obscurity that make any encounter between the citizen and the apparatus of the state an exercise of sheer mental endurance.

Florid and archaic

Take this for example, a note sent by the ministry of finance:

"In response to your letter I have the honour of making you aware that article R 49-8 of the code of penal procedure stipulates that the officer of the public ministry, given charge of a receivable claim, informs the treasury accountant without delay of the cancellation of the contested executory titles."


The trouble is that too much of the vocabulary is florid, archaic and redundant.

Phrases like nonobstant, notwithstanding, or a votre encontre, for you, just do not exist in everyday speak.

It is hard enough for educated men and women. How much more difficult for those less privileged, or for immigrants with little command of the tongue.

As one of the members of the new committee put it: "If you don't understand a form or a letter from the administration - then it's automatically you who are in the wrong."

Indeed it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the survival of obscure language is simply another way for the overweening French bureaucracy to exercise its power.

Reducing jargon

Cosla comprises professionals from different walks of life: representatives of consumer groups, literary figures like the television presenter Bernard Pivot and the Rai singer Cheb Mami.

Brought together by the public service minister Michel Sapin, their initial aim is just to re-edit the six most commonly used administrative forms.

But eventually they will also be issuing a computer programme for civil servants through which they can run their jargon and in theory produce an intelligible piece of prose at the end.

Herewith let there be conferred from this Anglophone resident the most profound salutations as well as auspicious expressions of desire for their good functioning.

Or in other words, the best of luck to them.

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The BBC's Hugh Schofield
"Too much of the vocabulary is... redundant"
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