Language and diplomacy

A couple of weeks ago on Word of Mouth (Radio 4), there was a very interesting piece about the role of the French and the English languages in diplomacy.
French was widely used in international diplomacy for two main reasons: first, because France used to be a huge political power. It was commonly used in the whole of Europe from the 18th century, with the reign of Louis XIV. Later, Napoleon "helped" the language spread even further. The use of French in international treaties started declining with the emergence of the USA after the First World War; in fact, the Treaty of Versailles was written both in English and in French.
The second main reason is that it is the language of clarity and precision: it uses a lot more determiners, adverbs, conjunctions and the like to link parts of sentences together and clarify their relationships. This links very well with the "foisonnement" (expansion) phenomenon in translation from English to French, with the French translation being on average 15% longer than the source text. Conversely, English is more likely to create ambiguity and its concision can be seen as bluntness, which was described in the programme as "the enemy of polite discourse". Nowadays, despite the French language losing much of its prestige, the English diplomatic vocabulary is still haunted by a few French ghosts, here and there: regime, coup, etiquette, rapprochement. I suspect these words are still in use only because they don’t have equivalents in English.
This led me to think about diplomatic language in the current turbulent international climate. I wonder if this "blunt" aspect of the English language might explain, in part, why George Bush, who clearly likes his language straight and simple, often fails to impress European and Arab audiences. He pushes the concision of English to its extreme limit, which, regardless of what he has to say, can be off-putting at best and irritating and condescending at worst, like when he said on Wednesday :

"First, people in Iraq must understand that I view those practices as abhorrent. They must also understand that what took place in that prison does not represent America that I know."

This modal must is terribly harsh and definite (almost an order) within the context of a man apologising for his soldiers torturing Iraqis. Of course, one might say that this is his style, and that he would be just as blunt if he was a French speaker, but I do think the "efficiency" of the English language might mean that George Bush often sounds more tactless and simplistic than he perhaps intends.

By |2016-10-18T15:52:00+00:00May 7th, 2004|Language|10 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Jim May 7, 2004 at 3:51 pm

    Re Bush’s “must”. I wouldn’t normally think of leaping to M le P’s defence but in this case I think there is a genuine misunderstanding. This use of “must” isn’t really harsh at all: quite the opposite in fact. To me it has a nuance of pleading for understaning. Consider parallel uses like:
    You must believe me (for my sake you must believe me)
    You mustn’t hate me (I’m begging you not to)
    I think that this is the intended reading hear: Bush wants to express a desperate urgency about the Arab world’s understanding him.
    That said, I am intrigued by your remarks about concision. Bush is regularly lampooned in the English speaking press for solecisms and incoherence. Maybe part of the difficulty in “reading Bush” is that he is really striving for a very deep economy of style?

  2. Rick May 8, 2004 at 6:11 am

    I agree with Jim. Clearly the president was begging for understanding, not demanding it. I also think that the president is striving toward a personal style in his speaking. What else could explain away his seemingly “silly” word useage?

  3. céline May 9, 2004 at 9:07 am

    Jim: That’s not the way I understood it, and I’ll explain why: for this “must” to be understood in the way you describe it, the speaker would have to look panicked, upset or at least genuinely moved and adopt a pleading tone and mannerism. I watched the interview again and George Bush does not remotely look like he’s begging the Iraqis to understand him. He’s grinning and almost lecturing them about the situation.
    Rick: I agree with you that Bush tries to have his own unique style, one of simplicity and economy, probably to appeal to the vast majority of Americans who like their men decisive and down-to-earth. This style doesn’t go down so well on this side of the pond, like when he called Tony Blair “a stand-up kinda guy, with backbone and courage” (cringe), reducing someone who should be a respected political leader into a useful side-kick in a Western of which he is the main hero.
    I would sum up his style in two main points: he uses repetition to drive a point home or explain further things that don’t need explaining, probably to make them sound more problematic than they are (“they will know the truth, just like the American people will know the truth” “If there is a systemic problem, if the problem is system-wide…”.) Second, he relies heavily on broad concepts (freedom, peace, evil) to describe an increasingly multi-faceted reality. He seems unable to adapt his words to the level of detail and precision befitting an ever-changing and intricate situation.

  4. Rick May 10, 2004 at 7:04 am

    As far as the repetition, my wife’s best friend does something like this. It may be off topic, but it drives me crazy. I notice than a good number of poeple do this, though. It seems to me to be because they need to hear something more than once for it to sink in. As a result they speak this way when talking to others. Just a thought…
    As for broad concepts, I would call them the “language of the masses” or at least the language of the his support base. People know freedom and evil. They know freedom is good and evil is bad. Delving further into what constitutes freedom or evil might only muddle an issue and lose some support. Besides, people know what these terms mean on a personal level and from that level inspiration wells up. If the majority is inspired to a “hell ya” or a “hell no”; then the purpose has been accomplished.
    I see his style as an ability to direct his words toward a purpose rather than an inability speak eloquently. With that said, I wonder how much influence staff writers have over the statments he makes. I’d wager that they “write down” rather than “write up” if you understand my meaning. Simplicity fits a Texas man better than eloquance.

  5. Sarah May 10, 2004 at 3:34 pm

    I think the ability to be blunt, simplistic and direct about such enormous issues is the special preserve of conservatives (Republicans). They like to know where things stand and proclaim them as obvious so they don’t change. Isn’t the liberal/socialist approach of considering issues as interrelated, complex and more organic the reason they are commonly called “Wishy-washy”?

  6. Rick May 11, 2004 at 5:37 am

    Just because somebody is a liberal (democrat) does not mean that they are “wishy-washy”. I would not resort to that generalization. It is the “I voted for it before I voted against it” attitude that makes a person “wishy-washy”. People whose character traits include a strong tendency towards people-pleasing are “wishy-washy” most of the time. Those people fall on both sides of the fence, Republican and Democrat.
    I do agree with you in principal, though. Conservatives tend to see things in black and white, while Liberals see things in shades of grey.

  7. Sarah May 11, 2004 at 10:44 am

    Yes, you don’t hear of many “wishy-washy Fascists”, do you?

  8. Rick May 12, 2004 at 6:16 am

    Ha ha ha!
    No, you don’t.

  9. Andréas June 9, 2004 at 4:33 pm

    I am a bit late but I would like to add my two penny’s worth.
    Although French is often called the language of diplomacy and clarity, it is sometimes ambiguous, especially when a verb has two or more close but very different meanings.
    Consider the following example (perhaps not the best):
    ‘La diréctive prevoit l’application des mésures concretes dans les Etats-Membres’.
    Here the verb ‘prevoir’ is ambiguous. Does it mean that the directive has specific measures to ensure the implementation of concrete measure OR the directive anticipates their implementation but has no control over this.
    However on the whole, clarify is achieved through ‘floweryness’ of the French language, although a literal translation would sound odd to English ears. As an example, recently, when a friend of mine threw a party he posted a sign in the lobby along the lines of ‘Veuillez m’excuser pour la gene sonore occassioné …’. The wording sounded unnecessarily pompous but in fact to French ears it was normal!
    Paradoxically, I find it very blunt and harsh when French people use ‘Oui!’ (sometimes in a snappy manner) as a way of acknowledging someone or inviting them to speak, eg when answering the phone or in a shop or an office.
    Would be interested to hear your thoughts…

  10. céline June 15, 2004 at 9:53 am

    Andréas: French is renowned for being the language of clarity but it doesn’t mean that, like other languages, it doesn’t use polysemantic words, just that its structure is generally more clearly explicated than other languages’. Your example is actually not ambiguous, as “prévoir” in a legal context normally means “make provisions for”.
    I don’t know if the French language is more blunt than, say, English, in an everyday context. Maybe this perceived bluntness is due to the Latin character of French people, who have a tendency to say things straight, whereas British people, for example, spend a fair portion of their life apologising for everything.

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