Why French, not English, should be the first language of the Olympics

Posted: 17 July 2012

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When London 2012 kicks off in less than two weeks, the first official words heard will be in French. Throughout the Games, all announcements, medal ceremonies, as well as all “billboards and pageantry” around the city, will see French take precedence over English.

As far back as 2010, sections of the British press were baulking at this ‘French imperialism’, with The Telegraph declaring it “draconian”. In its rush to stir up old rivalries however, the paper seemed to conveniently forget that this tradition has been observed at every Olympics for the last century. So why should 2012 be treated any differently?

The Olympics are as much about history, tradition, culture and ceremony as they are about sport. In the same way the Greek flag is flown before the host nation flag in recognition of its part in originating the ancient Games, the French language’s prominence reflects the part it played in establishing the modern Games.

The IOC (International Olympic Committee), the organisation behind the modern Olympics, was founded by Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin in 1894. The first modern Games were held two years later in 1896, and the Olympic Charter, which set out that French would be the prominent language, was first drawn up in 1908.

The Olympic Games has two official languages, French and English. Depending on where the tournament is being held, the official language of the host nation may also be used as a third language. But French has always been the Olympics’ first tongue.

As the man most responsible for the first modern Games, Coubertin surely had the right to make his own language the prominent one. The initial meeting of the IOC that set in motion plans for the first modern Games was also held in Paris, and the organisation is now based in a French-speaking part of Switzerland, making French the logical language to use.

History and tradition aside, there are very good linguistic reasons for having French as the first language of London 2012.

French is the official language of 29 countries, and it is commonly spoken in a further seven. It is spoken across six continents and it is estimated that as many as 275 million people around the world have French as their first or second language.

And this is set to grow. With 96.2 million Africans currently speaking French and rising birth rates, the OIF (l’Organisation internationale de la Francophonie) estimates that there could be 700 million French speakers in the world by 2050.

London already has the honour of being the first city to host the modern Olympics three times. Surely that’s enough patriotic pride for us Brits to be getting on with, we don’t need to make our language first too.

Read more:

The Telegraph, London 2012 Olympics to be held in French, December 2010

Olympic.org, The Organisation

RFI English, French language growing, especially in Africa, March 2010

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Comments

  • English First says:

    I’m not even from the UK and I have an issue with this:

    “History and tradition aside, there are very good linguistic reasons for having French as the first language of London 2012.

    French is the official language of 29 countries, and it is commonly spoken in a further seven. It is spoken across six continents and it is estimated that as many as 275 million people around the world have French as their first or second language.”

    This actually goes against your point. The fact is, English is more dominant as a first or second language in the world than French is, with English being at over 1.6 Billion people in the world, according to the 2006 Census.

    According to Wiki, the US alone almost beats out the worldwide French speakers:

    “The countries with the highest populations of native English speakers are, in descending order: the United States (215 million),[46] the United Kingdom (61 million),[47] Canada (18.2 million),[48] Australia (15.5 million),[49] Nigeria (4 million),[50] Ireland (3.8 million),[47] South Africa (3.7 million),[51] and New Zealand (3.6 million) in a 2006 Census.”

    Now, considering the actual facts, it seems reasonable that English should be the first official language of the games that the World participates in. Even if it was held in Paris each time, the fact remains that there are still more English speakers in the world than French (almost 3:1 ratio for English to French).

    As for tradition, Just because this is how we always did things in the past, is that really a good reason to keep doing it, even if we now know better?

    • David Saxton says:

      I totally agree. French used to be no. 1 language in the diplomatic world throughout the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. But inevitably, things change and indeed they have done: The dominance of English and the sense of it being everyone’s language is beyond dispute. If there is a second contender in this context, well it has to be Spanish. This farcical dominance of French at the Olympic Games has nothing to do with the world today and more important nothing to do with the majority of people participating and watching via the media. The burocrats need to update their thinking.

  • henryv says:

    Its a disgrace, we are in England

  • Eileen Higgins says:

    I think the first language should be of the host country. In this case it should be English.

  • Tim says:

    It was an absolute disgrace to have a French translation before English – who is holding the games? If I had not know is was in London I would have said it was in France!

    The opening ceremony.. what a load of rubbish!

  • Conversis says:

    Thank you all for your comments.

    Pierre de Coubertin a Frenchman was the founder of the Olympic Committee which is why French always has been the official language of the Olympics regardless of the host country.

    Luckily for us English speakers, English is the second official language of the Olympics so regardless of the host country, announcements will always be made in English too. Considering that English is not the most spoken language in the world (Mandarin is), shouldn’t we be pleased that this is the case?

    Also, given the reduction of young people learning a foreign language in our schools, we should use events like the Olympics to encourage and educate people about the importance and benefits of being able to speak another language.

    • Oh Dear

      Not the best of thread subjects to start for LONDON 2012

      I think Conversis have ‘dropped a clanger’ on this one.

      C’est La Vie !

      • Conversis says:

        Of course you are entitled to your opinion Harry, but we stand by our article. As a language service provider we think language traditions like this are very important.

        French has been the official language of the Olympics for over a century. English is still an official language and used in all ceremony’s and announcements so English speakers are catered for – so why the need to change it?

        PS. Love your ‘C’est La Vie’ reference – very fitting!

  • Tom Brophy says:

    @English First: “Now, considering the actual facts, it seems reasonable that English should be the first official language of the games that the World participates in. Even if it was held in Paris each time, the fact remains that there are still more English speakers in the world than French (almost 3:1 ratio for English to French).

    As for tradition, Just because this is how we always did things in the past, is that really a good reason to keep doing it, even if we now know better?”

    @Conversis: “Considering that English is not the most spoken language in the world (Mandarin is) ..”

    WikiPedia also suggests:
    “Approximately 375 million people speak English as their first language.English today is probably the third largest language by number of native speakers, after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. However, when combining native and non-native speakers it is probably the most commonly spoken language in the world, though possibly second to a combination of the Chinese languages (depending on whether or not distinctions in the latter are classified as “languages” or “dialects”)”

    So, were the IOC to dispense with tradition, their language order would be Chinese and then English :-)

    As we’ve mentioned tradition, I seem to recall from my distant, shady youth, (I only watched it once, honest!), that the Eurovision scoring announcements were in French and then host language order too.

  • Paul says:

    This has been the case at every Olympics and I bet it has never been an issue until now! The arrogance displayed in some of the comments here is the reason we struggle to win tournaments such as these in the first place. What next, a Union Flag on every medal just because we hosted the Games?

    The blog at no point says French is better than English or spoken more widely, it simply provides figures to show that French is an international language, spoken across the globe, that deserves to be respected.

    London 2012 has so far been a triumph, and having the announcements in French first has in no way hindered that. Frankly, if you’re too busy concerning yourself with the announcements, more fool you, you’re the one missing out on some great sporting action.

    Why not just be grateful that we’ve been given the chance to host the Games?

  • Clay says:

    To have French translation (especially before English) in the London games merely out of some sort of misguided international courtesy is idiotic. Simply arguing that French is the second most widely spoken language (behind universal English) is not a valid augment at all – the spectators in the various Olympic stadiums who have to put up with his tedium don’t need it, and TV viewers around the world obviously don’t require it as they have commentary in their own language. And it is by no means consistent – for instance, there are no French translation announcements in the Olympic Boxing arena while there is in Tennis.

    William Penny Brookes – an Englishman – is known as the founder of the modern Olympics -Coubertin simply continued Brookes’ dream after he died. And it is claimed by some that first modern Olympic was held in 1866 at a small town of Much Wenlock.

  • Oldredeyes says:

    Who cares? The main point is the ability to communicate effectively. The whole argument about which language should be first and official does not really matter. As human beings we are adaptable and we learn, and we communicate however we are able to. The experience of watching the games (live or on television) surely is not affected by the language of the announcements….

  • John Cremin says:

    The first language spoken should be of the Country holding the spectacle. The French don’t take easely to the fact that they have lost the number one slot, so they cling to that which they can hold on to!

  • Luke says:

    If anything the official language should be in greek as its them who started it all, then followed by English

  • Frederik says:

    Existen tradiciones culturales que brindan identidad histórica (los seres humanos aprehendemos todo a través de los símbolos), lo cual siempre resulta muy práctico y posibilita un ordenamiento.

    Es así que en el caso de los Juegos Olímpicos, con respeto y gratitud se hiza primero la bandera de Grecia (país creador de los juegos olímpicos) y la primera lengua oficial es el francés (lengua del fundador de los primeros juegos olímpicos modernos y organizador del Comité Olímpico Internacional, lengua de la primera olimpiada moderna y de la sede actual del Comité Olímpico Internacional). El inglés, como lengua de la diplomacia (junto con el francés), es la segunda lengua oficial (y no otra de las más de seis mil lenguas del mundo ni siquiera el mandarín ni el español que tienen más hablantes).

    Otro ejemplo de este tipo de aplicaciones, en un ámbito diferente, es el caso de internet. Los códigos de internet que se emplean están en inglés (lengua en que se crearon inicialmente en los Estados Unidos) y todos así los siguen trabajando independientemente de la lengua materna de los usuarios que realizan nuevos aportes creativos que se suman a los precedentes.

    Hay más casos. Cada país árabe utiliza una lengua árabe propia y diferenciada de la de sus vecinos también árabes, pero por tradición todos emplean en sus ceremonias religiosas el antiguo árabe clásico (que es diferente) aunque la mayoría de la población utiliza una forma de árabe muy distinta.

    Estos son solamente algunos grandes ejemplos bastante conocidos, pero hay muchos otros que abundan. El país anglófono más poblado (Estados unidos), rápidamente se está hispanizando (aumentan bastante los hispanohablantes) y posiblemente ello pudiera llegar a darle más “importancia comercial” mundial al español en desmedro del inglés. Sin embargo, por tradición seguramente el inglés seguirá siendo la segunda lengua oficial de los Juegos Olímpicos (y no el español).

    C’est La Vie! C’est Le Monde!…

  • [...] language of the Olympics? Actually, the Olympics has two official languages, French and English. Consider however that the abovementioned de Coubertin, who founded the global athletic gathering, was French [...]

  • [...] language of the Olympics? Actually, the Olympics has two official languages, French and English. Consider however that the abovementioned de Coubertin, who founded the global athletic gathering, was French [...]

  • Jim Pedder says:

    I am a former resident of UK, born in Manchester prior to WW2 and of British ancestry. I have been a citizen and resident of Canada since 1970. Having just watched the closing ceremonies of Sochi (Russia) Winter Olympics, I too was asking the question “Why the predominance of the French language”?

    My very brief research quickly gave me the answer:-
    The IOC (International Olympic Committee), the organisation behind the modern Olympics, was founded by Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin in 1894. The first modern Games were held two years later in 1896, and the Olympic Charter, which set out that French would be the prominent language, was first drawn up in 1908.

    That’s good enough for me! Perfectly understandable and the French people have every right to be justly proud of Pierre de Coubertin.

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