why Napoleon was angry with the spelling – L’Express

legends and truths about an anti gourmet – LExpress

I admit it: these are the kind of scenes that, in a historical film, annoy me to no end. In general, everything is worked out down to the smallest detail: the landscapes, the costumes, the furniture… Everything, except the pronunciation. Listen Lorraine Joan of Arc ; Listen the Béarnais Henri IV ; Listen the Languedocian Jean Jaurès. Each of them, as we know, spoke French with the accent of their region of origin. But, on the screen, we think we are hearing television news presenters in 2024!


The rule also applies for Napoleon, including in the latest blockbuster dedicated to him by Ridley Scott. In the French version, the emperor speaks with the intonations of the contemporary Parisian bourgeoisie, which is obviously contrary to reality. And for good reason ! At its birth, in 1769, Corsica had just become French. On the island, Corsican is mainly used (among the working classes) as well as Genoese (among the noble and bourgeois elites) – the capital of Liguria has long been the dominant power there. Napoleon’s family is no exception to the rule. His father, Charles, did teach him some notions of French, but very little and very late, just a few months before his departure for the Continent. Result: when the child entered the college of Autun then the military school of Brienne, in 1779, his mastery of the national language was more than mediocre. “His level is such that Father Dupuy, second principal, will give him private lessons to fill in his gaps,” underlines François Houdecek, the editor of Napoleon’s general correspondence in 15 volumes (1).

READ ALSO: Why was Pierre Bourdieu ashamed of his accent?

The future emperor will of course end up mastering French, but this initial situation will have three main consequences.

Fancy spelling

“Oberge”, “poor”, “flame”, “awful”… Even his most stunned admirers agree: the emperor was better on the battlefield than in dictation, as evidenced by these various examples noted in his correspondence with Joséphine by the historian Chantal de Tourtier-Bonazzi. Likewise, Napoleon regularly altered the syntax by writing for example “I hope you have more strength”. “His manuscripts were full of Italianisms and mistakes,” summarizes historian Thierry Lentz. “Aware of this weakness, Bonaparte had all his official letters written by a secretary as soon as he reached the rank of general, in 1793. Only his private correspondence will remain written in his hand, i.e. less than 2% of his 40,000 letters identified”, explains François Houdecek.

READ ALSO: Jean Castex has an accent, so what?

It is also true that Napoleon showed sovereign contempt for this matter. In his eyes, the essential lay in thought; spelling was a matter of stewardship. “A public man […] cannot, must not write the spelling, he explained to Las Cases during his exile on Saint Helena. His ideas must run faster than his hand […] ; It’s then up to the scribes to sort it all out.”

A certain tolerance towards regional languages

Certainly, Napoleon imposed French as the language of the State. But, unlike certain revolutionaries such as Barère or Abbé Grégoire, he showed no hostility towards the other languages ​​of France. “He encouraged the work of the Celtic Academy, one of the goals of which was to find the Celtic language in ancient authors and monuments,” explains Thierry Lentz. Likewise, in the Italian territories, Germanic or conquered Spanish, French had the status of official language, but the use of “idioms of the country” was in no way prohibited.

A marked regional accent

Finally, we come back to it, Bonaparte never departed from his Corso-Italian accent, pronouncing “senté” – making the e sound -, instead of health, and “Mentoue” instead of Mantua, as Chantal de Tourtier-Bonazzi. It should be noted, however, that at that time, open-mindedness in this area was greater than today. “All the specialists are more or less in agreement: the emperor must have had a hint of a Corso-Italian accent, but no one formally noted it because there was nothing special about it,” underlines François Houdecek.

Logic: at the beginning of the 19th century, the majority of French people had Occitan, Breton or Picard as their mother tongue. Like the Alsatian Kellerman, like the Lotois Murat, a large part of the elites therefore expressed themselves with strong intonations from so-called regional languages. Napoleon was no exception to the rule.

READ ALSO: Accent, a more powerful discrimination than skin color

But for the world of cinema, it’s no! Just as actors of immigrant origin have long been confined to the roles of thugs or cleaning ladies, thus fueling clichés, this small community refuses to let an important character in the History of France express himself with a regional accent. . The latest example is “offered” to us by Julie Gayet, who has just made a film on the revolutionary Olympe de Gouges. The editor of the Declaration of the Rights of Women and Citizens spoke Languedoc and pronounced French with Montalban intonations? Never mind ! The actress interprets her character with the standard accent and thus justifies it in the Sunday supplement of La Dépêche du Midi : “The desire to show its universality meant that we eliminated what risked appearing picturesque.”

“Picturesque”! If we follow the actress’s reasoning correctly, people who speak with a regional accent would therefore be incapable of defending universal ideas, a privilege that she considers reserved for speakers expressing themselves like the Parisian bourgeoisie.

Yes, there is a good chance that we will hear Napoleon for a long time with an accent that was not his…


(1) Latest published work: Living the Great Army. Being a soldier in the time of Napoleon, by François Houdecek. CNRS Editions.


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