Feminism · Thoughts

All in a Day’s Work

Note: If while reading this you start wondering what is the point of my anger, please read this.

An IIT Kanpur alumnus was disgusted with the rotten language folks from his alma mater were using during a political discussion on a social media. They had stooped down to the level of calling each other the most unsavory names. He posted about it on Facebook with screenshots from which, very wisely, he had redacted the names of the people involved.

Another alumnus thought it must be “ladies” in that conversation because “they forget everything once they get wild”. And he decided that his thought was sincere and important enough that he must give voice to it as a comment on a publicly shared post on Facebook. And he did. The question here is not whether the people using the unparliamentary language were women or men. My question is what if they were indeed women? Would it mean that this gentleman was justified in carrying this gender stereotype in his head? Okay, that was too gentle. Without resorting to swear words, this is the real question: Would it have made his outright misogyny correct?

I hope I don’t have to sweat it out to get a ‘no’ as the answer there. There would be individual women who lose it when they get wild. It doesn’t mean that it is a characteristic of the entire sex. Even if those foul-mouthed people were women, this guy in insanely misogynist and not at all aware of how rotten and dangerous his mind is.

Why dangerous? Because in a professional setting he would be in a position of power over many people (an IITK alumnus!). What happens when he is in a situation at work where there is a conflict among his subordinates and one of the persons in the conflict is a woman? Who would he automatically assume to be on the wrong, irrational side? Who would be assumed to have “forgotten everything” because “they have gotten wild”? What does it mean to the career prospects of women in the world where men like him are in power?

Reminder: If you are wondering why am I getting angry, please read this.

Are you dying to know whether the culprits in the original discussion were women or not? Well, what do you think? If it was a discussion among IITK alumni, which sex does the theory of probability favor for this honor? If in the face of such obvious clue as to the gender of the people involved, this person expressed an opinion like that on women, what would happen when he is in a position to pass judgment where women actually have a higher probability of being involved?

Anyway, after putting in a comment which was exemplary for its restrained rage (hey – nobody even preached me to be calm after that comment, nobody realized that I was snarky and angry!), I was trying to put all this behind me. But Rashtrakavi Dinkar intervened.

I am reading books on Indian history these days and picked up Sanskriti Ke Chaar Adhyaya by Dinkar. It is an interesting book and I was enjoying it. Then I came across these gems.

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For those who don’t read Hindi, I am sorry. My rage is not sufficiently controlled right now to delve into translation. I will, perhaps, do it at some other time.

But there is a translation needed even for those who do read Hindi. Here is what the Rashtrakavi is saying: Women stepping out of home is the root of all evils. Men molest women because women step out. Men can’t get their work done because women step out. Whatever be the philosophy of life mankind holds, the place of women is inside the house.

And here is what is even more infuriating than his views. He was writing a book on History. He was basing it on already existing literature. He could have stuck to his analysis of what is known about our History. Yes, Buddhist traditions and texts hold that Buddha didn’t want to induct women in the Sangha. Yes, other historians he had read and quoted would have seen this as a reason behind the downfall of Buddhism. He could have stayed analytical and neutral, and just stated all that. But no! Read the judgmental language he adopts. He just HAD to let the world know what HE thought. He decided that it was important to announce to the world through a book on the history of Indian culture that women stepping out is a problem.

This was 1950. We were writing a constitution which gave women voting rights. It gave them the same personal liberty as men. It gave them the right to be wherever they wanted to be.

Obviously, our Rashtrakavi didn’t approve.

Finally, if you just can’t fathom what is the point of all this bitterness, read this.

Oh, one more thing. If you think this isn’t your fight, because you aren’t affected, maybe I should quote Dinkar for you:

समर शेष है, नहीं पाप का भागी केवल व्याध।
जो तटस्थ हैं समय लिखेगा उनके भी अपराध।

For translation, I need to get my rage under control!

P. S. We can’t go back in time and change the people of the past. Whether it was Buddha or Dinkar. Even if we were to invent some sort of a time machine, the laws of physics are likely to come in the way of changing the past in any meaningful way.  But people today can choose to work on recognizing their misogyny and consciously and actively fixing it. Saying the wrong things is pretty bad. Justifying them as ‘just jokes’ is even worse. Justifying them because your wife doesn’t object to them is insanity. But even saying the right things is by no means enough. Right action – now that is the real deal and the difficult one. Don’t trust me on this. Ask Lord Buddha!

 

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Own Poetry Hindi

नियम-क़ानून

स्टूडेन्ट हो,
एक्टिविस्ट न बनो।
एक्टिविस्ट हो,
किताबें ना पढ़ों।

हिन्दू हो,
मीट ना खाओ।
मुसलमान हो,
पाकिस्तान जाओ।

सरकार के आगे
सर झुकाओ।
डेमाक्रेसी का
भाव ना खाओ।

Thoughts

Is Happiness also becoming a Rat Race?

It has happened more often than I like. I start getting passionate or agitated while talking about something and people interrupt with “Why are you angry?” Or “Why are you getting so agitated?” And worst of all “What is the point of being so unhappy?”

That usually succeeds in thwarting me. And I am left wondering: What is wrong in being angry, agitated or unhappy when there is something worth being angry, agitated or unhappy about?

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Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

What can I say, I am guilty of talking about happiness repeatedly in my talks on entrepreneurship. The gist of those has been that you don’t take your career decisions based on what the society tells you is the right thing to do. You do what makes you happy.

But I would like to believe that I wasn’t advocating this strange fetish with happiness which delegitimizes any emotions that are considered negative. This isn’t a pursuit of happiness through your choices and actions. This is advocating closing your eyes to anything that can cause distress. Sometimes it is couched in a language that makes it seem more profound than that, but it is essentially asking you to look the other way. This is delusional. And worse, there is a peer pressure to embrace this delusion.

Anger, agitation, unhappiness are perfectly legitimate emotions. If we didn’t feel them, we wouldn’t be human. And feeling them might be the only way to becoming humane. When the world is unjust, unfair, unequal, exploitative – and smug in all of these – we should feel angry. And then, perhaps by speaking out against it and doing something big or small to counter it, we may be able to find our bit of happiness. It may never be perfect. The happiness and peace we seek may never come. Still, being delusional is not more legitimate than being angry or agitated or unhappy.

So, now, I want to put my foot down. Why am I angry? Because of what I was trying to tell you about as I got angry. What is the point of this unhappiness? That it is for a legitimate reason and I am not closing my eyes to it. Happiness can go to hell if a delusion is the only way to achieve it. Be angry, dear world. Be angry, because you should be. Too much is wrong with you. And then perhaps you can try doing something about it.

I don’t give entrepreneurship related talks these days. But if I have to, I will update it. Yes – don’t pick up a career because of peer pressure or rat race. And don’t force yourself to be happy because of peer pressure or rat race either.

Note 1: I hope it is clear but in case not – this article is not about wallowing in self-pity or self-loathing or being paralyzed by a sense of victimhood.

Note 2: It is also not about a situation where you may have a clinical problem like depression. If that is likely to be the case, I strongly advise seeking professional help. There is nothing wrong with that.

Thoughts

Liberalism is Defeated. Long Live Liberalism!

Note: I am talking of political and social liberal ideas, not economic liberalism.

We should all be tired of being outraged every time liberal values are trampled upon. Outrage is meant for the exceptions. It is tiring for what is no longer an exception. Liberalism is defeated in India (and elsewhere, one could argue, but let’s limit the scope to India for the purpose of this article). The state is coming down hard on its citizens and the privileged majority is cheering on. Individual’s rights, liberty, freedom of expression, right to dissent are being frighteningly delegitimized.

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Photo by Elijah O’Donell on Unsplash

No, let’s not fool ourselves that it’s a minor setback. Let’s not pretend that there is one screw gone loose in the system and once it is tightened we will again start marching down the liberal road. That’s not how it is. It’s a fundamental shift away from liberalism. It is one kind of a thing when the disadvantage of poverty is pitted against the disadvantage of being a Dalit. It is one kind of thing when the unemployed youth get taken in by nasty propaganda. It’s not right, but it is understandable. It has nuances which a poor and unemployed person, who is struggling to find a toehold, may not be willing to indulge in. It is one thing for all of this to happen. But it’s quite another what is happening now.

A middle-class person, who hasn’t suffered hunger, who has a decent roof over his head, who has no contacts with Dalits or Adivasis, who hasn’t been affected by communal riots (not in many years, at least), whose children are well-settled and hold good jobs, whose grandchildren are being brought up in relative prosperity and aren’t exactly lusting after the government jobs of the future, that person is convinced that he is a victim. He is not grateful for or proud of all he has. He is a victim. A victim of reservations, a victim of Muslim appeasement, a victim of Maoists (he has never encountered a Maoist). And while we humans always tend to find someone else to blame for the slightest of our miseries, it wouldn’t have been acceptable to turn that blame into this appalling sense of victimhood a few years ago. But now it is. And that thought is so comfortable, that it is well-nigh impossible to eradicate it. It. Just. Works. What is more, it works for those children and grandchildren too.

No wonder, liberalism is defeated.

This means a fundamental shift in how an average liberal person navigates the world around them. We knew that liberal values were not always practiced, but in certain spaces, nobody could have opposed them in principle. So, when the practice differed from principles, you could scoff, outrage, point out the divergence and hope that over time, as you point out and fight against more and more such hypocrisies, they will be fixed. Hence the world will become more liberal, even in practice, as the time passes.

That assumption of the theoretical acceptance even in the face of practical divergence is no longer valid. So, the task has moved fifty or hundred years back. The theory itself needs justification now. The ideas need to be sold all over again. The principles that we had assumed were well-accepted, need to be argued for all over again. Scoffing at diversions would be meaningless.  Imagine the reformers of the early 20th century who would have had to argue even with the most educated of the upper-caste people that untouchability was bad. And they would have had to argue that from a position of weakness. Well, we are back to that situation in the 21st century. Depressingly, in some cases, the issues may exactly be the same as they were 100 years back. In some cases, they may take a different form. But we have to start from a position of weakness, in even getting the principles to be accepted. We better eat that humble pie.

What it also means is that its a long journey all over again. The victory was never complete. But all the gains have been reversed as well. Even if the political power equation changes in the short-term, this beast of social conservatism has been legitimized and unleashed. Political overlords of any denomination are not going to challenge it.  They will only seek to utilize it. The only hope from electoral politics is that some balance of power is maintained with changing governments so that no one group can continue to inflict damages unchecked. The social fight is going to be long and repetitive. And also thankless. Let’s brace for that. Somebody may yet live to see the tides turn.

Thoughts

Whither Gender Equality in Religion?

You may or may not know a whole lot about it, but you would be living under a rock if you haven’t heard of the Sabarimala Temple case being heard by a constitutional bench in Supreme Court.

I don’t feel invested in the outcome of this case. They could ban entry of women in all functional temples for all I care. At least then nobody would be able to emotionally blackmail me into visiting them. (They should leave the ones with historical importance open, though. Else I will scream discrimination!)

I care about gender equality. Religion, however, is a lost cause to me. Almost all the mainstream religions are essentially misogynist and trying to reconcile them with the ideas of equality – specifically gender equality – sounds futile to me. (If it offends you, great! At least you care about gender equality. If you agree, thank you, and you are welcome! If you think it doesn’t matter what I think, congratulations! You are the wise one.)

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Photo Credit: ragesh ev

As can be guessed by now, I am not a religious person. And that is the reason that despite the question of gender equality involved here, I do not care much about the outcome of the case. Religion just doesn’t matter to me (Thank God, I live in a liberal, secular democracy! Irony intended.)

When you are in such a position, you are likely to think that this is an unnecessary fight. A waste of court’s time, a waste of resources, a waste of whatever else, on an issue that doesn’t matter. I would have been inclined to declare so a few years ago. But like a few things, I talked about earlier, I have changed my mind on this.

I can’t reconcile my feminism and (any) religion. But that doesn’t mean that others are not allowed to be both feminist AND religious. I may have my priorities, but I am no one to dictate what kind of equality is important for everyone else, and what isn’t. I will choose my fights, and so will everyone else. Just because religion is not important to me, I don’t get to say that it shouldn’t be important to you too and you shouldn’t fight for gender equality in religion.

I don’t know which way the court will go. Whichever way it does, it may not make much difference on the ground. Even if the court decides to lift the ban on women’s entry, perhaps the only women trying to go in would be the ones who want to prove a point. The “really” religious women may never want to visit a deity who doesn’t welcome them. Or they may surprise us by defying such patriarchal customs around deities and visiting Him in droves!

But irrespective of what happens, it is a good fight. I can’t invest myself enough in it to follow the court proceedings closely. But I cheer on!

P. S. The case may still be very important from the point of view of legal precedence. Especially since it is a constitutional bench that is hearing it right now. Other religious matters may come up in future whose effects could be more widespread than this particular issue’s are and the decisions there may be guided by the outcome of this one.

Business & Entrepreneurship · Thoughts

A Translation Apocalypse

What is common between a Facebook joke about funny subtitles and a controversy around the results of one of the most important entrance exams students of this country take?

Bad translation!

The joke in question showed a screenshot of a movie scene with its English subtitle. The song fragment bahne de, mujhe bahne de from Hindi was translated in the subtitles as give me sisters, give me your sisters, instead of let me flow (or let me drown if you feel the need for more intensity).

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The subtitle joke!

A Hindi speaker can immediately figure out what had happened. The word for flow here sounds like the word for sisters in Hindi. The two words don’t have common origins. In their root forms, they are sufficiently different. It’s just this particular form of the verb flow that sounds similar to the plural form of the word sister. The pronunciations and spellings are not exactly the same. They are similar enough that you may make a typo and write one for the other in Hindi. But a native speaker is not going to confuse the meaning of the two words. Even if they had exactly the same spellings, there is ample information available in the context and this translation mistake cannot be justified.

And NEET organizers apparently mistranslated 49 questions! This happened in Tamil, a language that I don’t know. So, I won’t understand what the exact mistakes were. But a similar issue had come up in another exam a while back. There clearly putting English questions through Google Translate and blindly pasting the output had been considered sufficient work for translating a crucial question paper. While so much attention is focused on whether students will get grace marks and if so how much, nobody seems to be asking how so many errors crept in. Does it happen more often than is reported? And even when there aren’t outright errors, what is the quality of translation in these question papers?

Unfortunately, bad translations are not a one-off issue. In fact, they are so prevalent that nobody seems to care. In literary circles, people debate a lot about good and bad translations, the challenges of translations, losses in translation and what not. But it doesn’t get discussed enough outside of it. The result is that a lot of documents, manuals, websites, instructions, etc. are translated every day and they are translated poorly.

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Just Another Odd Translation!

Typically, these translation jobs will go to some agencies claiming expertise in all languages and a fast turnaround time at a reasonable cost. The quality is, at best, implicitly assumed and never checked. Most of the time, nobody even thinks about the quality. There doesn’t seem to be any difference between ordering pens for the office, which nobody uses except to sign documents, and ordering translation of your most crucial content. As for the “expert” translators who work on these jobs, they are typically any graduates who can claim to know the two languages. Sometimes they might be agency employees; most of the time, the agency will pick a freelance translator. Their credentials will be their past work – sometimes for big-name clients – but of the same shoddy quality. It was not flagged because nothing ever is. Most of the translators at work around us have never bothered to really study the nuances of the languages they work in; they seem to have no notion of the complications involved in a good translation, and nobody ever asks about the target group for a translation job which should matter a lot in how something is translated. They mindlessly do the word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase translation without caring about whether the output would make sense to a native reader. When you encounter a weird sentence or phrase in your native language (listen closely to announcements in the airports and metros, read signages that would originally have been written in English), try translating it mechanically back to English and see if it doesn’t start making sense. The translator, however, is not aware or doesn’t care. Access to Google Translate has made things worse. Many of these “professional” content creators and translators have no idea how Google Translate works and how it can’t be used blindly. Sometimes it results in funny or wrong output like the examples mentioned. But meaninglessness and unreadability are much more prevalent. Corporates, governments, NGOs – everybody is getting these poor translations done every day. Nobody has a mechanism to check, because nobody seems to realize that you can’t take translation for granted. Translation is a specialized skill that needs the understanding of both languages, their similarities, their differences, their colloquial expressions, their phrases and idioms, their regional variations, and very importantly the target audience for the output. Nobody is being trained for any of that. A few great translators might be producing great literary output, but things that get used every day by common people are at the mercy of those who don’t care. Neither the person ordering the translation, nor the one doing it. Without realizing it, we are in a translation apocalypse.

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A laughable Hindi translation of “organic”, but in Tamilnadu, I will excuse it!
Travel

Snippets from Europe Trip: Of Languages and Dialects

Languages Repressed

After visiting Les Combarelles cave, Abhaya asked our guide where the name of the cave came from. The answer was a little unusual. It apparently came from a word in a language called Occitan and as far as I remember that word meant cave. I tried to verify from the only Occitan-English dictionary I could find online and the nearest word I found was Comba, which means a gorge or a hollow. It still fits. So, perhaps that’s what she was referring to. But the best part of the conversation was the discovery that there is a language called Occitan.

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France wasn’t traditionally French-speaking. Since after the revolution, targeted policies have been followed to repress, even destroy, “patois” or “dialects” in favor of a unifying French language. It was considered essential for democracy (else non-French speakers are excluded!) and for making France a unified power to contend with. Some, like Occitan, have survived to date, but like many Indian languages and “dialects”, they also have mostly older people left as speakers and hence are endangered. There are some scattered efforts here and there for these languages, but it doesn’t look like they are a priority. French is the only language of the French Republic and there is really no space for other languages to flourish under official patronage.

By recognizing a large number of languages in the constitution, India did a better job than the Republic of France with the languages. Since each of our states can have their own official languages, which can be different from the official languages of the central government, it has ensured that at least some languages are not yet obliterated. But there has been a sweeping classification of a large number of languages as dialects even in India (and Hindi – to whose dialect status many of these languages are consigned – might be the worst culprit here).  Large modern nations just don’t seem to know what to do with their languages.

And Multilingualism!

Luxembourg stands in stark contrast to France as far as the language policy goes.

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In Luxembourgish: We want to remain what we are

People in shops and streets of Luxembourg are effortlessly multilingual. The default seems to be French, but English and German are easily switched into. There is also Luxembourgish, which has refused to succumb to the status of a dialect of German. It is, in fact, the national language of Luxembourg and one of the three administrative languages apart from French and German. Perhaps if we had more city- and micro-states in the modern world, we would have had more languages and fewer dialects.

Luxembourg seems to take its multilingualism seriously.  Looks at the description of how different languages are used in education.

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Click the Image for a clearer screenshot.

This, in particular, blew me over:

Language learning over the entire school career accounts for 50% of the curriculum.

There is something to learn here. A multilingual country like ours should have much more emphasis on learning multiple languages in school than it currently has. Multilingualism, as a talent, is not sufficiently appreciated in our society, but it can be a great practical asset to people.

Then there was Brussels. Walking down one of the streets Abhaya suddenly told me something like, “They have such rhyming names for places. See, they have a chapel that’s called Kapel. I noticed other such names too.”

“Huh? A chapel called Kapel?” I hadn’t come across a chapel by that name in Brussels during my research on the places to see there.

He dragged me back to show me the street sign. It read

Chapelle
Kapel

“Uh oh! It’s not a chapel called Kapel. It chapel written in French and Dutch!”

Henceforth, this story shall be known by the title “A chapel called Kapel“.

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By KapsuglanOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Belgium consists of three regions. Flanders is Dutch-speaking. Wallonia is French-speaking and Brussels is officially bilingual (hence those bilingual signs). There is also a German-speaking minority in the country, but it isn’t a separate region. Dutch, French, as well as German, are official languages of the kingdom. We didn’t visit any places in Wallonia. Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp, all in Flanders, sported Dutch-only signs. But the multilingualism of the country seems to accommodate English also amidst all this without any signs of grudge or snobbery.

Language Troubles

French snobbery about their language is much talked about. Although in smaller places like Les Eyzies we faced language problems, we, thankfully, didn’t find anyone who was rude to us for not speaking French. In fact, in the place worst known for its language and cultural snobbery, Paris, we had a super nice Airbnb host. The elderly lady spoke very little English, but she was infinitely patient with us and went out of the way to help us at every stage. Since she had an easier time understanding written English, she always had a set of post-its about her and would ask us to write down when she didn’t understand what we were saying or asking.

At many places in Les Eyzies we had to resort to keywords, gestures, and pointing to written words – especially to get food! I suppose the Indian experience of often not knowing the local language even while traveling within your own country makes us more used to it. We are more likely to smile apologetically for the language trouble and make attempts to overcome it than act like it’s their fault that they don’t speak English. So, most people also respond in kind. Sorry for stereotyping, but many (not all – obviously) clueless American tourists seem to think it is everybody’s responsibility to learn English for their pleasure and this sense of entitlement gets returned in kind in some cases.

In Paris, people in shops, streets or restaurants usually always started by speaking in French, even when it should have been obvious that we don’t know the language, but most of them switched to English when we started using gestures and keywords (always with an apologetic smile!) to respond.

At the tourist attractions all over, even in Les Eyzies and other less visited places, there was almost always English-speaking staff available.

But, Museum Troubles

Unfortunately, information in English was missing in most of the museums. So, wherever available, one should take an audio guide.

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One of the cards at National Museum of Prehistory

National Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies and Musee du Compagnonnage in Tours were two very interesting museums which didn’t have information on the exhibits in English and had no audio guides available either. However, at the Prehistory museum, there were A4 cards available which had some information in English about all the exhibits in a room. It took some effort to figure out where they were for different parts of the museum and what they described, but they were ultimately fairly informational. One member of the staff did something very sweet for us there. Although her English was so labored that we understood very little of what she was saying, but she voluntarily came forward to speak to us and tried her best to explain how the exhibits in that room were chronologically arranged. After struggling with the cards for a while, what she was pointing out made sense to us and we were better able to use the cards.

At Musee du Compagnonnage we discovered a little late that the landing place, which was so crowded with a large group of elderly French tourists that we had thought it was a meeting/resting place and had skipped it, had some background information available, which helped to understand the rest of the museum with the help of a little pamphlet available in English.  So the visit was slightly frustrating, although we did finally get a hang of the place.

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At Musee du Compagnonnage

At Lourvre we had opted for their “Welcome to Louvre” guided tour in English. At other museums in Paris and Brussels audio-guides saved the day.

We had popped in for a very quick look into Museum of National History and Art at Luxembourg and the cards in English there were fairly easy to use.

The Industrial Museum is Ghent turned out to be unsatisfactory. There were no audio guides although there were booklets provided in English for each of its floors. But in some cases, there was too much to read. Then on the main floor showcasing textile industry equipments, after the first few, we couldn’t match exhibited machines to their description in the book very accurately. But the Plantin Moretus Museum (related to printing) at Antwerp was very English-language friendly. All the information was available in all three languages – French, Dutch and English.

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From Plantin Moretus Museum, Antwerp (Fragments of Dutch on the left, French on the right)

The Language Families

This is purely academic information, but one which I became aware of only after this trip. French is a Romance language, while English is a Germanic language, as is Dutch. So, English and Dutch are more similar than English and French are. But if there are many words in French that you recognize from your knowledge of English, it is because English borrowed most of them from French. After what is known as Norman conquest of England in the 11th century, a large number of such words entered the English language. More might have been borrowed over time too, because before English started donning the mantle sometime in the 20th century and after Latin had been displaced, French was the lingua franca of Europe!

Given that last bit, we can excuse the French some languages-snobbery, can’t we?