Home » world » Yana Grinshpun: Le Petit Robert and the great revision on Israel

Yana Grinshpun: Le Petit Robert and the great revision on Israel

Le Petit Robert is in the limelight and everyone is talking about it. But this text will not relate to the newborn by artificial insemination: “iel”. Linguists have already wondered which are the pronominal forms corresponding to a direct and indirect object complement, others have noticed the inconsistencies of agreement (“iel est con” is always masculine, alas), others still have seen that the neutral has a curiously feminine form “ielle”. In short, all that has already been said and that “they” manage as best they can. After all, lexical creativity is in the spotlight and common French is already “has been”. Come on, motherhood children, let “iels” do it.

Dictionaries are believed to describe linguistic heritage as objectively as possible. However, lexicographical works are not “neutral”, they are made by human beings who are not exempt from ideological preferences. They are engaged in societal debates, they have their opinions on education, language, uses, etc. It is therefore impossible to exclude the fact that very personal choices appear in the dictionaries. Alain Rey, in his preface to The activist lexicography writes about lexicographical discourses: “We see here that the decision to produce a dictionary, that the project itself can be part of a militant action which can go beyond by including it the lexicographical activity itself”.


Activism can be beneficial for advancement towards emancipation, progress and all good socio-political causes; of this there is no doubt. Le Petit Robert has always been considered by linguists as a progressive dictionary in the sense that it tried to take into account the great variety of uses. But it can also, while showing its implication for the benefit of good causes, do the opposite, by proposing a terminology which is questionable, not to say revisionist.

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Take for example Le Robert Junior (CE, CM, 6 °), ed. 2020 which contains a section “Proper names”, very useful for children who have to prepare their presentations for history and geography lessons. We discover a very particular vision of history: “Judah (kingdom of) – Kingdom of southern Palestine. It was founded around 931 BC by the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. King of Babylon Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed it after taking Jerusalem several times (597 and 687). ”

This definition is wrong. The kingdom of Judah could not exist in Palestine, because the term “Palestine” was coined in 135 by the Roman emperor Hadrian after he razed Jerusalem, capital of this kingdom, following the revolt of the Judeans. He then decides to erase the traces of the Jewish presence in Judea and renames Jerusalem “Aelia Capitolina” and Judea “Palestine”. The province of Judea becomes Palestine, so named in reference to the enemies of the Hebrews, the Philistines (a people of Indo-European origin living on the Canaanite coast). The kingdom of Judah therefore cannot exist in Palestine, because such a geographical entity did not exist at the time of the kingdom of Judah.

“Jerusalem, city of Palestine”

But let’s continue reading: “Jerusalem – city of Palestine, declared capital of the State of Israel, contested by the Arab countries. It has 750,000 inhabitants, divided between the modern city (with Jewish population) and the old city and its suburbs (mainly Muslim population) […]. After the first Israeli-Arab war (1948), it was divided into two sectors: Israeli in the west and Arab in the east. In 1967, the Israelis occupied the city in the Arab sector and then proclaimed it the eternal capital of the State of Israel. Today, its status remains a major obstacle to a definitive peace between Israelis and Palestinians. ”This definition also poses a problem not only historical but also political, which goes beyond the mission of a book intended for children.

Jerusalem is not a city of Palestine, this name does not correspond today neither to the historical territory of the province of Judea, nor to Mandatory Palestine which no longer exists. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. The protest of the Arab countries, mentioned by the dictionary, has no relation with its statute, nor with the lexicographical definition. By way of comparison, the Robert makes no mention of the disputed status of the delimitation of the territorial waters of the Aegean Sea by Greece and Turkey, nor of the status of Gibraltar which is under the control of the United Kingdom but which is claimed by Spain.

It is also wrong to say that the status of Jerusalem “remains a major obstacle to a final peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians”. Are the 2020 editors who seem to be engaged in political commentary unaware that during the Camp David II accords the Palestinians were offered sovereignty over the Arab neighborhoods outside East Jerusalem (when these neighborhoods were not part of the municipality of Jerusalem before 1967 and sovereignty over the Christian and Muslim quarters of the old city)? Yasser Arafat refused all the offers made by the Israelis. To say that the city’s status is an obstacle to peace is false information, which manipulates both historical facts and the minds of children who learn history with this dubious educational tool.

It is obvious, in the light of what is shown, that the main obstacle to peace wherever it is, is the militancy, in this case that of Robert which is justified only by its bias of revisions of history, and that this posture has, strictly speaking, nothing to do with pedagogy.

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Yana Grinshpun is a linguist and lecturer at the University of Paris III- Sorbonne-Nouvelle. She is also co-founder of the Observatory of decolonialism and identity ideologies.



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