Language politics and the French “Master” degree

I’m planning on writing more about French higher education policy in the next few years, since even after my dissertation there’s a lot to learn. For instance, there’s something curious about the national origins of the French system of diplomas. Here are the standard types of university degrees in France:

  • A License of 3 years is approximately analogous to an American Bachelor’s.
  • A 2-year Master, similar to an American Master’s, can be either a “Research Master” or a “Professional Master.”
  • The Doctorat (Ph.D.) theoretically takes 3 years, but often more, after which one gets to be called Docteur. (The doctorate in French had a great deal of institutional complexity over the years which I won’t go into here.)
  • The Habilitation à Diriger des Recherches is derived from the German Habilitation: it’s a post-PhD degree usually given mid-career and required to supervise doctoral students. (Fortunately, this has no equivalent in Anglophone academia — though overproduction of PhDs is such that one might venture that something like it would logically have to be created as a new form of status differentiation.)

Thus the most advanced degree types are both named after German precursors; the License is strictly a French invention; and the intermediate degree, the Master, borrows its name from English. If this was a hierarchy and not a historical accident, one would see that the academic system put Germany at the top, Anglo-America in the middle, and France at the bottom. (German and American universities have been the dominant foreign references in modern French academia, as Christophe Charle has shown.)

That’s not the funny part, though.

What’s funny is that when the Master was first introduced in 1999, it was spelled in weirdly Frenchified form as mastaire. I imagine this was partly to make the spelling more pronounceable in French (since “er” in French is typically pronounced “ay,” and moreover usually signals a verb, not a noun). But also it indicated a minor attempt to “nationalize” the foreign loan word.

Yet as you see from my table, it’s not called a mastaire any more. Three years later, presumably to cohere with the international norm (and perhaps with the Bologna Process standards), the degree was renamed to just use the English spelling, Master. Since the names of degrees are spelled out in national statutes, this required statutory action to correct. An amusing official decree of April 2002 thus reads:

Article 1 – Dans le titre et dans toutes les dispositions du décret du 30 août 1999 susvisé, le mot : “mastaire” est remplacé par le mot : “master”.
Article 2 – À l’article 8 du décret du 4 avril 2001 susvisé, le mot : “mastaire” est remplacé par le mot : “master”.

(Essentially that says: “In official documents from 1999 and 2001, the word ‘mastaire’ is replaced by the word ‘master’.”)

And while the revised spelling was no longer very consistent with standard French orthography/pronunciation, I found in my field research that that made no difference. There are lots of borrowed English words in French already; I never saw anyone have problems pronouncing them. Le master ended up sort of halfway between French and English, usually getting pronounced something like “luh masterre,” with a standard French r sound.

It’s interesting, though, that the possessive part of the English “Master’s” has vanished in the French borrowing, as has the disciplinary marker we append to the formal degree name (“Master of Arts” or “of Sciences”). Translations are always messy, never more so than when they involve institutional and juridical categories. Le master ends up being English and yet not English, French and yet not French.