Books: The Story of French

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Nov 29 14:45:15 UTC 2006

>>From the NYTimes,  November 29, 2006
Books of The Times

The French Have a (Precise and Elegant) Word for It


By Jean-Benot Nadeau and Julie Barlow

During the 2004 presidential primaries, Senator John Kerry, a fluent
French speaker, dropped a remark to an inquiring journalist for French
television. Life on the campaign trail, he said, was affreux that is,
awful or dreadful. Not terrible, the obvious word, but affreux, a more
subtle choice. For the French, selecting the precise word is the
equivalent of a firm handshake or a level look in the eyes in the United
States. With two simple syllables, Senator Kerry had passed a crucial
French character test. The unique relationship between French speakers and
their language is one of the grand themes in The Story of French, a
well-told, highly accessible history of the French language that leads to
a spirited discussion of the prospects for French in an increasingly
English-dominated world. The authors, Jean-Benot Nadeau and Julie Barlow,
are bilingual Canadians with a sense of mission. They value French as a
vehicle of expression uniting 175 million people scattered in a linguistic
archipelago across several continents. They also see it as a counterweight
to American political and cultural power. Unlike the French elite, which
has thrown in the towel on French, they are spoiling for a fight.
Arguments are as much a part of French as the acute accent and the nasal
n. Since the 17th century, it has been treated by French speakers less as
a language than as a work of art, something worthy of constant analysis
and curatorial devotion.

Debates about grammar rules and acceptable vocabulary are part of the
intellectual landscape and a regular topic of small talk among
francophones of all classes and origins a bit like movies in
Anglo-American culture, the authors write. This can seem mystifying to
English speakers, who take a much more casual attitude toward their own
language, perhaps because English spread through the British Isles much
more rapidly than French did through France, a country where regional
dialects persisted until the mid-20th century. On the eve of the French
Revolution only about 3 million French citizens out of a population of 28
million spoke French well, and as late as 1940 about half of the people
spoke a regional dialect as their mother tongue.

Not surprisingly, a host of grammarians and language purists appeared
early on to impose order. The poet and critic Franois de Malherbe
(1555-1628), quite possibly the biggest and most brazen language snob the
world has ever seen, waged a highly successful ideological campaign to
demand that French should be clear, precise and rigorous, ruled by iron
laws of grammar and usage. He helped create the mystique of perfect French
that mesmerizes, and often paralyzes, all French speakers today. A mistake
in French is not merely a slip; it is a transgression. The person who
commits what the French call a faute, the authors write, is seen as being
not only unworthy of the language, but even a traitor to it. Only France
could have a best seller called Knights of the Subjunctive. The historical
half of The Story of French contains many bright spots like this, amusing
insights into the mental universe that Mr. Nadeau and Ms.  Barlow
explored, in broader cultural terms, in Sixty Million Frenchmen Cant Be
Wrong. It is both fun and instructive to learn that gopher comes from
gauffre, or waffle, a reference to the pockmarked appearance of prairie
dog villages, and that when sled drivers yell Mush! they are garbling the
French for Marchez! (Walk!).

And how many people know that the second-largest French-speaking city in
the world is Kinshasa, the capital of Congo? Mr. Nadeau and Ms. Barlow
cover a wide swath of linguistic history with verve and, of course,
clarity and precision, embracing the French not only of France but of its
far-flung colonies as well. The more polemical chapters are a mixed bag.
The authors make a strong case that French, for a variety of reasons,
maintains a powerful international grip despite the rising influence of
English. Former French colonies, with some exceptions, have rejected the
French but have remained loyal to the French language. The prestige of
French culture and the French way of life still makes French an attractive
second language around the world, giving it an influence out of proportion
to its numerical standing as the ninth-most-spoken language in the world.

In documenting the global reach of French, and the efforts of various
countries to promote or protect it, Mr. Nadeau and Ms. Barlow bog down in
a bureaucratic swamp. They bounce from one summit meeting to another,
attend endless roundtable discussions and visit French cultural centers
from Dakar to Lubbock, Tex. This can be tedious, especially the minutiae
of French laws and policies in Canada. When the discussion zooms in on a
hot debate on raising the Franco-Ontarian flag in Sudbury, Ontario, it is
hard not to feel that the topic of French in Canada has perhaps been
exhausted. Mr. Nadeau and Ms. Barlow are four-square cultural
protectionists who regard Quebecs language laws as models. They argue,
fervently and sometimes sophistically, that the English-speaking countries
pursue their own language policy, disguised in the free market, and that
its high time for French-speaking countries to counterpunch through tough
diplomacy and incessant lobbying by governments and international language

>>From the evidence offered, its hard to tell whether the French glass is
half empty or half full. Is French a surprisingly robust international
presence, as the authors carefully harvested statistics seem to suggest,
or an invalid that needs help crossing the street, terrified at being run
down by Anglo-Saxon vehicles with an insane, cursing American at the
wheel? Surely the former. There has to be a future for a language that can
come up with baladeur for Walkman or, for Internet chat, fuse the French
words for keyboard and chat to create clavardage. Tomorrows French will be
different from the language of Malherbe, but it will remain French.
Perhaps it will even bring a little clarity, precision and rigor to a
confused and messy world.


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