[lg policy] book notice: The Story of French: From Charlemagne to The Cirque du Soleil

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Sep 30 15:25:16 UTC 2009

The Story of French: From Charlemagne to The Cirque du Soleil
Jean-Benoît Nadeau + Julie Barlow
Robson Books 2006

A book review by Danny Yee © 2009 http://dannyreviews.com/

In The Story of French Nadeau and Barlow present a potted history of
French, emphasizing culture and politics and language policies but
also touching on linguistics.
The story begins with the early history of French and its origins as a
fusion of dialects from four regions around Paris. The 16th century
was key to its literary and political standardisation and promotion,
and saw the creation of the French Academcy and the origins of
purisme, the peculiarly French form of language purism.

The first wave of colonial settlements established French in the
Caribbean and North America. And in the 17th and 18th centuries French
became the language of international communication and culture, as
"the language of genius" and of the salon. In the 1790s a survey by
the Abbé Grégoire found that, out of a population of twenty eight
million French citizens, only three million spoke French well and
maybe another six million could carry on a conversation; most spoke a
mix of other languages and dialects. The French Revolution helped to
spread the use of French, both inside France and outside. And the 19th
century creation of a mass education system continued its
consolidation — and reinforced its purist tendencies.

French had a different history in Haiti, Belgium and Switzerland. And
in North America, separated from France by defeat in war,
French-speakers in Quebec, Acadia, other parts of Canada, and
Louisiana went their own way. Elsewhere, following the "second
colonial push", the French imperial project didn't succeed in its
policy of cultural assimilation, but did manage to create a
French-speaking base in the colonies. French culture and science, from
Victor Hugo to the Suez Canal, have helped to make French attractive.
More direct action has come from educational networks and
organisations such as the Alliance française and the Alliance
israélite universelle, created to help educate poor Jews in French.

The rise of English has seen the decline of French as the language of
treaties and in other spheres, but it has retained standing as an
international language. In many former colonies, in Africa, Lebanon
and elsewhere, French has flourished and remains in many both an
official and everyday language; in others, such as Syria and
Indochina, it has not fared so well. The second half of the 20th
century saw a rise in French language activism in North America, which
took different forms in Quebec, Acadia and Louisiana. At a different
level, the Francophonie is an official organisation of francophone
countries vaguely comparable to the Commonwealth, which had its
antecedents in the 1950s but has been slowly increasing in prominence
since then.

Looking at some current debates, Nadeau and Barlow describe the
ongoing "struggle for standards" driven by clueless language purists;
they consider neologisms, new sources for standards, changes in the
policies of dictionaries, and so forth. Surveying language policies
and international campaigns for "cultural diversity" clauses, they
suggest that France is in some ways the obstacle, with Quebec and
others leading the way. And they conclude with a consideration of
possible futures for French.


The authors of The Story of French are journalists, not historians or
linguists, and this is evident in their approach. Politics and culture
take centre stage and there is little local socio-linguistics — I
didn't come away with any idea of the contexts in which French would
be preferred to Wolof (or Arabic) in Senegal, for example. More
attention is also paid to vocabulary — easier to explain to those
without a linguistics background — than to other aspects of language.

Nadeau and Barlow are also partisan participants in the debates and
political processes they describe. They are cheerleaders for French,
for French culture, for government and organisational activism to
support its use, and for the approach to that taken by Quebec over
that taken by France. There is some exaggeration here — Louis Pasteur
apparently "invented modern biology", for example — and some careless
errors — "most of the world's languages have an academy, institute,
committee, council or commission that serves as the ultimate authority
on standards" (Lardil? Miniafia?).

There's a six page "Selected Bibliography", broken into thematic
sections, but the vast majority of the works in it are in French. For
a book in English, it would have been more useful to emphasize English
sources, perhaps even to list them separately. These concerns make me
reluctant to use The Story of French as a reference, but as a general
introduction it works well. There was a wealth of information in it
that was new to me, on the history of the Francophonie, the extent of
French use in Israel, the history of Acadia, language politics in
Quebec, and more. And I'm not aware of other popular books in English
that cover the same material.

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