How French rose, spread and then fell

Review Language

December 17, 2006|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,Special to the Sun

The Story of French

Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow

St. Martin's Press / 483 pages / $25.95

Once the world's pre-eminent language, today French ranks only ninth among the top 15 languages. Although French is spoken by about 175 million people, called francophones, and is an official language in 41 countries, most of them members of an organization called La Francophonie, it's far behind Chinese, Hindi, Spanish and English, and on a par with Portuguese.

In The Story of French, Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow cover the people, places and events behind the rise and fall of the French language. A story with several story lines leavened with anecdotes, the book examines the language's origins, spread, adaptation and evolution along with nearly everything that shaped and shapes French.

The authors explain that French is a Romance language descended from Latin and influenced by the Celtic and Germanic languages. Although the oldest French text (the Oaths of Strasbourg) is dated A.D. 842, Latin was France's official language until 1539, when King Francis I issued a law under which French superseded Latin in the court. Nearly 100 years later, Cardinal Richelieu created the Academie Francaise, which tried to regulate, unify and purify the French language.

From the 17th to the 20th centuries, French was the preferred language for literature, the arts, science and business, and it was spoken in colonies from Africa to the Caribbean to North America. Then in the 20th century, decolonization, the aftermath of World Wars I and II, and efforts to promote English weakened the dominance of the French language, which today is at an all-time low in usage.

As French-Canadian authors Nadeau and Barlow see it, the blame lies with a do-nothing attitude in France as well as with French purists. Once considered the language of genius, French is arguably clearer, simpler, and more concise than any other language. But these qualities come with a price to be paid to the French purists, who, the authors argue, are stifling the language. To the purist, neologisms - even scientific and technical words - are faults, as are words borrowed from another language, which is deemed a sign of ignorance.

Yet historically, the French haven't helped their cause. Nadeau and Barlow note that in 1763 at the end of the Seven Years' War, the victorious British offered France either Canada or the Sugar Islands in the Caribbean. And the French, in what seems "an absolutely stunning lack of foresight, chose the Sugar Islands over New France" (Canada), which was considered a money pit. As Voltaire put it in Candide, New France was only "a few acres of snow."

More recently, members of the French intelligentsia, Nadeau and Barlow claim, not only think "their language is losing its international role, but seem to believe that the fight was over before it even started." That concept is shared by French business executives, entrepreneurs, researchers, and diplomats who think English is the language of science, business, and diplomacy.

With mediocre libraries, French universities don't give students access to the most advanced research. It seems, Nadeau and Barlow say, as though French intellectuals have "delegated the job of making sense of the world to other languages." The current inclination of French publishers to publish articles without indented paragraphs and books without indexes, the authors contend, doesn't help. Nor do contemporary French writers, who, rebelling against purists, reject plain writing for long windy sentences. Thinkers like Michel Foucault are more readable in their English translation than in the French original. All of which brings up Nadeau's and Barlow's writing style.

Even though their sentences are generally plain, their book lacks a clear focus. At times a sociological study, at times a history, at others a diatribe, the text tries on different poses with each (and within each) chapter. Perhaps this is because the book has two authors who don't always seem to agree.

Often, the authors use metaphors to glue thoughts together even if they don't make sense. So you'll read a sentence like "The Story of French explores what's inside the mental universe of French speakers" and wonder what a mental universe is. Later you realize that the book isn't even remotely connected with anyone's mental universe but is related to the concept of a mental frontier, as in "And in our globalized world, language is also a mental frontier." (What exactly does that mean?) But these are nitpicks. The greatest difficulty is that the book doesn't offer solutions to the problems it describes.

Instead it offers both a lengthy collection of grievances against those the authors hold responsible for the problems as well as a history of the French language. Instructive - even exhaustive - this account goes too far while not going far enough.

Diane Scharper is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and a teacher at Towson University. She is editing a collection of memoirs for the Helen Keller Foundation to be published in 2007.

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