by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow. New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2006, 496 pp, $25.95.
This is a wonderful book by the authors of the cleverly titled Sixty Million Frenchmen Can"t Be Wrong, which explored the history, sociology, and modern trends of French culture. Both authors are Canadian and attended McGill University, but as their names reveal, one is French-Canadian and the other Anglo-Canadian. The two are married and write very well together.
Why do I say the book is wonderful? Well, because it once again mixes history, sociology, polemic, and modern trends, this time about the French language and, even more interestingly, the English language. At times the authors sound defensive and protective of the French and the French language, but for the most part they are surprisingly undefensive. It is also wonderful because one learns something with almost every page; for example, I learned that the term “zydeco” is a corruption of les haricots (French for “the beans”), that the name Clovis morphed into Louis, and that some words the French think are anglicisms are actually French in origin.
The book starts with a section on the origins of the language, essentially revealing that it is derived from the Indo-European language family and not Latin; that only 100 Gaulish words survive today (one of which is sapin, or “fir”); that Norse settlers contributed such words as crabe (“crab”), homard (“lobster”), and vague (“wave”) and that the Franks contributed gant and robe (“glove” and “dress”), as well as champion and guerre (“war”); that many words were borrowed from Arabic (amiral, alcool, coton, and sirop); and that the split between the languages of northern (oïl) and southern France (oc) persist to this day. Script was introduced in the 12th century and accents were only introduced in the 1530s; the battle for supremacy between Latin and French went back and forth.
While Anglos, especially Americans, have many preconceptions about the French Academy, or Académie français (namely that it is some form of language police), it’s intriguing to learn that it was composed largely of amateurs (in the English sense) and not language experts, authors, or professors. The eight editions of the official dictionary published by the Academy have sometimes taken as long as 70 years to write (the view predominated that each word must have only one unique meaning, meaning no synonyms).
The second section deals with the spread of the French language, including as an instrument of building empires and as a means of diplomacy, the uses of French-based creole languages, and how in the French Revolution, language became a foundation of national identity (one of the reasons behind the creation of the national public school system was to teach proper French to all, as well as taking teaching out of the Catholic Church’s hands).
Some things I learned that I had only a glimmer of before: in 1790 only 3 million of 28 million persons spoke French; there are still 30 dialects spoken today; and even in 1999, 12% of the French population claim to speak a regional language. In addition, French friends have told me that despite years of instruction, the French are reluctant to speak English for fear of not being perfect, the result of a strong tradition of dictation, writing, and speaking without fault (which would be akin to a sin for the French).
The third section is on adaptation of the language; more specifically, how French (and English) is an instrument of foreign policy, cultural importance, and power. The stories of how French became the second “working language” at the United Nations and why ex-colonists “chose” to continue teaching and learning French are wonderful.
Finally, the authors deal with changes to the language in the concluding section. I suspect that unless you watch French news every night (especially “Les Guignols de l’info”) or eavesdrop on adolescents speaking the Arab-influenced language of the cités (suburban high rise buildings for the poor) or verlan (similar to “pig Latin” in English), you won’t be much interested in what’s happened most recently. However, readers should be interested in how the passé simple has been done in by the passé composé, how French has adapted to the Internet and the computer, and the battle between English and French in Europe and North America.
In sum, if you love words, grammar, and French in any form, get this book. One can indeed still learn something new every day.
Book review accepted for publication September 2007 (doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2007.07091488).