The New York Times
The Story of Frenchby Jean-Benoit Nadeau, Julie Barlow
Imagine a language that is watched over by a group of forty “Immortals,” a language with rules so complex that few people ever completely master it, whose status as the/b>
A fascinating exploration of the historical and cultural development of the French language from the bestselling authors of Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong.
Imagine a language that is watched over by a group of forty “Immortals,” a language with rules so complex that few people ever completely master it, whose status as the world’s lingua franca has been declining for two centuries, whose use in global institutions is waning and whose speakers are so insecure they pass laws banning the use of other languages and spend millions of tax-payers’ dollars to make sure it gets used in literature, music and film. Now imagine a language that is second only to English for the number of countries where it is spoken officially, surpassing both Spanish or Arabic, a language that is the official tongue of two G-7 countries and three European nations, that is employed alongside English in most international institutions and that is the number-two choice of language students across the planet – a language with two million teachers and 100 million students worldwide, and whose number of speakers has tripled in the last fifty years.
This paradox is the backdrop for The Story of French, in which bilingual Canadian authors Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow unravel the mysteries of a language that has maintained its global influence in spite of the ascendancy of English. Mixing historical analysis with journalistic observation, and drawing on their experiences living in and travelling to French-speaking countries, they explore how the French language developed over the centuries, how it came to be spoken in the Americas, Africa and Asia, and how it has maintained its global appeal.
The New York Times
- Knopf Canada
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- Canadian edition
- Product dimensions:
- 6.32(w) x 9.26(h) x 1.33(d)
Read an Excerpt
Part One Origins
The Romance of French
Very few people know that French has its place in the world not in spite of English, but because of it. We began to think about this when we were at university, back in the days when the Berlin Wall was falling. Jean-Benoît arrived at McGill University speaking a kind of abstract English that was much more formal than the language the anglophones around him were using, especially in casual conversation. Fellow students usually knew what was meant when he mentioned that he was “perturbed” by a sore ankle or had “abandoned” his plan to travel to Africa. But off campus, such stiff language produced blank stares. Julie often served as an interpreter, explaining that Jean-Benoît’s ankle was bothering him and that he had given up his travel plans.
Jean-Benoît’s sophisticated English was normal for a French speaker. French is the Latin of anglophones. Nearly half of the commonly used words in English – for example, chase, catch, surf, challenge and staunch – are of French origin. And while their French origins have been largely forgotten by the majority of English speakers (who tend to believe the words come straight from Latin), the influence of French has remained in their linguistic subconscious. For the most part, so-called Latinate words in English are used only in formal speech: People will say “commence” or “inaugurate” instead of “begin” or “start.”
English is in fact the most Latin, and the most French, among Germanic languages, while French – for reasons that we will see – is the most Germanic among Latin languages. The French and English languages share a symbiotic relationship, and that should come as no surprise, as their histories have been inextricably linked for the past ten centuries. And that connection resulted from events that took place in the ten centuries before that. Few anglophones realize that by keeping French words in the “upper stratum” of their discourse, they are granting French a lofty position in their language and culture. As they export English all around the world, French and its high status have become part of the package. It’s one of the least-known explanations for the resilience of French today.
It is impossible to say exactly when French began. Linguists who study European languages spoken before the second millennium consider themselves lucky to recover sentences, known words or even fragments of written text. In most cases they reconstruct ancient languages by examining how they influenced more recent ones. Historians know more about what happened in France between 400 and 1000 ce than they know about the languages spoken there during that period. The most that can be said is that before French there were many Romance languages; before that there was Gallo-Roman; before that there was Latin, and before that, Gaulish. Three main events pushed the language from one phase to the next: the fall of the Roman Empire, the conquest of England and the rise of Paris as a centre of power.
Before the Romans arrived in what is today the northern half of France, its inhabitants spoke different Celtic languages. They were the descendants of tribes of Indo-Europeans who may have originated in Kazakhstan and who migrated to northern Europe during the third millennium bce. The tongue of the Celts, like Latin or Gaelic, belongs to the family of Indo-European languages, which also includes Greek and Hindi. The term was coined in 1787 by William Jones, a British Orientalist. He was puzzled by the fact that basic words such as papa and mama are remarkably similar in Greek, Latin, German, English, Sanskrit and Celtic, and he came up with the theory that most European languages were derived from a forgotten original tongue, which he called Indo-European.
The first Celts arrived with their Indo-European tongue in what is today northern France sometime during the first millennium bce. In the south of France, long before the Celts arrived, the Greeks had established a colony in Marseilles among the Ligurian people living there. But it was the Celts, not the Greeks, who spread across what is now France, pushing other inhabitants such as the Basques into remote corners of the territory. (Linguists describe the Basque language, which is still spoken in southern France and Spain, as pre-Indo-European. It is regarded as Europe’s oldest language.)
The Celts had barely met up with the Greeks in the south of France when the Romans entered the region in the second century bce. By then Gaul had somewhere between ten million and fifteen million inhabitants, prosperous and innovative farmers and stockbreeders who had invented the threshing machine, the plow and the barrel. But the Gauls were also good fighters, which explains why it took Rome a century and a half to subdue them; Julius Caesar finally conquered Gaul around 50 bce.
Curiously, the Celts of Gaul assimilated quickly into the culture of the Romans and started speaking their language. The Celts of Britannia (Britain), which was conquered by the Romans shortly afterwards, never did assimilate. Historians are still trying to understand this difference. Part of the explanation comes from the fact that prior to the Roman conquest, Gaul was already within the Roman economic sphere of influence. Gauls were already using the Roman sesterce as their currency of reference. When the Roman victors showed up with a new system of administration based on cities, a seductive urban culture, unparalleled building techniques and a complete and unified writing system, the Gauls saw the advantages of Roman culture. It didn’t take long for the Gaulish elite to start speaking Latin.
The Gaulish language ended up contributing very little to the vocabulary of modern French. Only about a hundred Gaulish words survived the centuries, mostly rural and agricultural terms such as bouleau (birch), sapin (fir), lotte (monkfish), mouton (sheep), charrue (plow), sillon (furrow), lande (moor) and boue (mud) – that’s eight percent of the total. However, Gaulish is still relatively well-known, partly because it left many place and family names in northern France. For example, the name Paris comes from the Parisii, a Gaulish tribe, and the word bituriges (which meant “kings of the world”) produced the names Bourges and Berry (the difference comes from whether the original name was pronounced with a Latin or a Gaulish accent). Linguists believe that Gaulish also contributed to development of the peculiar sonority of French, and that it was at the root of some important linguistic variations in what would become French. But, contrary to what some people believe, modern French is not Latin pronounced with a Gaulish accent.
Meet the Author
Partners in life and in writing, Canadian journalist-authors Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow are award-winning contributors to Quebec’s national news magazine L’actualité. Their writing has appeared in many publications, including the Christian Science Monitor, the International Herald Tribune, and the Courrier international. In 2003, Nadeau and Barlow published their critical and popular success, Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong. They live in Montreal.
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