Why does everything sound better if it's said in French? That fascination is at the heart of The Story of French, the first history of one of the most beautiful languages in the world that was, at one time, the pre-eminent language of literature, science and diplomacy.
In a captivating narrative that spans the ages, from Charlemagne to Cirque du Soleil, Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow unravel the mysteries of a language that has maintained its global influence despite the rise of English. As in any good story, The Story of French has spectacular failures, unexpected successes and bears traces of some of history's greatest figures: the tenacity of William the Conqueror, the staunchness of Cardinal Richelieu, and the endurance of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Through this colorful history, Nadeau and Barlow illustrate how French acquired its own peculiar culture, revealing how the culture of the language spread among francophones the world over and yet remains curiously centered in Paris. In fact, French is not only thriving—it still has a surprisingly strong influence on other languages.
As lively as it is fascinating, The Story of French challenges long held assumptions about French and shows why it is still the world's other global language.
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About the Author
Partners in life and in writing, Canadian journalist-authors JEAN-BENOÎT NADEAU and JULIE BARLOW are award-winning contributors to L'actualité. Their writing has appeared in the Toronto Star, the Ottawa Citizen, Saturday Night, The Christian Science Monitor and the International Herald Tribune, among others. In 2003, Nadeau and Barlow published their critical and popular success, Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong. They live in Montreal.
Canadian journalist-author JEAN-BENOÎT NADEAU is an award-winning contributor to L’actualité. Writings with his life partner, JULIE BARLOW, have appeared in the Toronto Star, the Ottawa Citizen, Saturday Night, The Christian Science Monitor and the International Herald Tribune, among others. In 2003, Nadeau and Barlow published their critical and popular success, Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong. They live in Montreal.
Canadian journalist-author JULIE BARLOW is a regular contributor to Montreal public affairs magazine L’actualité. Her writing has appeared in magazines and newspapers in the U.S. Canada and Europe, including the New York Times, USA Today, Toronto Star, and the International Herald Tribune. In 2003, Barlow published an international bestseller Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong with her husband and co-author Jean-Benoît Nadeau. In 2006 the couple published the critical success The Story of French. They've also released The Story of Spanish.
Read an Excerpt
If there was one place in the world where we never expected to hear French, it was Tel Aviv. Julie had twice travelled extensively in Israel before we started to research this book, and it had simply never occurred to her that there was a significant francophone presence there. Most Israelis speak Hebrew and English, so it’s hard to imagine that French has even a fighting chance as a second language among them. Yet the first language we heard when we stepped out of our hotel in Tel Aviv was French—a pair of women chatting at a corner store across the street.
That was a surprise, since we hadn’t gone to Israel to meet francophones. Our goal was to visit the Hebrew Language Academy in Jerusalem. We had chosen it almost randomly from among some seventy bodies that regulate language across the world to illustrate the fact that France isn’t the only country with a language academy. But when we looked at Israeli society through francophone eyes, we discovered that ten percent of Israelis speak French, including almost all the Moroccan immigrants who live there. In fact, Israel has many more French speakers than Louisiana does.
It turns out there are French-speaking communities not only in the cities of Netanya and Ashdod, but also in urban centres. Tel Aviv has a substantial francophone population; Jerusalem has a vibrant French cultural centre, Le Centre culturel français Romain Gary; a French bookstore, Librairie Vice-Versa; and a large French expatriate community. When we strolled through the Arab quarter of the Old City chatting in French, merchants beckoned us into their shops in French. When we ran into communication problems with an Israeli taxi driver who didn’t speak English, French provided a miracle solution.
Our dip into the Middle East solidified an impression that got stronger throughout our research for this book: that French is more resilient than people generally believe. No matter how people feel about France, they are still interested in the French language. Israel was a case in point. Because of diplomatic tensions over the Palestinian question, very few Israelis hold France in high esteem today. But the reputation of the French language in Israel has suffered very little by association. Jerusalem’s Centre culturel français attracts enough students to offer French courses regularly, and Israel still has two French lycées, plus a dozen or so French schools run by Catholic religious orders referred to as les frères. While the use of French is probably not increasing in Israel, it is holding its own, as both a mother tongue and a second language.
This basic impression was confirmed everywhere we travelled to research this book, including Louisiana, the eastern United States, the Canadian Maritimes, northern Ontario, Senegal, Tunisia, Guadeloupe, Algeria, France, Belgium and Switzerland. In terms of relative numbers of speakers, French may be declining as an international language, but it has an enduring hold on the world, a level of influence that in many ways surpasses—and is even independent of—France’s.
When people think of the “French paradox,” they are usually thinking about how the French can eat rich foods and drink great quantities of wine yet somehow remain slim. But there is another French paradox, this one about the language: In spite of the ascendancy of English, French has held on to its influence. Where did this influence come from, and how has French retained it? These are the questions we set out to answer in The Story of French.
As an international language, French is said to be waning. English not so long ago surpassed French as the world’s lingua franca and is now the undisputed international language of business, diplomacy and academic exchange. In numbers of speakers, French ranks only ninth in the world, far behind Chinese, Hindi, Spanish and English, and neck-and-neck with Portuguese. It has relatively little economic clout; the combined GDP of the countries where French is spoken places it far behind English, well behind both Japanese and German, and just ahead of Spanish. French speakers seem to be so insecure that they pass laws banning other languages and spend millions of taxpayers’ dollars making sure their language gets used in literature, music and film.
From other perspectives, however, French appears to be flourishing. Among international languages, French is in a class of its own. Of the six thousand languages now spoken on Earth, French is one of only fifteen spoken by more than a hundred million people, and one of a dozen used as official languages in more than one country. Among these, only four—English, French, Spanish and Arabic—have official status in more than twenty countries. French, with thirty-three countries, ranks second to English, with forty-five. Two G8 countries (France and Canada) are French-speaking, as are four member countries of the European Union (France, Belgium, Luxembourg and soon-to-be member Romania). French is the number-two second-language choice of students across the planet, attracting learners as far away as Lesotho and Azerbaijan, with two million teachers and a hundred million students worldwide. It is the only language besides English that is taught in every country of the world. Finally, there have never been as many French speakers in the world as there are today: The number has tripled since the Second World War. (For more details on these figures, refer to the Appendix.)
It doesn’t seem like an exaggeration to claim that French is another global language, and, as we have seen, perhaps the other global language, in an increasingly English-dominated world. As two Canadians, we have a unique relationship with French that in some ways made us well-suited to explore its paradoxes. Along with Mauritius, the Seychelles, Cameroon and Vanuatu, Canada is one of five countries in the world where French and English are both official languages. Montreal, where we have lived for almost twenty years, is a rare bicultural metropolis, and the only one in the world where English and French co-exist almost equally in day-to-day life.
Jean-Benoît is a native French speaker. He was born and raised in Quebec, a Canadian province that was a French-speaking “Lost World” for two hundred years (it was cut off from contact with France from the end of New France in 1763 until the 1960s). His family is francophone, a term French speakers in Canada commonly use to distinguish themselves from both the European French, and North American English speakers, whom they refer to as anglophones. Jean-Benoît learned English when he was a teenager and decided to continue his studies in English at McGill University in Montreal. That’s where he met Julie, who, like him, had just enrolled in the political science program. Julie is an anglophone who was raised in English-speaking Ontario. She moved to Montreal to study (in English), but decided to stay and learn French after she graduated.
When we moved in together in 1991, Julie’s French was still pretty shaky, so we started our own system of language exchange, alternating the household language weekly between French and English, starting every Monday morning. The system worked well. Jean-Benoît started publishing magazine articles in English in 1994, and Julie started publishing in French in 1995. We have been writing for national magazines in both of Canada’s official languages ever since. This is unusual, even in Canada, where only a small minority of Canadians are truly bilingual, and fewer yet are bicultural. But working in both media worlds has given us a first-hand understanding of how differently anglophone and francophone Canadians see the world.
In 1999 we added a European twist to our bilingual profile by moving to Paris. Jean-Benoît became a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs. His mandate was to explain why the French were resisting globalization, a topic that was on everyone’s mind at the time. The problem was that, two weeks after we arrived in France, we realized that the French weren’t resisting globalization at all. Luckily Jean-Benoît was allowed to switch his subject, so we both spent the next two years writing about who the French are and explaining why they think and organize themselves the way they do.
That work inspired us to write a book, Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong, which we released in the middle of the Iraq crisis in 2003. Our objective was to explain the reality behind perceptions of the French, particularly to the Anglo-American press. The timing for the book turned out to be risky, but we survived the intense French-bashing at the beginning of the Iraq war and the book has been selling well ever since. It was translated into French in 2005, and turned out to be as popular in France as it is in the English-speaking world.
Although The Story of French was written after Sixty Million Frenchmen, we got the idea for both books at the same time. Four months after we arrived in France, Jean-Benoît visited Monaco to attend an international conference of finance ministers of the Francophonie, the organization of French-speaking countries that resembles the Commonwealth. During this conference he realized how much language had become a new political reality on the international scene, with countries aligning themselves on issues on the basis of their native or adopted tongues—many propagandists in favour of invading Iraq in 2003 did so on the basis of “Anglo-Saxon” solidarity. When he saw the Francophonie at work, Jean-Benoît also understood to what extent the French language had become a globalizing force of its own—with or without France.
We decided to write a book to explain how this happened, starting from the very beginning of the story. From the outset we wanted to explore a few large themes—or myths. One was the Académie française, the French Academy. When people think of the French language, this is often the first thing that springs to mind. The Academy has long been a pet peeve of Anglo-American commentators, who hold it up as proof that the French are stuck in the past. In a way, as we learned, critics are right to laugh at the forty “immortals” wearing Napoleonic hats and carrying swords who get together every week to root out unworthy words from the French language. The French Academy is a little obsolete.
At the same time, when they are ridiculing the Academy, commentators almost always miss the point. The Academy in no way “polices” French. Its main job has always been to produce a French dictionary, and that’s still mostly what it does. Insofar as it regulates the language at all, it has hardly played more than a symbolic role since the mid-nineteenth century. But that doesn’t make the Academy any less important, either historically or today.
The creation of the French Academy in the seventeenth century was actually a breakthrough for European languages, and one of the main factors that enabled French to become the language of Europe’s elite. That in turn was one of the reasons why French spread across Europe, and eventually the world. In other words, the Academy was progressive, and it played an important historical role in making French what it is today, not only grammatically but also geopolitically. Today it still functions, if only symbolically, as a kind of museum of French-language normes, or standards. While these are often ridiculed, especially in the English-language media, language norms are an important facet of francophone culture, a value that stands on its own.
As for language protection, another francophone society, Quebec, took that on in the twentieth century and did a much more thorough job of it than the French ever have. Along with many other countries in the world, France considers Quebec’s standards to be a reference point in the field.
One peculiar and often overlooked feature of French is that, unlike English, it is still very much associated with its European “mother” country. Indeed, of all the international languages, French is the only one of which the majority of native speakers are still in their country of origin. The French never migrated en masse, so all native francophones outside of France and Algeria form a minority in their respective countries. As a result, France and Paris still tend to dominate the world view of French speakers, unlike Britain, Spain or Portugal, which have been surpassed by larger nations that speak their tongues.
But all that is changing. As we discovered during our research, the French language is less and less “controlled” by Paris. While the French Academy continues to play its (largely symbolic) role in defining French, francophones the world over use the language as it suits them. Real French, the language spoken by 175 million people across the planet, is alive and kicking and readily adapting to different political, cultural and religious contexts. Under the influence of local regionalisms, argots, verlan (slang) and other languages such as English and Arabic—to name but the most important—French speakers communicate in their own versions of French, not the stiff parlance taught in schools. And, increasingly, francophone societies outside France are speaking with each other, often completely bypassing Paris.
This vitality is one of the reasons why francophones have their own star system in literature, film, music and more, in spite of the global reach of American pop culture. Céline Dion and Gérard Depardieu may be the only names known to non-francophones, but singers such as Garou and Johnny Hallyday, poets such as Luc Plamondon and Amadou Kourouma, authors such as Michel Houellebecq and Tahar Ben Jelloun, and actors such as Gad Elmaleh or Djamel Debbouze are household names among francophones all over the world.
There is no doubt that francophones are borrowing liberally from English. But is it fair to deduce that they are insecure about their language? Given the amount of time and energy francophone societies spend thinking and talking about their language, it’s not surprising that Anglo-American commentators have so often jumped to this conclusion. However, these commentators usually overlook an important phenomenon among francophones: their attachment to the norme, to language rules and standards. Far from being a defensive reaction to the growing influence of English—as it is often portrayed—attachment to the norme is a cultural feature among francophones that has its own history and significance.
While most native English speakers (and many French speakers as well) assume that the progress of English is hurting the prospects of French, we found that, globally, that’s just not happening. Language is not a zero-sum game. There definitely appears to be a struggle: Outside France and Algeria, most francophones in the world are a minority in their country and have long had to fight for their language. But with the exception of Quebec, most of these efforts by francophones have been, and continue to be, directed towards other languages, not English. The French themselves are not insecure about their language and are not particularly concerned about English, for a simple reason: So far, they have no need to be. How did French develop, spread and acquire its own set of values? And why does it remain important? These are the central questions underlying The Story of French. Throughout this narrative we explain the events that spawned the different features of French: its intense politicization, the rigidity of its rules, the sense of cultural exceptionality that inhabits every French speaker, the centrality of France, the adherence of all franco-phones to language norms and regulations, and even the influence of French on English—and vice versa. Geographical and political circumstances; decisions by important political figures; French and Belgian colonial policies and practices; the world wars; trade; the export of literature, art, cinema and luxury products, industrial policies and scientific discoveries—all of these, and more, have shaped French. The Story of French is divided into four parts, representing the main stages in the story of the language: origins, spread, adaptation and change. In each we relate the events, people and places, large and small, that shaped the destiny of the French language, from the temerity of William the Conqueror to the staunchness of Cardinal Richelieu, the charisma of Voltaire and the determination of Red Cross founder Henri Dunant, to Quebec’s language laws and Léopold Sédar Senghor’s activism in the wake of African independence. As far as we know, this is the first popular history of the language that addresses these issues in a narrative that stretches from Charlemagne to actress Jodie Foster, who appears in French films speaking perfect French—a pure product of France’s cultural diplomacy efforts.
Sociolinguists often joke that a language is a dialect with an army. We are not linguists ourselves, but graduates of political science, history and English literature, and we sympathize with this view. Although we do discuss linguistics in four chapters, our general approach is sociolinguistic rather than purely linguistic (readers who are looking for detailed accounts of grammatical or spelling developments can consult the books listed under “The French Language” and “Linguistics and Other Languages” in the Selected Bibliography). The Story of French approaches French as a dialect with an army, a navy and an economy, strong diplomatic skills, aggressive cultural policies and ideas and, of course, some luck. The spread of French, like that of many international languages, was a by-product of these factors, though the French language persisted in some countries even after these forces had disappeared.
The Story of French includes spectacular failures and unexpected successes, and it is not always a nice story. Colonialism, slavery and genocide have all happened in French. It is by no means our intention to endorse these horrors, but, from the perspective of dissemination of European languages, they cannot be overlooked. Monstrous though they were, the Spanish conquest of the Americas, the deportation of the Acadians, the massacre of Australian Aborigines, the Angolan slave trade and the seventh- and eighth-century jihads all played an important role in making English, Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic into international languages. Languages do not become international for nothing.
Of course, war and violence weren’t the only ways in which French spread. In the 1950s the French philosopher, author and Nobel Prize–winner Albert Camus said, “Ma patrie, c’est la langue française” (“My country is the French language”). Camus was born in Algeria into a family of European settlers, and although he’s a French icon, he was a francophone in spirit. His famous comment expressed a reality that few people understood in postwar Europe. Already traditional borders were becoming less important and language was becoming a new frontier. The French had already understood this at the end of the nineteenth century, when they began actively exporting their language in the form of international networks of French schools, Alliances françaises and cultural centres. World leaders in the field of cultural diplomacy, the French—and francophones—are still expanding the frontiers of French with their “soft power.” In writing the Story of French, we had to confront many prejudices, not only about French, but also about English. Many serious writers are convinced that English is sweeping the planet, because it is better suited than any other language to commerce, trade, logic, popular culture and even democracy. Many also claim that the success of English comes from its special capacity for absorbing new words. In our opinion, this is ethnocentrism applied to language. Saying that English is especially suited to trade is a little like saying that French is especially suited to cuisine; there are good historical reasons why each language came to be associated with these activities (although plenty of business is also carried out in French, and plenty of good cooking is done in English). Writers rarely mention, for instance, how the British Navigation Act of 1652 got English off to a good start. The Act banned all non-British ships or crews from landing at British ports, which destroyed Dutch commerce, led to the downfall of Holland’s navy and opened the seas to British control, greatly enhancing British trade. The fact that in the twentieth century one English-speaking empire (the United States) replaced another (Great Britain) certainly helped boost the prospects of English, to put it mildly.
But we did not write The Story of French to compare the fates of French and English—there is no comparison. English has achieved an international presence that is unprecedented in the history of languages. The English language has become so prevalent in world affairs that most educated people in most modern, developed countries no longer consider it a foreign language—including the French. Yet, as we show, English is not the only global language. And, more important, it is not erasing the differences in how language groups think and see the world. The destruction of the World Trade Center showed everyone that religion is still an important mental frontier that defines cultures. Christians have bought millions of books on Islam since September 11, 2001, in an effort to understand the events of that day. And, in our globalized world, language is also a mental frontier.
One of those mental frontiers is French. When we went to Paris in 1999, our neighbour, Thorfinn Johnston, was a Scot from the Orkney Islands. As Thorfinn himself pointed out, he had much more in common with Julie, an English-speaking North American, than he did with his fellow Europeans the French. The same is true of Jean-Benoît and his French, Algerian and Senegalese friends; they share something inaccessible that goes beyond mere words or cultural references. A translated novel by Michel Houellebecq or Michel Tremblay remains inherently French (in the case of Houellebecq) or Québécois (in the case of Tremblay).
The Story of French explores what’s inside the mental universe of French speakers. French has been an important global language practically from the moment it became distinct from Latin, and throughout its history it has functioned as a vector for a distinct set of values. French carries with it a vision of the State and of political values, a particular set of cultural standards and even a clear idea of its role in the world, though this has changed drastically over the centuries. Francophones are also united in their strong adherence to norms, contrary to English speakers, because French relies on strict written rules to define its grammar, lexicon and syntax.
As many chapters of this book show, the French language has remained influential not only in spite of but also because of the influence of English. English speakers have always reserved a pre-eminent place for French in their culture and, to a certain extent, as it sweeps the planet English is carrying and spreading this vision of French with it. By the same token, some of French’s power to promote itself comes from the fact that, more than any other language, it offers a counterbalance to the influence of English.
This last point is crucial. In countries such as Israel, Mexico and Egypt, all clearly outside the French sphere of influence, elites still school their children in French. The U.S. and Mexico have the two biggest networks of Alliances françaises in the world. The Egyptian elite in Alexandria began schooling their children in French lycées to counterbalance the influence of British colonialism, and some still do so now to resist American hegemony; the former secretary-general of the Francophonie and of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, is a product of that philosophy. As French linguist Henriette Walter, author of Honni soit qui mal y pense, a history of the relationship between the French and English languages, told us, English speakers are not necessarily conscious of it, but “people are still proud to belong to the club of French speakers.” Comparing French-speaking countries did raise some problems for us. For one thing, statistics on the English and French languages are somewhat crude. One reason is that it is difficult to define exactly what is a French speaker or an English speaker. Both are not only native languages but also important languages of choice in many other countries. The various people designing surveys don’t always make the same distinctions between different types of speakers (native, partial or occasional, for example). When talking about francophones we use the generally accepted figure of 175 million speakers, but that doesn’t count the estimated 100 million occasional speakers or the 100 million French students in the world. (In the case of English, the same categories vary even more widely, from 375 million to 600 million native speakers, plus an additional 500 million occasional speakers and 500 million students.)
We use the terms anglophone and francophone for people who speak English or French, respectively, in order to emphasize the fact that not all French speakers are French. We also often refer to both the Francophonie and the francophonie. The nuance is important. Francophonie with a capital F is the fifty-three-member Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (International Organization of the Francophonie), whose purpose it is to promote French. The small-f francophonie is the real planet of francophones. Countries such as Israel and Algeria, and the United States—where 1.6 million speakers make French the third language after English and Spanish—are not part of the capital-F Francophonie (see table 6 in Appendix). In 127 countries of the world, mostly outside the (official) Francophonie, there are tens of millions of students, adults and children, learning French in one of the world’s roughly 1,500 Alliances françaises and French lycées and collèges. An additional twenty million students are learning French in national education programs outside the fifty-three member countries (plus ten observers) of the Francophonie.
Not a bad performance for a language that ranks ninth in the world for number of speakers! And education is just one of the ways in which French has held on to its rank as the world’s second international language. This is the story of how French became a global language, and why it will likely remain one for many years to come.
Copyright © 2006 by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow. All rights reserved.