The Story of French – Review

Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow. The Story of French. New York: St. Martin’s, 2006. Print.

The Story of French is not what I expected. I had taken a course in English linguistics back when I was in grad school, and I guess I was expecting more of a linguistics text. Instead, it did remind me of the PBS television series The Story of English. Yes, there is a decent amount of history of the language in the book, but it is much more about the state of French in the world today.

The authors tell us that even in the 1600s there were about seventy distinct languages spoken in what is France today. The French Academy and then the French Revolution began attempts to standardize the language, but it was not really until the 19th and 20th centuries, that there was a kind of universally recognized French language. As in England, printers and the law did more to make the language more uniform than anything else.

Both authors are Canadian, so there is quite a bit of emphasis on French in North America. They note that it is somewhat remarkable that French in Canada survived in spite of being separated from its mother tongue for over 200 years. The book notes that New Brunswick ended up with many Acadians driven out of Nova Scotia, so that is why that province also has many French speakers. It also notes that the Cajun French in Louisiana has taken on many English grammatical forms. And here I thought “Laissez les bons temps rouler” was standard French!

Much of the book is devoted to the influence of French around the world. In most places it is the second most studied foreign language next to English. In the United States it is now third behind Spanish.

One thing which The Story of French makes clear is the background of French spelling. Occasionally one will read rants about English spelling. In my mind, it is pretty consistent most of the time, but French also has many silent letters and pronunciations that surprise readers. Writers in both languages from the time of the printing press to the present often used spellings based on the history of the words, not on the phonetic pronunciation. That is probably even more pronounced in French because it is derived from Latin which was the language of the the literate in Europe until the Modern Era.

A good example is the word phonetic itself. It begins with a ph rather than an f to show its Greek origin since Latin (and French) showed the Greek letter phi (φ) with a ph rather than an f or a p. French actually does the same in phonétique. That qu is a holdover from Latin that English usually does not bother with except in words that come from French like antique or technique.

When Spain began standardizing spelling, it spelled words phonetically. So phonetic becomes in Spanish fonetico, spelled with an f. Why Spain was different? I suspect there may not have been as many different languages in renaissance Spain, so it was more readable to everyone. (Even today Gallego and Catalan are usually considered separate languages).

The Story of French notes that English is one of the few major languages that has no Academy or institution of that ilk to describe or define the language.

The British tend to understate their institutions; their constitution is unwritten and their legal system is not codified as a whole. Strangely, their attitude towards language reflects this. The English language has rules (and many exceptions), but English speakers downplay the rules, especially when they are comparing their language to French. The French, meanwhile, proclaim and embrace their institutions with all their officialdom—and their language with all its rules. (142)

The book also notes that other sources ultimately have had more influence on both languages, notably their dictionaries.

As with The Story of English, most of The Story of French is about how it fares today. We read about the way it is spoken around the world. We learn about slang, and where much of it is coming from. We see how immigration to France has altered the language.

We learn how former French colonies have dealt with it. For example, French has become a Creole in Haiti and likely will become one in the Ivory Coast, but probably not in Senegal. More than half the population of Algeria speaks French, but because of the bitter war for independence fought against France in the fifties, it is unlikely French will be an official language of the country any time soon.

There is also quite a bit about the Francophonie, the French speaking world today. There is an organization by that name, but even apart from that, there are interesting and curious ways French speaking countries relate to one another. While French is widely spoken in Africa and is a kind of lingua franca there, for most speakers it is not their mother tongue.

One other similarity to what is happening in English, the authors note that in France the vowels are beginning to sound more similar to one another. This is especially true with the nasalized vowels before n and m. In modern France an, en, in, and un sound pretty much alike, while in Canada there is still a distinction. (I am old enough to have been taught that there was a difference.) Of course in English, pronunciation of unaccented vowels often becomes a schwa (“uh” or ə) regardless of what vowel is written. Will English and French eventually become tonal like many Asian languages?

One big difference in the way French affects the world is in what the book calls cultural diplomacy. French institutions, some government-sponsored, though many not, have consciously for about 150 years tried to export French or promote the use of French around the world. This includes French schools of various types in major cities throughout the world sponsored by the French.

This reviewer once received a bronze medal from the French consulate for his French ability. That was a long time ago. Readers of this blog know that I still occasionally read books in French, but I am not as fluent as I was when I was using it daily and even dreaming in it.

The only thing vaguely similar in English is the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps is often asked to help teach English, but its role is not promotional. We are pretty sure no American or British government sponsored entity gives out medals to foreigners for their English ability.

If you are curious about the state of the French language in the world today, you should find this book most satisfying. It also brings up a number of interesting scenarios that apply to anyone who is depending on someone else to translate for them—diplomacy can be among countries or between individuals.

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