La langue enchantée

La langue enchantée

The French are famous for being protective of their language. So famous for it that you might think they were the only ones who cared about language, much less were doing anything about its preservation.

Every now and then, I run across an article about French anxiety over their language, and the assaults it must endure from English. Whether it's French president Jacques Chirac walking out of a European Union meeting because one his countrymen is addressing the audience in English, or the so-called "Immortals" of the Academie Française who continually warn about anglicisms and "franglais," you might think that the French language is in danger of becoming extinct.

I think our fascination with the French's fascination stems from what France means to us. After all, how many times do you read an article about a Greek minister huffing and puffing over the lack of Greek usage, or the Dutch deciding to create a new search engine that will use Dutch? Perhaps it's our love/hate relationship with France that is the real reason behind it: after all, France is the only country that the U.S. news agencies will never hesitate to transform a trivial story into front-page news if and only if it makes France looks bad and Frenchmen ridiculous.

Take for example the massive demonstrations against the proposals that would make it easier for French companies to hire and fire young workers (known by its initials CPE.) Faced with overwhelming opposition, the French government backed down, and lo and behold, it didn't take long for the Western media to start using verbs like "surrender" or "retreat" as a way of making France conform to our popular notion of a weak-kneed, continually buckling country.

Or the proposed law that would have called on opening up music formats for customers, specifically the music sold through the iTunes Music Store. Whatever the reasons, that proposal was dropped as well, but it didn't take long for the folks at Slashdot to start talking about France's lack of a backbone. (Well, that and the threat of invading them and having it be the cakewalk that Iraq wasn't.)

But if it were another country, it's unlikely that this vitriol would be unleashed in the first place. Whether we like it or not, France and its language occupies a disproportionate influence and space in popular imagination. There might be more speakers of Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish and Arabic in the world, but French just trumps them all in terms of conjuring images of elegance, style, importance and oh yes, snobbery.

In a way, the American attitude towards France is reminiscent of ancient Rome's attitude about Greece. It's fashionable in the United States to invoke Rome all the time by way of comparing their power and problems with ours, but this example is one that might actually stick: Rome may have defeated Greece, but the conquered seem to overcome her conquerer. Rome had nothing along the lines of Greek thought, culture, or art. The Greek language was widespread among the lands that Rome would bring under its aegis, and would continue its status as lingua franca for generations. In fact, Fabius Pictor wrote one of the first histories of Rome not in Latin, but in Greek. And Romans didn't possess an historical writing genre at all. Yet actions like this didn't translate into Rome becoming a center of fawning philhellenes; quite the opposite. Despite the prevalence of Greek learning among the senatorial aristocracy, it was never quite respectable to be identified as a philhellene.1 Likewise, even those politicians who have no quarrel with France and may actually like French culture have hidden their sympathies for fear of a public backlash: witness Senator John Kerry's staff downplaying his knowledge of French during the 2004 presidential election. Couple that with the meaningless remark that he "looks French" and you have a recipe for cultural cowardice.

Additionally, when faced with what amounts to feelings of cultural inferiority, Rome reacted the same way we Americans do when it comes to France. We're derisive of French customs and pretensions; we chafe at the notion that the French consider us boorish, stupid and loud, so we embark on our own smear campaign to label the French as weak, licentious, and cowardly. These are practically the same accusations the Romans hurled at the Greeks.

And yet, with all that derisive noise and slobbering that comes out from right-ring radio and the infotainment channels like MSNBC or Fox News, France plays in our minds like a tune that just won't go away. We may scorn the French, but we continue to make their country a top tourist destination. Our own language is thoroughly permeated with French words, none of which are in danger of becoming replaced with harsh Saxon or other German replacements. Even French preoccupation (or obsession, if you will) with their language finds its way into our popular culture. In an early episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," the android Data informs Captain Picard about an "obscure language known as French," which brings about an indignant response over that tongue's eminence as a sign of culture and diplomacy on Earth. Or the wonderful bit in "Futurama," where a professor claims to have a device that translates a spoken word into some obscure, dead language. The show's main character, Fry, leans toward the device and says, "Hello!" and receives a friendly, "Bonjour!" in response. The professor is outraged: "Gibberish!"

It's highly unlikely the jokes would have worked so well had the language in question been Russian, Marathi or Japanese.

French may no longer be the universally acknowledged language of civilization (at least in Europe) and it may be losing ground to English and even Spanish, but I dare anyone to find a language that evokes either so much sentimentality or anger, praise or derisiveness as French and France. As de Tocqueville remarked two centuries ago, "The French constitute the most brilliant and the most dangerous nation in Europe and the best qualified in turn to become an object of admiration, hatred, pity or terror but never indifference."

(1) Erich S. Gruen, The Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome, Vol. I (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 263.