A story by Pam Belluck in today’s NY Times describes the changing fortunes of the French language in Maine:
Frederick Levesque was just a child in Old Town, Me., when teachers told him to become Fred Bishop, changing his name to its English translation to conceal that he was French-American.
Cleo Ouellette’s school in Frenchville made her write “I will not speak French” over and over if she uttered so much as a “oui” or “non” — and rewarded students with extra recess if they ratted out French-speaking classmates.
And Howard Paradis, a teacher in Madawaska forced to reprimand French-speaking students, made the painful decision not to teach French to his own children. “I wasn’t going to put my kids through that,” Mr. Paradis said. “If you wanted to get ahead you had to speak English.”
That was Maine in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and the stigma of being French-American reverberated for decades afterward. But now, le Français fait une rentrée — French is making a comeback…
You can go to the article to read about the comeback; what I want to focus on is the bad old days. I can understand the reaction against the language of the enemy during wartime, against German during both world wars for example; it’s irrational and deplorable, but understandable. But why on earth were people subjecting their neighbors and their neighbors’ children to that kind of harassment in the ’50s and ’60s? It shocks me to learn that during the very years when I was happily learning French, others of my generation were being punished for using it in a supposedly free country. If anyone can explain this to me, please do. I mean, generalized “why can’t they speak English” griping is one thing; forcing people to change their name is quite another.
Incidentally, Benjamin Zimmer discusses this story in Language Log and demolishes the idea that “French-American French, derived from people who left France for Canada centuries ago, resembles the French of Louis XIV more than the modern Parisian variety.”
While I’m on the subject of the Sunday Times, I have to let William Safire have it yet again. His latest column contains the idiotic statement “Most Americans associate the phrase Fur Ball, usually capitalized, with events to raise funds for the Humane Society or A.S.P.C.A.” When I read this, I thought perhaps I, having been raised abroad, was an unrepresentative sample of Americans, so I turned to my wife and said “Say, what do you associate the phrase fur ball with?” She thought for a moment and said she associated it with cats. Wanting to give Safire a fair shake, I said “Are you sure you don’t associate it with events to raise funds for the Humane Society or A.S.P.C.A.?” She looked at me as if I were crazy. Perhaps Safire should have an automatic blinders-checker that would replace the phrase “most Americans” with “the tiny group of insiders I hang out with.” While I’m at it, he calls this a “familiar saying”: “If they want me in on the crash landings, I better damn well be in on the takeoffs.” And he claims it’s bad English to say “Our discussion anchored itself on Article II” because his old pal Rear Adm. Dick West (retired) says “In the Navy we say anchored in… as in ‘anchored in 300 fathoms of water.’ To be more specific, you could say that the anchor is on rock, sand or sediment. When you want to say you’re physically attached to something, you say that you’re moored to it, like moored to the dock.” That’s nice, but it has nothing to do with usage by English speakers outside of the Navy. Come on, Bill, wouldn’t you rather be golfing? If you must write a weekly column, couldn’t you pick a subject you can write sensibly about?