GLOBAL ENGLISH, GLOBAL FRENCH.

A New York Times piece by Michael Kimmelman is about the French language, which, according to Nicolas Sarkozy, among others, is “under siege.” This is, of course, the usual xenophobic idiocy (though in Sarkozy’s case it probably has more to do with wanting to pick up the votes of xenophobes than personal belief), but fortunately it’s not what Kimmelman is primarily interested in, which is the majority of French-speakers who are not from France:

The fact is, French isn’t declining. It’s thriving as never before if you ask Abdou Diouf, former president of Senegal, who is the secretary general of the francophone organization. Mr. Diouf’s organization has evolved since 1970 from a postcolonial conglomerate of mostly African states preserving the linguistic vestiges of French imperialism into a global entity whose shibboleth is cultural diversity. With dozens of member states and affiliates, the group reflects a polyglot reality in which French is today concentrated outside France, and to a large extent, flourishes despite it….
The French language is a small but emblematic indicator of this change. So to a contemporary writer like the Soviet-born Andreï Makine, who found political asylum here in 1987, French promises assimilation and a link to the great literary tradition of Zola and Proust. He recounted the story of how, 20-odd years ago, his first manuscripts, which he wrote in French, were rejected by French publishers because it was presumed that he couldn’t write French well enough as a foreigner.
Then he invented the name of a translator, resubmitted the same works as if they were translations from Russian, and they won awards. He added that when his novel “Dreams of My Russian Summers” became a runaway best seller and received the Prix Goncourt, publishing houses in Germany and Serbia wanted to translate the book from its “original” Russian manuscript, so Mr. Makine spent two “sleepless weeks,” he said, belatedly producing one.
“Why do I write in French?” he repeated the question I had posed. “It is the possibility to belong to a culture that is not mine, not my mother tongue.”
Nancy Huston, a Canadian-born novelist here, put it another way: “The world has changed.” She moved to Paris during the 1970s. “The French literary establishment, which still thinks of itself as more important than it is, complains about the decline of its prestige but treats francophone literature as second class,” she said, while “laying claim to the likes of Kundera, Beckett and Ionesco, who were all born outside France. That is because, like Makine, they made the necessary declaration of love for France. But if the French bothered actually to read what came out of Martinique or North Africa, they would see that their language is in fact not suffering.

He goes on to quote “Yasmina Khadra, the best-selling Algerian novelist, whose real name is Mohammed Moulessehoul,” who says “I decided to become a novelist in French partly because I wanted to respond to Camus, who had written about an Algeria in which there were no Arabs. I wanted to write in his language to say, I am here, I exist, and also because I love French, although I remain Arab. Linguistically it is as if I have married a French woman, but my mother is still Arabic.”
And Dennis Baron makes a similar point about English in this blog post:

No matter how much we object to “mistakes” in other people’s language, there doesn’t seem to be much we can do about it. Plus English speakers, who can’t effectively control the English of fellow anglophones, are actually in a much weaker position when trying to control the English of foreigners. And objecting to the English of advertising seems hopeless. To anglophones, “Yes, we want” may seem funny, and Spanish authorities may even find it embarrassing, but whatever happens to the slogan, its very existence is one more sign that English, now that it’s global, is no longer the exclusive property of English-speaking nations.
The ancient Romans may have felt a similar loss of linguistic control as their empire slipped away and Latin started its long segue into Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Romanian, Catalan, and the other romance tongues. For now it doesn’t look like English is breaking up the way Latin did. But it could. As the Queen might put it, it’s early days yet. And that’s British for “it’s too soon to tell.”

(The second link via MetaFilter.)

Comments

  1. Bathrobe says:

    Hmmm, I didn’t know that “It’s early days yet” was a regionally restricted form.

  2. The amount of French literature might be widened by figures like Makine, Maalouf and Ben Jelloun, but I get the impression that the population of France is reading ever less literature, whether their own or that by Francophone writers elsewhere. When I meet ordinary French people, it seems they think even once-popular writers like Perec to be too boring. What have they wanted to talk about instead? Dan Brown.

  3. If you want to find out about really interesting current French you need look no further than Siganus Sutor’s wonderful blog about the language of Mauritius. He gives us a new word or phrase every day. Marie-Lucie makes comments, as does Jesus. Or, at least, Jesús.

  4. French is doing well “if you ask Abdou Diouf, former president of Senegal, who is the secretary general of the francophone organization”? Pierrez les corbailles!
    Back when French had a claim to be my second (by a country mile, obviously) language, I used to read Le Point and Le Nouvel Observatoire, and it was perfectly clear that the francophone union was a scam: spotting them Romania and counting Canada and Quebec separately, there’s still the little matters of Albania, FYRMacedonia, Greece and Vietnam (very post-colonial and all, but is it really really spoken by actual speakers?).
    It’s true that TV5Monde’s African News is one of the better sources of African news, though, but I never persuaded our hard-disk recorder to hard-disk record it as a matter of routing or default, and it isn’t (AFAIK) available online.

  5. So give a few decades and French will be out the hands of the French? I think I’ll enjoy that.

  6. OT: The Verb delt be with translating poetry tonight. Specifically fado.
    They also touched upon ‘Eskimo words for snow’ and stressed very strongly that it’s nothing but an urban myth. But they used it as the introduction to giving some examples of the 109 English words for “remote control”.

  7. Is “shibboleth” really the word they were looking for?

  8. Maybe “watchword” is more like it.
    The older meaning of watchword (a password you say to the watchman) was moderately close to the older meaning of shibboleth (something that you may get killed for pronouncing wrong when you arrive at the border). Both have drifted away from the reference to armed camps, the one coming to mean something like ‘slogan’ and the other ‘language or knowledge that marks you as an insider’.
    Something like that.

  9. marie-lucie says:

    So give a few decades and French will be out the hands of the French? I think I’ll enjoy that.
    English has not been “in the hands of The English” for quite a while.
    Meanwhile, French is being swamped, not so much by English words, but by American syntax.

  10. English has not been “in the hands of The English” for quite a while.

    That was my point. No Academie Anglaise only silly peevologists.

  11. Meanwhile, French is being swamped, not so much by English words, but by American syntax.

    My, my, how the tables have turned…

  12. US Sphinx says:

    @ bathrobe: “It’s early days yet” is a phrase generally unknown in North America. So now you know.

  13. marie-lucie says:

    “It’s early days yet” is a phrase generally unknown in North America.
    It is certainly not unknown in Canada.

  14. “It is certainly not unknown in Canada.”
    Well, there you go …..swamped by french syntax.
    “My, my, how the tables have turned…’;
    Can a specialist here tell me how much English syntax is French-influenced as opposed to just being Western European/Celtic influenced? For that matter considering the differences between French and Spanish or Italian syntax, how much of French syntax is truly Romance and how much is Western European/Celtic?

  15. Bathrobe says:

    Well, I suspect that there have been direct and identifiable French literary influences on English prose. Whether such things ultimately originated in Celtic or not, I wouldn’t really know.
    One example where I understand French syntax influenced English is the “Having eaten dinner, she retired to her boudoir” construction (where “having eaten” was originally unknown in English).

  16. marie-lucie says:

    having eaten dinner, she …
    This is indeed a French construction, but it is typical of literary or formal written language (in both the original and in English). I think this is the case generally for French influence on English syntax beyond the Middle Ages, after French ceased to be commonly heard in England: writers read written works, and translators are often influenced by the syntax of what they are translating. The prescriptivist injunction against ending a sentence with a preposition may be another case of literary French influence, even though it is usually attributed to Latin syntax (in this case, French, Spanish or Italian have stayed close to Latin). Middle English texts often have the same preposition both inside and after a sentence: I suppose that the sentence according to the French pattern felt incomplete to English speakers if the preposition did not appear at the end. But I don’t think there has been much French influence on the syntax of oral, everyday English.

  17. does anyone know how Spanish is doing? It’s another global English and I’ve got an impression that it is growing stronger by the day, mainly, again it is my impression, because of the growing strength of hispanics in the US and the remarkable transition of Spain itself from European backwaters to its current status (well, until the current crisis had struck) as one of the more prosperous nations of the EU.

  18. constructions like this are very common in Russian too, but it is considered poor style to open a sentence like that. Is it the same in English?
    And often it leads to confusing subject and object (e.g. ‘Having eaten dinner, it is hard to have a sensible conversation’ or ‘Having eatne dinner, the conversation turned frivolous’)

  19. poor old Chekhov must be turning in his grave. Classic: ‘While approaching this station, my hat flew off’, from ‘The Book of Complaints’.

  20. The Chekhov story is here if anyone wants to see it in Russian. (Very short.)

  21. If I remember rightly, that is called a “dangling participle”, and prescriptivists warn against it.

  22. Quite correct.

  23. “does anyone know how Spanish is doing? It’s another global English and I’ve got an impression that it is growing stronger by the day, mainly, again it is my impression, because of the growing strength of hispanics in the US and the remarkable transition of Spain itself…”
    The real growth of Spanish has been among people who until recently still spoke indigenous languages in Mexico. Since NAFTA there has been a big expansion of industry in Monterrey and other cities in northern states, and as cheap American corn has driven people off of family farms in the south (NAFTA again) they have moved north into industrial jobs. Something similar may be happening in the Andean countries, although there was already a common language, Quechua.
    And if they go north north, even when they tend to transition to English pretty fast, they still need to pick up Spanish to talk to other Mexicans – unless they have English in common, which is haoppening more and more. Hnmmph….ultimately this may spread English back into Mexico.

  24. In Oregon there are a considerable number of native Mexican farm workers who do not know Spanish. There was a legal case recently during which it was discovered that the Spanish translator was almost useless, and they had to find one who could speak the man’s Mayan language.

  25. Bathrobe says:

    Yea, the age of megalanguages continues its relentless advance.
    Instead of enjoying thousands of different kinds of plant, we’ll have to content ourselves with marvelling at the many different varieties of corn.

  26. “Having eaten dinner, she …” is not a dangling participle, for the participial phrase is properly modifying what follows it. (“Dangling” is not really the appropriate metaphor, but it is sanctioned by long usage.)
    Danglers (which are often but not always participial) appear when such initial phrases are modifying something remote (“When walking down the street, a large number of bags is cumbersome to me”, which suggests walking bags) or to something merely implicit (“When walking down the street, the sun appeared from behind the clouds”).
    Danglers are not really grammatical violations: they are simply too common for that. They are basically speaker-politeness violations, and are sometimes unintentionally funny.
    One piece of Latinate syntax which is much more deeply embedded in English is the “accusative and infinitive” construction, as in John told her to see this. This form was not unknown in Old English, but became far more common after the revival of learning in English.

  27. Bathrobe says:

    The dangling participle refers to Sashura’s point that “often it leads to confusing subject and object”.
    The “accusative and infinitive” is interesting. I’d never thought of it as Latinate. If Anglo-Saxon didn’t use this, what form did it use in its place? Just curious.

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