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.)