Frequent commenter marie-lucie gave me a wonderful Christmas present which I am now getting around to reading, Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War. I’m sure I’ll be having a lot to say about it as I read, but having just begun, I want to quote a couple of paragraphs from the first chapter (which you can read here) to show why I’m so interested in it. It begins “One summer in the early 1740s, on the last day of his life, a young man from Paris became the first modern cartographer to see the mountain called Le Gerbier de Jonc”; the second and third paragraphs read:
If the traveller had scaled the peak of phonolithic rock — so called because of the xylophonic sound the stones make as they slide away under a climber’s feet — he would have seen a magnificent panorama: to the east, the long white curtain of the Alps, from the Mont Blanc massif to the bulk of Mont Ventoux looking down over the plains of Provence; to the north, the wooded ridges of the Forez and the mists descending from the Jura to the plains beyond Lyon; to the west, the wild Cévennes, the Cantal plateau and the whole volcanic range of the upper Auvergne. It was a geometer’s dream — almost one-thirteenth of the land surface of France spread out like a map.
From the summit, he could take in at a glance several small regions whose inhabitants barely knew of each other’s existence. To walk in any direction for a day was to become incomprehensible, for the Mézenc range to which the mountain belonged was also a watershed of languages. The people who saw the sun set behind the Gerbier de Jonc spoke one group of dialects; the people on the evening side spoke another. Forty miles to the north, the wine growers and silk-weavers of the Lyonnais spoke a different language altogether, which had yet to be identified and named by scholars. Yet another language was spoken in the region the traveller had left the day before, and though his own mother tongue, French, was a dialect of that language, he would have found it hard to understand the peasants who saw him pass.
Just the word phonolithic, and Robb’s explanation of it (“the xylophonic sound the stones make as they slide away under a climber’s feet”), made my day, and I can’t wait to get to Chapter 4, “O Òc Sí Bai Ya Win Oui Oyi Awè Jo Ja Oua” (a collection of words for ‘yes’), which focuses on those many languages. Mille remerciements, m-l!