THE DISCOVERY OF FRANCE.

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!

Comments

  1. rootlesscosmo says:

    I loved that book. Among other things it explodes the myth that 19th century French rural people typically ate tasty, varied, healthful food. Robb also puts the miraculous events at Lourdes in their proper context, which was all new to me.

  2. Unrealistic romantic that I am, to think about the Francophonization of France during this period always makes me very, very sad.

  3. Bathrobe says:

    The Chinese are trying to do the same thing to China. Given the difference of scale, the creakiness and contradictions of the model they are imposing, and the total differentness of the cultures involved, it’s a hellishly difficult task. But what is more frightening is that in the long term they just might succeed.

  4. They/We did quite well, I must say. Rarely do I see a Ph.D. candidate from China, no matter how rural his (more her, those poor Chemistry majors) origin, who can still speak fluently his/her own dialect. Those who speak dialect well usually have a strong accent in their MSM, but that’s another matter…

  5. Even for someone like me who knew very little about French history before reading this book, this was a fascinating book.

  6. A very strong identity still seems to work, to the benefit of Tibetan dialects and Uyghur. Uyghur I worry not, but for Tibetan, I have a very strong suspicion that their speakers will become Irishmen: still pursuing a national goal, with a strong attachment to their language, but slowly abandoning it, starting from the educated elite, for Chinese at home and English at exile.

  7. Bathrobe says:

    I’ve never been to Tibet, but I don’t think Tibetan is at all dead. I suspect Chinese-language inroads into the country are skin-deep. Inner Mongolia, however, is another matter. The young are rapidly losing their Mongolian.

  8. 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
    Not to forget the various kinds of lithophone, some of them 2000 years old. Have you ever been to Ringing Rocks Park in Pennsylvania ? On Youtube I found a rather tiring rock ‘n roll performance from that location.
    There are also The Musical Stones of Skiddaw in Cumbria, where Graham Robb now lives.

  9. He must have moved. I read that he lived in Oxford.
    Lieutenant-Colonel Ninian Pinkney of the North American Native Rangers found himself back on the frontier as soon as he left Paris (‘as retired as in the most remote corner of England’) and subsequently discovered that ‘there are absolutely no interior towns in France like Norwich, Manchester, and Birmingham’. French towns were confined and corseted by their customs barriers, and the population remained almost static from the early nineteenth century until after the First World War.
    Ninian Pinkney is a lovely name. Apparently he passed it on.
    Eek! What a great book. Well chosen, m-l!

  10. Jo and ja being the Norwegian words for yes, perhaps they’ll turn out to be Norman too…

  11. Lithophones 3000-4000 years old have been found.

  12. thanks for mentioning the Discovery of France. The description of language diversity is really fascinating there. As well as the diversity of local cultures and landscapes. I couldn’t understand why walking on stilts is so popular here until I read that in Les Landes sheep rearing families used them to keep an eye on and keep up with their herds, walking as fast as a running sheep-dog.
    To me that diversity is the clue to understanding the anarchist streak in the people enabling the true resistance to the oppressive power of the French state.

  13. dearieme says:

    I recommend that book without reservation. Superb.

  14. A lot of the 19th c. French authors etc. maintained provincial roots and identities, but in most cases it seems to have been a sort of hobby or affectation or aspect of personal style than real provincialism. In what I’ve read the one who actually seemed not to have become Parisian was the painter Courbet, who seemed to have been the odd man out in a lot of ways.
    This is of the top of my head based on a large amount of unsystematic reading.

  15. but for Tibetan, I have a very strong suspicion that their speakers will become Irishmen: still pursuing a national goal, with a strong attachment to their language, but slowly abandoning it, starting from the educated elite
    If they can learn to brew Guinness and raise Joyces and Becketts, it will all have been worth it.

  16. —He’s Chinese, Buck Mulligan said, and he thinks we ought to speak Tibetan in Tibet.
    —Sure we ought to, the old woman said, and I’m ashamed I don’t speak the language myself. I’m told it’s a grand language by them that knows.

  17. Is there an ideogram for Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk?

  18. xyzzyva says:

    In my mind butter-tea has properties not unlike those of Guinness.

  19. Man, I love butter tea. If the Tibetan orthography wasn’t so fucked, I’d learn it just for the butter tea.

  20. I grant that Arthur Guinness’s family had been resident in Tibet for a long time, but they were undoubtedly ethnic Chinese.

  21. And “yer only man”, as they say in Lhasa, is definitely a Pekinese type of beer.

  22. When I was dining at a pub in London recently, I asked for a pint of bitter and was given stout in a stout glass. When I drew the discrepancy to his attention the waiter told me it was, doch, bitter and I must be mistaken.

  23. I grant that Arthur Guinness’s family had been resident in Tibet for a long time, but they were undoubtedly ethnic Chinese.
    Mongolian, surely – descended from the great Guinnghis Khan, as mentioned by Joyce himself.

  24. David Marjanović says:

    In my mind butter-tea has properties not unlike those of Guinness.

    Hence, no doubt, the butterbeer of Hogwarts.

  25. I feel bad for all those Tibetan wizards on sbgDiagon fqxzmrpAlley, drinking the butter beer of exile.

  26. It’s been pointed out to me that my reference to “Lhasa” above should have been to “Lhasa Apso”.

Speak Your Mind

*