Imagine a language watched over by a group of "Immortals" wearing Napoleonic hats and brandishing swords, one with rules so complex that mastery is a farce, and one whose speakers spend millions of dollars yearly to place it artfully in literature, music, and film. Now consider that this language is second only to English to the number of countries where it is officially spoken and has tripled in use in the last fifty years. Simultaneously frightening users with its delicately nuanced vowels, it is also beloved by millions for its romantic associations. The language is French, and this, is its story.
In a captivating narrative that spans the ages, from Charlemagne to Cirque du Soleil, Jean-Beno�t Nadeau and Julie Barlow unravel the mysteries of a language that has maintained its global influence despite the rise of English. As in any good story, The Story of French has spectacular failures, unexpected successes and bears traces of some of history's greatest figures: the tenacity of William the Conqueror, the staunchness of Cardinal Richelieu, and the endurance of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Through this colorful history, Nadeau and Barlow illustrate how French acquired its own peculiar culture, revealing how the culture of the language spread among francophones the world over and yet remains curiously centered in Paris. In fact, French is not only thriving--it still has a surprisingly strong influence on other languages. As lively as it is fascinating, The Story of French challenges long held assumptions about French and shows why it is still the world's other global language.
That major historical moments affect a language's development seems to be self-evident. But in the case of French, as Canadian authors Nadeau and Barlow (Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong) exhaustively illustrate, this notion shouldn't be taken for granted, since an insistence on linguistic purity influences how French is taught, spoken and written. What began as a loose confederation of local dialects became mired in a particularly French obsession with linguistic propriety. Despite the natural development of French over time, "[in] the back of any francophone's mind is the idea that an ideal, pure French exists somewhere." Nadeau and Barlow traveled the world to research what they call "the mental universe of French speakers" from its center in France to such places as Canada, Senegal and Israel. "French carries with it a vision of the State and of political values, a particular set of cultural standards," the authors write. They have managed to corral what could be an ungainly subject--both the history and the present day--in a clearly written, well-organized approach to the lingua franca of millions of people. Francophiles will be well-served by the care and detail with which the authors handle their subject, while English speakers will find an illuminating portrait of Gallic sensibility. (Nov.)
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St. Martin's Press
January 07, 2008
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