The French language is watched over by a group of forty "Immortals" wearing Napoleonic hats and carrying swords. Its rules are so complex that few people ever completely master it, its speakers are so insecure they pass laws banning other languages while they spend millions of taxpayers' francs making sure their own language gets used in literature, music, and film. It is second only to English for the number of countries where it is spoken officially and that it is a language with two million teachers and one hundred million students worldwide. Consider, too, that the number of people who speak French has tripled in the last fifty years, growing to a community of speakers that number some one hundred seventy-five million in sixty three countries.
The Story of French is a narrative that spans the time of Charlemagne to the birth of Cirque du Soleil. Jean-Benoît 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 failures and unexpected successes, and bears the traces of some of history's greatest figures: the tenacity of William the Conqueror, the staunchness of Cardinal Richelieu, the endurance of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and the activism of figures like President Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal.
Through this history, Nadeau and Barlow show how French acquired its own peculiar culture. They explain how the culture of the language spread among francophones the world over and why it still remains curiously centered in Paris. As the authors discovered on their travels, francophone countries are increasingly taking the lead in promoting and protecting their language, and French is not only thriving—it still has a strong influence on other languages such as English. The Story of French challenges long-held assumptions about French and shows why it is still the world's other global language.
"A well-told, highly accessible history of the French language that leads to a spirited discussion of the prospects for French in an increasingly English-dominated world."—William Grimes, The New York Times
"Fascinating . . . a fresh approach to both the language and the history. It combines a detailed and learned grasp of the evolution of the language in various parts of the Francophone world with a personal touch."—Mary Ann Caws, Distinguished Professor of French, English, and Comparative Literature, City University of New York
"The Story of French hums with the spirit of a novel, the heart of a travel book and the brains of an essay. Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow have seized an ambitious theme and made it fascinating and easy to read. With a deft and energetic touch, the authors offer personality and wisdom in this wonderful tribute to the French language and the people who speak it."—Lawrence Hill, author of Any Known Blood
"[The authors] extensively examine the ups and downs of its international influence. The essence of modern French remains strong in the face of competing languages, and the authors rather convincingly argue that it remains the language of intellectuals and gentlemen. Exceptionally told, a celebration of the lasting influence of la française."—Kirkus Reviews
"This excellent book surveys the development of the French language from its beginnings, explains its expansion and adaptation throughout the world, and closes with four chapters on the language's future. Nadeau and Barlow acknowledge that their approach is sociolinguistic, although they discuss linguistics in the first four chapters. By 1265, people spoke French in the modern sense; by the late 19th century, the French realized that their language needed to be cultivated and maintained. The French government therefore invented cultural diplomacy by establishing numerous branches of the Alliance Française worldwide, which opened large schools to teach French. The Francophonie, a French commonwealth made up of 53 countries, was also formed. Today French ranks second as the world's diplomatic language, a testimony to the French government's past efforts. As for the language's future, the world looks to Quebec, which has worked to protect French from outside North American influences. The authors conclude that the survival of French depends on francophones' desire to promote and spread it. An engaging and well-conceived book with broad appeal; highly recommended."—Library Journal
"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 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."—Publishers Weekly
Reviews from Goodreads
If there was one place in the world where we never expected to hear French, it was Tel Aviv. Julie had twice travelled extensively in Israel before we started to research this book, and it had simply never occurred to her that...