Language as a Sponge of History
A Contrary review by Jeff McMahon

Nothing has changed in the 21st Century. Kings or presidents rise and fall, slaughtering populations as they come and go, and all the books of recorded history record, first and foremost, the biases of their authors. But there is another witness, a verifiable earthly witness who sees all, serves all, and takes notes. In the new denotation of ground zero or the new word truthiness we can see how language absorbs history. Sometimes the record is subtle, but long-lasting, like — in the classic example from English — the distinction between our Norman French words for animals on the table, where victorious Norman lords ate them (beef), and our Anglo-Saxon words for animals in the field, where vanquished Anglo Saxon serfs tended them (cow). A thousand years after the Battle of Hastings, the politics of 11th Century England may still determine which word we eat and which we put to pasture.
	Language, bulletproof and everywhere, outlasts its users, like an immortal worm winding its way through culture, eating, adapting, surviving. Even when a language dies or is successfully exiled (like French from Syria), another steps in to replace it.
	We have a good library of what linguists call external histories of English. Instead of probing internal shifts in phonology, morphology, and syntax as linguists like to do, external histories document events that influence the language from outside, and they tend to make popular reads: Bill Bryson’s “The Mother Tongue,” Robert McCrum’s “The Story of English,” even Albert Baugh’s eminently readable classic textbook, “A History of the English Language.” Now Quebeckers Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow have given English readers what they claim is our first external history of French.
	The book is general enough to offer the most basic information, informing us, for example, that some words in English derive from French, yet it’s scientific enough to delve into topics like orthographism in the first chapter. It succeeds in making itself accessible to most readers, and while chasing French through the crumbling corridors of history it ornaments them like the halls of Versailles with facts.
	It will tell you, for example, how much France spent to aid the American Revolution (one billion pounds), how many people Robespierre beheaded (17,000), how the length of a meter was determined (you’ll have to see p. 149), what percentage of French people spoke French at the time of the French Revolution (10 percent), how many times Emile Zola was rejected from the French Academy (24), why Victor Hugo wrote Hunchback (to save Notre Dame from demolition), how gentil came into English three times (as gentle in the 13th Century, genteel in the 16th, and jaunty in the 17th), when and where Africa’s first French lesson took place (1817 in Senegal), why the passe simple tense is dying (p. 371), and much, much more.
	The 2006 hardback edition contains many flaws, most of which can be traced to haste: typos (like “thier”), factual errors, lazy sentences, repetitive paragraphs, predictable chapter outlines (pages of history followed by paragraphs of relevant vocabulary). The book’s editors should have repaired all of these (instead of thanking their chief editor, Nadeau and Barlow should replace him), and we hope these flaws vanish from the Vintage Canada paperback, due out in October.
	Written in English about French, the book could be accused of focusing too much on those two languages, neglecting the immense importance of Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic, Russian, Hindi, Urdu… but the book is written to intrude upon a certain conversation — the nervous one that presumes a triumphant English is trampling a dying French — and it succeeds in overturning many of that conversation’s fundamental assumptions. For example, it’s widely assumed that English has many more words than French, a misconception fueled by the inclusion of obsolete and technical words in English dictionaries and their exclusion from French ones. The authors also succeed in demonstrating that any presumption of English dominance has to dismiss the continent of Africa, something English speakers have always been too willing to do.
         More artfully prepared it could be a better book, but it’s good enough for those odd readers (like this reporter) happy enough to have an opportunity to linger over a language and its history for hours and for days. And then it’s over. And then we need one for Spanish, one for Mandarin, one for Arabic, for Russian, for Hindi, for Urdu, Navajo, Gaelic, Tagalog….

Jeff McMahon is the editor of Contrary.

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commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | autumn 2007
The Story of French
Nadeau & Barlow
2007, Vintage Canada

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