The story of French. This is an extraordinarily ambitious project that few historians would have dared tackle. Academics tend to recoil from vast, sweeping topics, preferring to focus on smaller, more circumscribed areas - so your typical historian would have considered writing about, for instance, French as it was spoken between 1855 and 1875 in one village of the region of Poitou.
But Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow are not academics and they didn't have to do ground-breaking research. Partners in life and in writing, they are enterprising journalists whose articles have appeared in many French and English magazines. She is an Ontarian, he's a Quebecker and both are fluently bilingual. They are the authors of an insightful and funny best-seller on France - Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't be Wrong.
Academics are specialists; they work on vertical lines, digging deep into a carefully delineated territory. Journalists are generalists and work on horizontal lines: They look at the big picture, albeit superficially. But this makes for good, readable popular history books.
The Story of French is more than a history of how the French language developed in the various societies where it is dominant. It is a thoughtful and well-researched investigation about the French-speaking peoples throughout the centuries - from Clovis, the king of the Franks, to the colonization that spread French throughout Africa, the Caribbean, and North America. It explains why French has retained such a power of attraction, almost a century after it lost its status as the international language of diplomacy. The number of French speakers has tripled since the Second World War, and French is the number-two second-language choice of students across the planet, with two million teachers and a hundred million students worldwide.
This book, mind you, is far from being a blind apology of everything French. On the contrary, the authors blame France for its aloofness when it comes to promoting French in international forums, and they are highly critical of France's current Anglomania which drives the French to use English words instead of perfectly good French equivalents.
The Story of French will be fascinating reading for French immersion school teachers and students, and actually for everyone with a personal interest in culture and linguistics. Did you know that at the outset of the French Revolution, only three million French citizens (of a population of 28 million) spoke French well and that even fewer could write it? The country was a potpourri of dialects.
It's only in the aftermath of the revolution, a little more than two centuries ago, that French became France's official language as well as the foundation of the country's national identity. Yet, the 17th century colonists of Nouvelle France, in what was to become Quebec and part of the Maritimes, were more educated than most of their French contemporaries and could speak French alongside their local dialects.
The authors dispel commonly held prejudices - that English is especially suited to trade, for instance, or that French can't absorb new words to describe modern realities. I was surprised to learn that French vocabulary is actually as large as the English lexicon - the reason why English dictionaries are so much fatter than French (and a bonanza to Scrabble players) is that the latter exclude technical and very rarely used words.
A language is more than a form of communication - it shapes the mind and carries a set of values. For instance, "Francophones are united in their strong adherence to norms, because French relies on strict written rules to define its grammar, lexicon, and syntax." The British, on the other hand, "tend to understate their institutions; their constitution is unwritten and their legal system is not codified into a whole." Here, we see part of the reason why Quebeckers prefer the civil code to common law, and why they are so keen on rewriting the Constitution while English Canadians don't think that everything has to be put in writing.