Plus ça Change, by Jean-Benoît Nadeau & Julie Barlow

Revive la différence!
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The Independent Culture

When I was three, I was fluent in French. Then my francophone Belgian granny died and my mother stopped speaking French at home. At 11, I had to start again with avoir and être like my schoolmates. All the same, French has never sounded like a foreign language. I adore the melody of its vowels, even if I cannot convincingly replicate them. My active French is functional. Passively, I am a francophone.

This linguistic schizophrenia may not be so unusual. Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow have in Plus ça Change written an excellent book on the history of the French language, stuffed with surprises, insight and humour. One of their theories is that all English speakers have a kind of background tape of French playing inside their heads. The two languages have been in a state of loving warfare for almost a thousand years, competing with each other, taking captives, despising and admiring each other.

It is now commonplace, even in France, to say that English has won this Thousand Year War. When the French government launched a global television news channel last month to compete with the BBC and CNN, it did so in simultaneous French and English versions. In the 18th century, French was the language of international discourse and global culture (for Europeans, at least). Now, to spread French values to the world, even the French state accepts that it must, partly, speak in English.

Nadeau and Barlow are Canadians. Their perspective on French is refreshingly unFrench; they refuse to accept that French is defeated or declining. In truth, they say, French has established itself as the "other" global language. This is partly because of France's colonial past; and partly because of worldwide admiration for French literature, cuisine, fashion and art-de-vivre.

The tenacity of French also owes something, they say, to the symbiotic relationship between French and English. As the language of Shakespeare has encircled the globe, it has carried the virus of the language of Molière on its boots.

Of the 6,000 languages spoken on earth, French is "only" the ninth most spoken (just behind Bengali and Portuguese). It is, however, an official language in 33 countries, more than any other tongue save English (with 45). A points system established by the linguistic historian George Weber, based on the number of speakers and commercial, social and literary prestige, places French second to English as the world's most influential language.

French is an indispensable African language, the third North American language, a Caribbean language and an Oceanic language. A greater proportion of Africans speak French now than in colonial times; 13 of the 27 countries in the EU are members of La Francophonie, the loose and much-derided association of French-speaking or French-inclined nations. Despite their support for La Francophonie, the French are wilfully ignorant of the strength and liveliness of the francophone world outside France, the authors complain. France is guilty, they say, of a mixture of defeatism and hypocrisy.

An unnecessary fuss is made when English words enter the French language: my recent favourite is les people, which is the French for "celebs". One celeb is un people. At the same time, French businesses are permitted to give silly English-sounding names to products to appear "modern" and "cool". In 2007, a typical Parisian shops at Leader Price, eats Speed Rabbit Pizzas and connects with the internet through a Live Box, provided by Wanadoo.

France risks missing a "fantastic opportunity", the authors suggest, just as when it abandoned its own American empire. The global advance of English is already generating a cultural backlash. There is no reason why modernity should have only one language in which to express itself. With a little more self-confidence, French could lead the way. It could offer a global alternative to English and become a standard-bearer for defending language diversity in general. Peut-être.

John Lichfield is Paris correspondent for 'The Independent'

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