When Girls Aloud proclaimed in their 2008 summer hit "I can't speak French, so I let the funky music do the talking", they spoke for pretty much the entire nation. We are fascinated by the French: drawn to their diets (because French women don't get fat, but even if they do, there's Dr Dukan), repelled by the quantities of dog excrement on their streets (as detailed in Stephen Clarke's A Year in the Merde, see opposite) and filled with envious fantasies about their excellent superyacht mooring facilities (see Hello magazine, Kate Moss honeymoon issue). But ordering a coffee with some hot milk on the side, actually in French? Forget it.
In When the World Spoke French, the historian Marc Fumaroli aims to deliver Cheryl, Nadine and their compatriots a reminder: once upon a time, the ability to speak French properly was considered an absolute essential. In 26 chapters, each focusing on a different colourful Francophile, Fumaroli makes his way across 18th-century Europe. The book is a gallery of Russians, Prussians, Swedes, Poles, Italians and Englishmen; politicians, soldiers, kings and collectors, who all aspired to speak and write the French language beautifully because, in the 18th century, Fumaroli explains, cultured people understood that the French language offers greater clarity than any other tongue. In a nutshell: speaking French literally makes you think better.
Fumaroli should know what he's talking about – he occupies Seat Six in the Académie Française, the ancient and illustrious body dedicated to battling the spread of ugly Anglicisms and textspeak. For him, the French language simply has style. As opposed to English, which is currently taking over the world precisely because it is "convenient, elementary and passive" in character. Ouch.
When the World Spoke French is a thoroughly un-English affair; a lacery of long sentences and the curling tendrils of subordinate clauses. But it also acts as a reminder of a problem which Fumaroli doesn't mention: the legendary French intolerance of people who don't speak their language perfectly. (A problem not just for amateurs: in Paris to the Past, the US historian Ina Caro recently confessed that, despite her great passion for the country, she has rarely been able to speak French well enough to get a native to answer her without switching into English.)
So why do we no longer speak French? A nation too rude? A world too crude? Nicholas Ostler, the author of this year's surprise linguistics bestseller The Last Lingua Franca, proposes another explanation. The French think their language more rational and civilised than any other, but it became the lingua franca of Europe, says Ostler, because of France's place at the commercial crossroads of the continent, not the language's built-in superiority for thinking.
But whether you eventually side with Fumaroli or not, the book is a vivid and provocative read.