Claudia Pritchard: Pardon my French, but, vraiment, who needs it?


Click to follow
The Independent Online

They leapt and wept as their results came through, GCSE students last week, A-level candidates the week before, and the sages looked on and frowned. The pass rate for French is down! The civilised world is at an end. Over. La fin.

Well, actually, no. French? Who needs it? The language of diplomacy? I doubt much French is being used at the Ecuadorian embassy. (And why is that man called Assange, like a French verb? Assanger – to be a repellent creep. "Il m'a assangé, m'lud …")

The language of good food? Hardly. It's all coq. Otherwise the menu runs thus: meat, meat, meat, cream, cheese. You don't need to have read Saint-Exupéry in the original (which I have) to navigate that. What kind of language needs three vowels for one spotty egg? Oeuf is not a word, it's an exhalation. Every French vowel is pronounced "uuh", like a dying breath. That makes breakfast uuh-uuh-uuh-f and buns. Oh grow up.

French is also unsingable. Never in the history of music has a choir started the Shepherds' Farewell from Berlioz's L'enfance du Christ without going flat by bar 10. French lacks consonants, the crampons of intelligible speech. There is a river in Pas-de-Calais called the Aa. (The "a" is silent.) This is inadequate. Worse, it is not possible to say Reims other than by clearing your nose without a hankie.

The language of style? Let us turn to nature's dainty, the dandelion: known in Czech as pampeliska, in Hungarian as pitypang, and even in galumphing German as the Hundeblume. And what do our Gallic friends opt for? Pissenlit. Wee-in-the-bed. Charmed, I'm sure.

No one in the world speaks French if they can help it. In African countries, there is invariably a beautiful local language. In Quebec, perhaps out of deference to the continual rain, French became the primary language in 1977. Nowadays, you are taken out and shot by Mounties if you do not start your conversation with "Bonjour", although using only consonants and no vowels at all. But, that formality out of the way, it's straight back to good old global English, and not a wet bed in sight.

The Académie française exists to preserve this moribund language, which has a phrase for squalid teatime liaisons (oh yes, that would be French, wouldn't it?) – the cinq à sept. This is sex by numbers, before anyone pipes up in defence of the language of love. And yet there is no word for Friday-to-Sunday. Le weekend? Le find-your-own-pigging-word.

And what do we get for mastering this spitting gurgle? Contempt, from every native French speaker. Bill Bryson describes the look of revulsion at the boulangerie when he asks for a loaf of bread, and the disdain with which the shopkeeper slaps on to the counter the dead beaver he has requested. Compare this with Italy, where, at your very first stumbling "Bwon-jaw-neo", the Italian gasps with pleasure and surprise and asks which part of his country you come from.

So should we despair that Spanish and Mandarin are up and French is down? Pas du tout. We can keep the best bits – Balzac, ballet terms – and forget the rest.