The French on French and other languages

When Jack and I got off the ferry in Calais, my bad French figured to be more valuable to us than his pretty good Latin. I was, in effect, my younger brother’s lifeline to the world around him for the upcoming week.

[Note: I wrote this essay last week as one of the models for my students’ research comparison paper. It features an evolving thesis.]

We boarded the train for Paris. Even though everyone on the train had just come from England, the announcements over the train’s speakers were only in French. I recognized few of the words from my high school French classes, so there was little I could do to dispel Jack’s growing anxiety. But I did remember what I had learned in college about the French’s fears of their language being invaded by English words.

This seemingly unreasonable fear continues today. The French have what The Guardian describes as “a deep-rooted anxiety over linguistic decay and decline” (Gallix). The first paragraph in the latest edition of Fodor’s France, one of the most popular tour books available in English, states that “it may be a cliché to say that the French fret over their place in the world, but they do.” To maintain their place, the French “are rallying to protect” their language, Fodor’s reports (Hervieux 10). But when weren’t the French so rallying?

The French have made protecting their language’s purity and influence a national, and even a governmental, policy for centuries. The French government started the French Academy in 1635, and from that point until the present, the Academy has been “the world’s most powerful state-backed linguistic authority.” The Academy’s chief mission is to maintain France’s official dictionary, which is also “a registry of what is officially French.” The dictionary doesn’t get updated often, with new editions coming out no more often than every fifty years or so. If you want to speak true French, your diction is stuck in a time warp and includes just the words contained in the latest edition, which was published in 1935, along with words contained in infrequent updates (Smith).

Besides serving as an official lexicographer, the French Academy serves as “the recognized authority on neologisms, particularly those coined to replace persistent Anglicisms in the language, like courriel for e-mail” (Smith). French agencies send them English words and phrases that have crept into French, and the Academy invents phrases to replace them.

By the time Jack and I left the train and its (to us) incomprehensible intercom, I felt as if we were creeping into France, too, and that we were as unwanted as our American English. I needed to find out how to catch a bus to meet our hosts in a Parisian suburb, so I approached the lady at the train station’s information kiosk.

“Do you speak English?” I asked in flawless English.

She frowned at me. She lifted her head dramatically to face the station’s domed ceiling. She sighed dramatically. She lowered her head, slowly and dramatically, and she stared at me again.

“Yes,” she said, finally. Resignedly.

I determined at that moment to speak only in my butchered French for the rest of the trip. It would be a form of revenge. The person at this information kiosk was by design the face of France, I figured, the first person in France with whom many people from England, at least, would come in contact. Who in the world could relate to this lady, or by extension, to such a people?

After all these centuries, too, the English-speaking world still can’t relate to the French Academy. Britain’s newspaper The Telegraph recently asked readers to imagine Britain’s Department for Culture, Media & Sport “setting up a website called ‘Say It in English’ where you can key in French terms such as ‘cul-de-sac’ . . . and learn that the correct way to say [it] is ‘dead-end road’” (Edge). In other words, the shoe couldn’t possibly be on the other foot.

But it is, in a way. Like the French, the English have an all-encompassing dictionary that takes a select group decades to update. Unlike its French counterpart, however, the Oxford English Dictionary (“OED”) doesn’t exist to control the language. Instead, the OED is a sprawling affair, accepting entries so long as its lexicographers find “evidence of widespread currency.” It has over 600,000 words compared with the French Academy dictionary’s 35,000 words (Wallop). As the OED’s web site says, the OED contains “the history of individual words, and of the language – traced through 3 million quotations, from classic literature and specialist periodicals to film scripts and cookery books” (“About”). Comparing the French Academy’s proscriptive dictionary with the freewheeling and labyrinthine OED, therefore, is like comparing Paris’s wide avenues with London’s hodgepodge streets.

A comparison of dog breeds, though, may be more instructive than a comparison of street layouts. English is “a mongrel language” while French is a purebred. The Telegraph points out that English “has absorbed vast numbers of foreign words over centuries of invasion or takeover by Saxons, Danes, Normans, Dutch and Germans [while] the French tongue is more self-contained.” France regulates its language like dog breeders regulate breeding: “French is treated as a top-down affair, policed by the state: an affaire d’état, if you will.” English, on the other hand, is unregulated and flexible, which “probably gives it an extra edge in our ever-shifting digital world” (Gallix). English is a howling, unpretentious language that roams the streets at night.

As my brother and I roamed the streets of Paris, Versailles, and Chartres for a week that summer after my graduation from law school, I was surprised to find a uniformly positive response by the French to the vengeance I had intended to inflict on them for their representative’s rudeness. For some reason, the French loved my broken French. Everyone I ran into grinned – not with derision, mind you, but with appreciation – as I employed my rusty French. Granted, they patiently corrected me, but never offensively. They wanted me to try.

Was this French friendliness a sign of the French language’s frailty? Were the French so desperate about maintaining their language’s future that they would fawn over any attempt by a member of the English-speaking world to speak their language? Years later, when my wife and I hosted a French teenager for a week in our Virginia home, the case was altered: he never attempted to speak French with us, and we were critical, at least inwardly, of his intermediate-level English. My wife and I were certainly not as encouraging with our guest as I remembered everyone in France as being with me.

French may be frailer than English, but French isn’t dying. In fact, over a recent four-year period, the world’s French speakers grew by twenty-five percent: the “number of French speakers increased from about 220 million in 2010 to 274 million in 2014, making it the fifth most widely spoken language in the world” (Irish). French still doesn’t rival English in world use, but decades after the loss of France’s worldwide empire, French is holding its own. If French isn’t dying, then what explains France’s positive reception to my meager attempts at speaking its language?

The French love all modern languages, not just French. They love to learn them. The French’s arguably self-defeating protection of its own language doesn’t extend to its educational system. Even though the French constitution “states in its second article, ‘la langue de la République est le français’” (Radford), the French child learns two or three modern foreign languages by the time he or she graduates from high school (“Promoting”). In the debate about making English America’s national language, many Americans have associated the argument in favor of officially sanctioning English with the “dumbing down” of foreign-language instruction in American schools. The French have proven that the two aren’t necessarily associated.

France is innovative, too, in foreign language instruction. For instance, each French school, be it elementary, middle, or high school, “must form at least one partnership with a school abroad as a basis for easier organization of language trips and exchanges between French and foreign students.” French schools’ language instruction is reinforced in many French cities by cultural institutes “founded with the aim of highlighting the key role that foreign cultural institutes in Paris play in promoting cultural diversity.” The result is not just a greater number of students taking a greater number of language courses. French students graduate fully proficient in two or three foreign languages (“Promoting”). By contrast, I didn’t graduate from either my American high school or my American college proficient in French, a language I took for many semesters in both institutions.

I’m not an unusual American in this regard. Only a quarter of Americans claim to speak a language other than English well. Of that quarter, “89% acquired these skills in the childhood home, compared with 7% citing school as their main setting for language acquisition” (Devlin). In other words, almost all Americans fluent in a language other than English learned that language at home, not at school. In contrast to French schools’ stringent foreign-language requirements, the U.S. has no nationwide standards for foreign-language learning. Instead, as a recent Pew Research Center report concludes, many “states allow individual school districts to set language requirements for high school graduation, and primary schools have very low rates of even offering foreign-language course work” (Devlin). Given the American public’s ambivalence about the utility of learning a foreign language, it’s not surprising that less than two percent of Americans claim to have learned a foreign language in school.

The French weren’t showing weakness when they encouraged my attempts at broken French. They were showing strength: they love language, and they were encouraging me in my own nascent love. Their protection of French does not come at the expense of their children’s foreign-language education. Perhaps, at bottom, it’s the French people’s love of language that drives them to learn foreign languages while so fiercely regulating their own.

Works Cited

“About.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2016, public.oed.com/about/. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

Devlin, Kat. “Learning a Foreign Language a ‘Must’ in Europe, Not so in America.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 13 July 2015, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/13/learning-a-foreign-language-a-must-in-europe-not-so-in-america/#. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

Edge, Simon. “The British Invasion the French Cannot Ignore.” Telegraph.co.uk, Jul 31 2013, ProQuest Newsstand, http://eznvcc.vccs.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.eznvcc.vccs.edu:2048/docview/1415911317?accountid=12902.

Gallix, Andrew. “The French Protect Their Language like the British Protect Their Currency | Andrew Gallix.” Opinion, Guardian News and Media, 23 May 2013, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/may/23/language-french-identity. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

Hervieux, Linda, et al. Fodor’s 2016 France. New York, Fodor’s Travel, 2016.

Irish, John. “Rise in French Speakers since 2010 a Boost for France: Report.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 5 Nov. 2014, www.reuters.com/article/us-france-language-economy-idUSKBN0IP1V220141105. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

“Promoting Multilingualism.” France Diplomatie, French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development, 2017, www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/french-foreign-policy/francophony/promoting-multilingualism/. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

Radford, Gavin. “French Language Law: The Attempted Ruination of France’s Linguistic Diversity.” Trinity College Law Review, Dublin University Law Society, 13 July 2015, trinitycollegelawreview.org/french-language-law-the-attempted-ruination-of-frances-linguistic-diversity/. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

Smith, Craig S. “Académie Solemnly Mans the Barricades Against Impure French.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 31 May 2005, www.nytimes.com/2005/05/31/books/academie-solemnly-mans-the-barricades-against-impure-french.html. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

Wallop, Harry. “Oxford English Dictionary: How the Words Are Chosen.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 30 Nov. 2010, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/8168472/Oxford-English-Dictionary-how-the-words-are-chosen.html. Accessed 7 Mar. 2017.

Induction


I started class yesterday as I often do: I turned off the overhead lights to draw attention to the Promethean board, and I turned on the lamp up front for some house light.

But the lamp didn’t work. Not being particularly handy, I asked the class for advice. “Maybe it’s not plugged in.” “Maybe the bulb’s burned out.” “The lamp might be broken.” I found a plug in the socket, and when we exchanged bulbs with a working lamp, the front lamp still didn’t work. Faced with having to inspect the lamp itself, I checked the plug again. The plug in the socket belonged to the electric pencil sharpener. I plugged in the lamp, and there was light.

My class and I were engaged in the scientific method and the bright narrative of induction. Induction works in essay writing, too. I showed the class how a thesis that evolves as it accounts for more evidence is more interesting than a static thesis stated at an essay’s outset. Consider the outlines of two papers about our lamp issue:

The Evolving Thesis Version

  • Problem and initial thesis: The lamp isn’t working. It seems as if the lamp is unplugged or the bulb is burned out.
  • Evidence: I checked the plug, and it appears to be attached to the electrical outlet.
  • Amended thesis: The bulb must be burned out after all.
  • Evidence: I swapped the old bulb for one I know works, and the lamp still didn’t work.
  • Amended thesis: Is the lamp broken?
  • Evidence: I don’t fix lamps. I check the plug again to make sure. I was wrong earlier: the electric pencil sharpener is plugged in, but the lamp isn’t.
  • Amended thesis: The lamp isn’t working because it’s unplugged.

The Five-Paragraph Essay Version

  • Problem and thesis: The lamp isn’t working. It’s not plugged in.
  • Body paragraph(s): The lamp isn’t working. The lamp is electric. Electric lamps don’t work unless they’re plugged in. The lamp isn’t plugged in. When I plug it in, the lamp works.
  • Conclusion: Because it’s an electrical appliance and isn’t plugged in, the lamp isn’t working.

In their book Writing Analytically, David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen call the five-paragraph essay “a meat grinder that can turn any content into sausage” (113). By putting a static thesis in its first paragraph, this high school essay format “reduces the remainder of the essay to redundancy” (114). The structure conceals the writer’s mind, which is the most interesting thing about essays from Montaigne forward. Peter Elbow makes the same point in contraposition: “the most common reason weak essays don’t hang together is that the writing is all statement, all consonance, all answer” (296).

My friend David Arbogast, an administrator and an English teacher with far more experience than I have, likes to say that all good writing contains a narrative element. People do like stories, but his point is that people like to step into the shoes of an inquiring mind at work. This need for engagement is why Thomas Newkirk finds the five paragraph essay to be a dead genre that many English teachers refuse to bury:

If participation in the mental activity of the writer compels us to read on, it is clear that the thesis-oriented paper may work against this participation because the form is so front-loaded. Readers are given too much, too early. (49)

An unvarying thesis at an essay’s outset with a straightjacket means of proving it trains an essay’s readers not to think. After all, the five-paragraph essay model implies that learning is dyadic, objective, and static. By contrast, an essay with an evolving thesis, like the inductive scientific method, is triadic. One can apply triadic semiotics to the scientific method: the sign is some strange phenomena or data, the interpretant is the scientist’s response (“Hm, that’s funny”), and the object or referent is a new theory that accounts for the new phenomena. On the other hand, to lead with the object, to support the object with the sign, and to eliminate the interpretant — three essential steps in the five-paragraph essay — make for dull writing and (worse) an unthinking generation of underdeveloped writers.

It hurts to write only if it hurts to think.

(I wrote a model essay with an expanded thesis for our current assignment, a comparison research paper. Here’s the link.)

°°°°

The celebration of a new Episcopal rector is broken into four parts: the institution, the liturgy of the Word, the induction, and the eucharist. During the induction, members of the congregation bring gifts and state what the gifts signify. (This is triadic, too. Consider this line from the Book of Common Prayer: “Bruce [the interpretant], use this oil [the sign], and be among us as a healer and a reconciler [the referent].” Imagine the oil and the concept of healing without a healer.)

(In fact, the Trinity is triadic: the Son’s the sign that points to the Father (the referent), and the Holy Spirit’s the interpretant.)

The prayer book prescribes some of the gifts (the oil, the Bible, the stole, for instance), but the presentations may be “adapted as appropriate to the nature of the new ministry.”

Rev. Bruce Cheney received several gifts not in the prayer book’s list, and the one that stood out to me was the work bucket, including a hammer, an air filter face mask, and some caulk. Bruce repairs buildings and, by God’s grace, men’s lives.

Bruce was installed a month ago at St. Paul’s in downtown Newport News. Here he is after the service with Victoria and Bethany.

Works Cited

The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church: According Tho the Use of the Episcopal Church. Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David. Seabury Press, 1979.

Elbow, Peter. “The Shifting Relationship Between Speech and Writing.” College Composition and Communication, 35(3), October 1985, pp. 283 – 303.

Newkirk, Thomas. The School Essay Manifesto: Reclaiming the Essay for Students and Teachers. Shoreham, VT, Discover Writing Press, 2005.

Rosenwasser, David, and Jill Stephen. Writing Analytically. 2nd ed., Stamford, CT, Wadsworth Publishing, 1999.

On tyranny and pamphleteering

Walter Benjamin

When Charles I became increasingly autocratic, John Milton, the poet, became a pamphleteer. Timothy Snyder, the author and Yale history professor, just became one, too: he published On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. The  New Yorker, at least, calls On Tyranny a pamphlet (Gopnik). It’s 128 pages, but the book’s dimensions are so small that I read it in an hour.

I thought blogging had replaced pamphleteering, but maybe pamphlets are coming back. Distributing tactile, three-dimensional pamphlets goes along with On Tyranny‘s Lesson 13, “Practice corporeal politics”:

Protest can be organized through social media, but nothing is real that does not end on the streets. If tyrants feel no consequences for their actions in the three-dimensional world, nothing will change.

And pamphlets are fast – fast to write, publish, and read. (Not always so fast to reprint or ship, though: my hard copy of On Tyranny is on backorder for up to two months. I read the book on my phone’s Kindle app.)

Thomas Paine followed in Milton’s footsteps, of course, writing the pamphlet Common Sense and the pamphlet series The American Crisis. Paine was as much action as he was words: he moved to America in time for our revolution and then moved to France in time for theirs. Like Paine himself, the pamphlet – as a genre as much as a means of publication – seems like a healthy mix of action and writing. Walter Benjamin, whose political ideas made him a Gestapo target, thought so, too:

Significant literary effectiveness can come into being only in a strict alternation between action and writing; it must nurture the inconspicuous forms that fit its influence in active communities better than does the pretentious, universal gesture of the book – in leaflets, brochures, articles, and placards. Only this prompt language shows itself actively equal to the moment.

I think Benjamin would have found Snyder’s twenty lessons “equal to the moment.” Snyder reduces some of the material I read in his 2015 book Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning and, I suppose, his other writings to something like plainness – plain in the sense of direct, pithy, and relevant. One could read snatches of it to one’s friends in “the three-dimensional world.”

Snyder has taken some guff in the past for his subjectivity. The left-leaning magazine Jacobin complains that “his prose is white hot” (Lazare). Snyder joins “History” and “Warning” as if the past had something to teach us. But most pamphlets make little pretense at objectivity. The prospect of the president’s election, after all, caused over 350 political science professors at American colleges and universities to shed their objective mantle and sign a joint letter – about as long as a short pamphlet – warning the public about him. (The letter opens: “Political scientists seek to understand politics, not engage in politics. Yet . . .”)

I like what the German political scientist Eric Voegelin says about the impossibility of objectivity in his profession:

Whoever seeks to interpret, noetico-critically, the order of man, society, and history finds that at the time of his attempt the field is already otherwise occupied. For every society is constituted by the self-understanding of its order. (144)

Voegelin, another refugee from Nazi-occupied territory, made it his life’s mission to understand the last century’s political violence (3). I’m not really sure, though, if his predicate – “finds that at the time of his attempt the field is already otherwise occupied” – counsels subjectivity or haste.

In the case of the pamphlet, and to us in our present circumstances, probably both. Democracy and republicanism aren’t objective norms, and as Snyder writes in Lesson 2, democratic institutions don’t “automatically maintain themselves.”

Works Cited

Abramsom, Scott F., et al. “Political Scientists’ Statement of Concern about Donald Trump, Text and Signatures” Google Docs, 6 Nov. 2016, drive.google.com/file/d/0B7l0lh4nmE3OSkpCWjJJNGVoNXc/view. Accessed 11 Mar. 2017.

Benjamin, Walter. One-Way Street. Cambridge, MA, Belknap Press, 2016.

Gopnik, Adam. “The Words We Use About Donald Trump.” The New Yorker, Conde Nast, 10 Mar. 2017, www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/the-words-we-use-about-donald-trump. Accessed 11 Mar. 2017.

Lazare, Daniel. “Timothy Snyder’s Lies.” Jacobin, 9 Sept. 2014, www.jacobinmag.com/2014/09/timothy-snyders-lies/. Accessed 11 Mar. 2017.

Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. New York, Tim Duggan Books, 2017.

Voegelin, Eric. Anamnesis. University of Missouri Press, 1990.