|The Story Of French
Hard Cover, 496 pages
Author: Jean Benoît and Julie Barlow
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
The Story of French describes the ongoing process of the creation of an international language. Extending from the fall of the Roman Empire up to the present-day, the authors mix history with a clever eye to how the past has prepared the way for the present condition of the French language. It is benefited by years of on-site study from Canada and Africa to East Asia – and of course, France.
The book is full of interesting historical tidbits. For the lover of applied history, this book has a lot to offer. I would have liked to see more on the early languages and dialects that birthed French, as that time period always interests me more than the modern period. But of necessity, well supported by the authors, heavy emphasis is put on the period from 1700 to the present, which have seen French grow to be more than just the hallmark of high society and scholarship, becoming first a truly national language, and then with fits and starts developing into an international language, increasing the possible influence of French-speaking nations even as France itself wanes in direct influence.
Knowing French is not required to read this book, though it won’t hurt. A familiarity with French phonetics is probably more helpful than any other facet of French. The authors do address a number of features of French around the world, such as the use of argot and regional dialects, changes in spelling and grammar and differences in approaches to vocabulary development around the French-speaking world (especially contrasting Quebec and France).
English naturally takes a large role in this book, and the authors seem torn at times between viewing it as friend, or at least amicable companion, or foe. They solidly portray French as not being opposed to English, and even benefiting from its ascent. At the same time, English is often presented as an ever-present competitor for the hearts and minds of those within international organizations such as the United Nations.
The facts and opinions presented are definitely biased by a distance from France. Benoît is from Quebec, a fact that repeatedly plays into his relationships and conversations with French speakers around the world. This at some points works well with the point the author is trying to make, but this is not always the case. For instance, I found Benoît to be overly critical of the French Academy’s usefulness, even when he was clear about its purpose and mission.
Also, I found that the book often strays from topic – or at least takes extended side trips. For example, descriptions of the many scientific achievements of Frenchmen likely intended to show that French once was and continues to be a language conducive to scientific discourse. However, it continued for many pages, failing to circle back to the main focus. While many sections were very well organized and had just the right balance between supporting information and historical assertions, this was not always the case.
Overall, I give this book ★★★☆☆. I definitely enjoyed reading it, and getting a better feel for how history and the language itself are intertwined.