Wednesday, March 31, 2010


The Story of French

This was an interesting exploration of the development of French through a historical and linguistic lens, a very interesting anecdote-filled explanation of how French influenced other languages (mainly English), and a not-so-interesting set of essays on French's continued effect on the world. The authors know how to bundle their history well, so European history in the context of the development of French from early Frankish, Latin, and other local dialects was cool to know. King Francois beat some Italians in battle in the middle ages and brought back some Italian cooks (along with a family member) and French cooking got its start.

The most interesting part to an American reader is their take on the influence French had on English and North American history. Apparently the French explorers were very ambitious in the early 1600s - Champlain sent a guy named Etienne Brule to go live with the Algonquins to learn their language for a summer. He came back as a bush man, dressed as a native, and served as a translator for a bit. He also explored a lot - he was the first European to see Niagara Falls. He adopted the ways of Native Americans, which the Europeans disapproved. Tragically, he was murdered by his adopted tribe, who then ate him - no one recorded the reason.

Other "did you know"s: sled dog racers "Mush" is from a mongrelized "Marchez!" ("Walk!" or "Go!"); "tennis" is from early French's "tenetz" ("take this"); Cajuns are Northern Louisianans who fled or were deported from Acadia - Northern Canada - when the British tried to crush the French speakers of Canada in the 1700s; Dixie is called Dixie because the ten dollar bill used in Louisiana was printed in French - and the French word for "ten" is "dix."

Unfortunately the book went on a little long for my interests and I skimmed the last couple chapters. Unless you're very interested in the Quebecois nationalism movement or specific utilizations of modern French, the last third of the book can drag. I did find it funny that although the French Academy tries so hard to preserve an idealized form of French so stridently, everyday French speakers are simplifying the language by eliminating the use of the passe simple and ensuring that all new French verbs follow the -er form and not the more convoluted -ir or -re forms. Normal people want things to be easy, not complicatedly pristine or beautiful. Even the French.

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