Imagine a language that is watched over by a group of forty “Immortals” wearing Napoleonic hats and carrying swords, one with rules so complex that few people ever completly master it. Its speakers are so insecure they pass laws banning other languages while they spend millions of tax-payers’ dollars making sure their own language gets used in literature, music and film. Now imagine a language that is second only to English for the number of countries where it is spoken officially, one that is the official tongue of two G8 countries and three European nations – a language with two millions teachers and 100 million students worldwide, and whose number of speakers has tripled in the last fifty years, reaching 175 million in sixty-three countries.
This paradoxical picture is the backdrop for The Story of French. In a narrative that spans the time of Charlemagne to the birth of Cirque du Soleil, Canadians authors Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow unravel the mysteries of a language that has maintained its global influence despite the rise of English. As in any good story, The Story of French has spectacular failures and unexpected successes : the tenacity of William the Conqueror, the staunchness of Cardinal Richelieu, the personality clashes of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Quebec Premier René Lévesque, and the activism of figures like U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Through this colourful history, Nadeau and Barlow show how French acquired its own peculiar culture – one that includes the intense politicization of language, rigid grammar rules and a sense of cultural exceptionalism. They explain how the culture of the language spread among francophones the world over, and why it still remains curiously centred on Paris. As the authors discovered on their travels, francophone countries are increasingly taking the lead in promoting and protecting their language, and French is not only thriving – it still has a surprisingly strong influence on English.
As lively as it is fascinating, The Story of French challenges long held assumptions about French and shows why it is stil the world’s other global language.