That major historical moments affect a language's development seems to be self-evident. But in the case of French, as Canadian authors Nadeau and Barlow (Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong) exhaustively illustrate, this notion shouldn't be taken for granted, since an insistence on linguistic purity influences how French is taught, spoken and written. What began as a loose confederation of local dialects became mired in a particularly French obsession with linguistic propriety. Despite the natural development of French over time, "[in] the back of any francophone's mind is the idea that an ideal, pure French exists somewhere." Nadeau and Barlow traveled the world to research what they call "the mental universe of French speakers" from its center in France to such places as Canada, Senegal and Israel. "French carries with it a vision of the State and of political values, a particular set of cultural standards," the authors write. They have managed to corral what could be an ungainly subject—both the history and the present day—in a clearly written, well-organized approach to the lingua franca of millions of people. Francophiles will be well-served by the care and detail with which the authors handle their subject, while English speakers will find an illuminating portrait of Gallic sensibility. (Nov.)
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There are more French-speaking people in Israel than there are in Louisiana. The number of French speakers in the world has tripled since World War II. Nadeau and Barlow's history of French is chockablock with these sorts of intriguing facts about the language and its evolution (contrary to common belief, English was a major influence on French, not the other way around). The authors also offer fascinating commentary on the politics of language: despite the best efforts of purists, French, like other languages, is constantly changing and not just cosmetically--new and unconventional words are being adopted, as are new spellings and new grammatical constructions. From its mysterious origins as a conglomeration of other languages to the current squabble over the need to preserve its integrity, French has led one heck of an event-filled life. Sure to please fans of such language histories as Nicholas Ostler's Empires of the Word (2005). David Pitt
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