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The Story of French [Paperback]

Jean-Benoit Nadeau , Julie Barlow
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Oct. 9 2007
A fascinating exploration of the historical and cultural development of the French language from the bestselling authors of Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong.

Imagine a language that is watched over by a group of forty “Immortals,” a language with rules so complex that few people ever completely master it, whose status as the world’s lingua franca has been declining for two centuries, whose use in global institutions is waning and whose speakers are so insecure they pass laws banning the use of other languages and spend millions of tax-payers’ dollars to make sure it 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, surpassing both Spanish or Arabic, a language that is the official tongue of two G-7 countries and three European nations, that is employed alongside English in most international institutions and that is the number-two choice of language students across the planet – a language with two million teachers and 100 million students worldwide, and whose number of speakers has tripled in the last fifty years.

This paradox is the backdrop for The Story of French, in which bilingual Canadian authors Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow unravel the mysteries of a language that has maintained its global influence in spite of the ascendancy of English. Mixing historical analysis with journalistic observation, and drawing on their experiences living in and travelling to French-speaking countries, they explore how the French language developed over the centuries, how it came to be spoken in the Americas, Africa and Asia, and how it has maintained its global appeal.


From the Hardcover edition.

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From Publishers Weekly

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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

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
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars FRENCH EXPLAINED MERCI Oct. 31 2007
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a brave book.
Jean-Benoit Nadeau and his partner Julie Barlow, a young couple from Canada, have written an excellent history of the French language that is both accessable and engaging even to a reader with only a passing knowledge of the language. They have done this in order to help "retrieve" French for the world, which increasingly is going globally unilingual English. In the face of such competition, Nadeau and Barlow have staked their ground and state clearly that French is still alive, useful, and important.
The development of French through history is explored and is full of surprises. French at one time was spoken by a minority of the population of France. Although French was long the universal language of diplomacy, it was the French Revolution that standarized the language for all school children in the country. The famous Academie Francaise is hardly the language police that most people believe it to be. Strangely, French speakers outside of France are given less importance by France than would be expected.
In terms of Speakers, French ranks only number 9 in the world. But in terms of countries with official status, it is in second place. Quebec is in many ways in the vanguard of a modern and vibrant French and many countries with a French status look to Quebec now for learning instead of the "home" country.
Nadeau and Barlow have done important work in writing this book. If nothing else the reader will finally learn the difference between the Francophonie and the francophonie and perhaps, even reactivate their high school French.
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Amazon.com: 3.7 out of 5 stars  33 reviews
36 of 38 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A la bonne heure March 29 2007
By Anson Cassel Mills - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The authors of The Story of French are bilingual Canadian journalists who write intelligently and gracefully about how French has become a "globalizing force," especially through the influence of the francophonie beyond France. Beginning with a summary of language history, Nadeau and Barlow discuss the origins of the French Academy and the normative French of Paris--and of myth--before moving to the reasons why French continues to flourish despite the growing clout of English. Although the book is about a hundred pages too long, there are engrossing segments throughout. For instance, how many Americans know that ten percent of Israelis speak French, or that there is influential francophone community of Lebanese in Senegal, or that at the time of the Revolution, a majority of Frenchmen were unable to speak or write French?
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great introduction to the history of French and French speakers Aug. 13 2008
By K G R - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This book is a great introduction to the history and sociolinguistics of the French language. It gives a good history of French from its origins in vulgar Latin to the modern standard language. Differences in how the language is perceived by its native speakers (as opposed to how English speakers perceive English) is highlighted and explained. The role of French in the modern world, as well as the future of French as an "international" language and as a minority language are discussed at length.

I do have a few criticisms of the book. I find it bizarre that the case of Luxembourg, a Germanic country that uses French in higher education and government, was not discussed at all. A certain hostility to the increasing dominance of English can be felt at times. The authors seem to feel that French will retain its place as the world's "second" international language, despite the increasing prominence of languages like Spanish and Chinese, and English's ever-growing clout. The authors also appear to miss the point that most French speakers in Israel are first or second generation immigrants from Francophone countries, with little evidence that French, rather than Hebrew and English, will be passed on. I also think it unfortunate that France's policies of eliminating regional languages, such as Breton, Provencal, etc. were not adequately discussed while the anti-French policies in North America were (correctly) highlighted.

But still, overall an excellent introduction to the history and sociolinguistic situation of the French language today.
77 of 98 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Try again, authors ! Dec 25 2006
By Demarus - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book is largely an explication of francophone influences throughout the world, with special emphasis on Canada. That French is no longer the property of the French (sensu strictiori) is obvious. The authors have rendered a distinct service by telling readers in detail about the multifarious offspring of French language and culture. They discuss the origins of academic French from various antecedents on the territory that is now France. Other languages have risen in similar ways, then acquired separate lives. To some extent that is true of Joual in Quebec, more so of Cajun. The fact that speakers of the derivatives have learned to master academic French in school and may use it in excellent ways as their language of correspondence or in cultivated conversation and academic studies does not make it their mother tongue. One may point out that analogous considerations apply to relatioships between Alemannic Swiss German and High German, Danish and Norwegian, Dutch and Low German dialects: they are separate languages.

The authors have, however, rendered good service by their survey of "francophonie" throughout the world and by detailing its spread and importance, sociologically,economically, and in other ways. They have pointed out and attempted to clear up misconceptions about the distribution and political impacts of the French in North America, and have illuminated differences between past and present. Perhaps more emphasis should have been placed on the role of francophone universities and their graduates since the second world war. The weakest parts of the book are those dealing with French philology in its linguistic and its literary aspects. Evidently (see their bibliogrphy) the authors have not paid attention to rigorous reference works, e.g., M. K. Pope's "From Latin to Modern French with Especial Consideration of Anglo-Norman", or to others. Their treatment of the Germanic elements is too sketchy. Their consideration of Provençal is insufficient, even for a book addressed to general readers. Also, if one refers to the role of Latin in French and English, distinctions have to be made between classical Latin, Latin of northern Gaul, medieval Latin.

A more specific comment: "Ave maris stella" means "Hail, star of the sea", not "Hail star of Mary" (p. 217).
17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not a bad way to spend a weekend Aug. 19 2007
By Blair - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
As an American who developed a distaste for French after suffering through years of dry, obnoxious French curriculum in high school, but who later actually learned the language from Francophone Africans in the Peace Corps, I picked up this book mostly to learn all the stuff I felt I had missed out on in my earlier years. The authors give a lot of very interesting insights about the origins of certain words (both French and English) and discuss the development of the French language from its medieval roots. Who knew that the French language was still only being consolidated from its precursor local tongues as late as the early 20th century? Cool!

I have two main complaints about the book, however, that lead me to the 3-star rating. First, the authors go way more into detail about Quebec and Francophone Canada than I care about - I did not pick up this book to learn about the legal history of les Canadiens - and either give way too little attention to the role of French in Africa, or write about it superficially. (I think they visited Senegal once, and Lesotho - which is Anglophone - too.) Seeing as there are *many* more African Francophones today than French-born ones (ignore the statistics they cite - almost all the numbers they quote seriously understate the number of French speakers in African countries, though they seem strangely bullish about Israelis), I think they could've focused a lot more on the continent where the future of the language truly lies. Secondly, while I never found the book anti-English, there was a strong note of apologeticism in the narrative that became somewhat onerous.

I also think their central thesis is flawed. Plurilingualism might be good for the French, but it sucks for the Danish, or Hungarians or Portugese. For the speakers of smaller languages which no one is going to learn, it makes perfect sense to have one international language which everyone can communicate in, even if that does afford some advantages to us native-born Anglophones (there are disadvantages too - I can't lean over and say something to my buddy in English that I don't want everyone else to understand, which most Ukranians, say, could with a great degree of confidence in their confidentiality).

So - for what it is, this is a good read. Especially if you're a Canadien fan. Go Leafs!
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars excellent learning tool for French people learning English March 4 2007
By Corinne Apostle - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I gave this to my sister, who teaches English to French businessmen (and women) - they were all fascinated with the book, learned much from it, and their only disappointment was that it is not available IN French (tho she explained to them that if they could understand what was written, then they should read it in English!)
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