Daily Archives: August 11, 2011

* When the World Spoke French by Marc Fumaroli

I was very disappointed by When The World Spoke French, which I was hoping would be an invigorating look at how the world in the 18th Century embraced French as its lingua franca and used it in new and interesting ways. Instead, we get a cross between People magazine (or more precisely Points de Vue, a French magazine dedicated to royal events, outside of France since France seems to have been missing a reigning royal family for a while) and dreary recitations of minute historical events, interspersed with letters from these characters that cover such gems as late delivery of mail, the intrigues of the very small world of the rich and noble, messy affairs and marriages, and other drivel that presumably was of interest to people of leisure in those days. And of course, the undying conviction that French is the best language in the world, hence the reason for its success (it’s not clear what could possibly have changed so much between 18th Century French and contemporary French to cause such a drop in usage.)

Certainly in the course of 500 pages there are a few interesting points as well: the influence of skilled educators, often women, in teaching not just French but a whole way of thinking; a couple of hilariously misspelled letters, proving that fluency of speech does not equate fluency of writing; the horrified reactions of the gentry to the very idea of the French revolution, and a very entertaining chapter on Benjamin Franklin. But I was very glad to get to the end.

 

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