French is just too provincial

February 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

My latest blog at presseurop

Clouseau still got the message across

One of the most consistently informative and entertaining blogs about the European Union has to be Jean Quatremer’s Coulisses de Bruxelles. However, a recent post (for relevant English extracts click here) has caused some Czech, German and indeed Irish ed hackles to rise. Monsieur Quatremer was griping about the predominance of native English speakers working as spokespersons at the European Commission. Maybe he has a point that the perifidious English have chalked up another victory, and they’re not in the euro etc etc, but the following sentence really clinches it for this blogger here. “While most of them speak French perfectly, some of them mangle the pronunciation – even though French is, after English, the second language in the press room.”

“Mangle” is the key word here. In a city like London, for instance, you’re likely to hear “hoyse”, “hoose”, “aahs”, “aousse” to denote the building which you live in. This is not called mangling pronunciation. This is called having an Ulster, a Canadian, a London, or God forbid, a French accent. The French, however, still bewilderingly cling to the belief that in a polyglot world there is such thing as an “accentless”, universal French, failure to attain to which leaves you in a kind of social limbo, intelligent but somehow pitiable like a sort of performing monkey. This is not a law only applicable to non-French, and God knows, I’ve been hearing the patronising “vous avez un petit accent” for what feels like six hundred years. Even if from Lille, Marseilles, or Rennes, you’re expected at some point in life, though as yet no initiation rite like a circumcision ceremony exists, to begin speaking “without an accent”. This idea is so deeply rooted that when you make the obvious point that there is no such thing as a language without an accent you see eyes glassing over with incomprehension.

To understand this is crucial to understanding the French outlook on the world, but also the decline of French language and culture globally. Paradoxically, the obsession with a pure universal French that doesn’t mangle pronunciation is just another sign of pure French provincialism, like its ridiculous debate on national identity. The genius of English is that there are a hundred ways to call a house a hyse, and no-one really cares. French might still be the second language at the Commission, but given the prissiness of some French ears, it would be less stressful for all concerned if it were Spanish, Italian, or for that matter, Greek, whose peoples are more than delighted when you drag their subjunctives and articles and conjugations backwards through a bush. Visit Europhrenia blog here…

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