Philip Hensher

French with tears

A history of international French that makes one long for plain English

The civilised world has always needed a lingua franca, through which educated people of international outlook can communicate with each other. For centuries that language was Latin, first the language of theology, then of learning — Erasmus, Milton and Thomas More communicated with a wide community of scholars in Latin. Nowadays, the international language of commerce and culture is English, and from Peru to Shanghai the employees of multinationals talk in their barbarous English idiolects of blue-sky thinking and learning curves, just as their children chant along to the lyrics of West Coast rap.

Between the age of Erasmus and that of Ricky Martin, there occurred the supremacy of the French language. In the 18th and 19th centuries, sophisticated parts of the world found it convenient to talk and write in French. It was the language of statecraft, through which Frederick II and Catherine the Great communicated; it was also the language of the philosophes, and Voltaire’s many correspondents found it natural to write not only to him, but to each other, in French. It had, no doubt, a certain air of sophistication shading, as time went on, into self-conscious decadence. English writers of a certain stamp were apt to attempt to write some of their oeuvre in French. That horrible work, William Beckford’s Vathek, was first written in French. Outside the period M. Fumaroli treats in this book, Oscar Wilde found the French language best for the first draft of his hieratic play Salomé. Samuel Beckett wrote most of his works more or less simultaneously in both languages, so that we can hardly say whether Oh les beaux jours or Happy Days is the original or the translation.

During this period, a thinker or writer would have regarded the ability to converse in French with a distinguished visitor as indispensable.

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