Monday, February 3, 2014

The New Republic Bashes French

Bashes French, the language, not France, the country. Why do I find this argument so muddle-headed? Is it the sheer philistinism? The unshakable utilitarian confidence that "use-value" is all that matters, or that the only "uses" that count are to be found in "business" or "everyday life?"

Peace. To each his own. Let a hundred flowers bloom.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

The New Republic? Who still reads that?

jkargon said...

Actually, WcWhorter's piece surprised me: he's usually very perceptive, especially about others' "unshakable utilitarian confidence."

Obviously a slow news day at TNR.

Anonymous said...

Art, saying that "The New Republic bashes French" implies that this is the editorial position of the magazine (which is what I immediately thought when I saw your post). It would have been preferable to entitle the post "Contrarian linguist John McWhorter bashes French," or something on that order.

I agree with jkargon's comment above. McWhorter is usually interesting. This piece is inane and stupid. I'm going to shred it on my blog. Stay tuned.

Arun

Louis said...

On a lighter key, but on the same subject:

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/borowitzreport/2014/02/cokes-wild-assertion-that-other-languages-exist-stirs-controversy.html

Bonne journée!

Steven Rendall said...

"But for we natives, the idea that kids need to pick up French is now antique." But for *we* natives? He may be a native and/or a linguist, but he ain't no grammarian.

Alex Price said...

I think you’re being a little unfair to McWhorter. He observes that French isn’t as useful as it used to be. Well, c’est une évidence, non? And his reflections on French as a class marker, an indicator of what is imagined to be refinement also seem to me correct. He does not argue that “’use-value’ is all that matters, or that the only ‘uses’ that count are to be found in ‘business’ or ‘everyday life’,” but simply that practical value be taken into account when choosing which language(s) to study and to teach. Is that really such an unreasonable position?

I recently read an essay on Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with French. Jefferson was the most Francophile of the founding fathers and considered French the most important modern language to learn; he once described it as “the depository of all sciences.” But as that quote indicates, Jefferson’s esteem for French had to do with its importance as a medium for scientific and philosophical research as well of course as its ubiquity in the courts of Europe. In other words, Jefferson studied French and was a strong advocate for its study because the language was…useful. Were he alive today, would Jefferson feel the same way about French? I very much doubt it. He was not a backwards-looking man.

To me, the mystification surrounding the study of French that McWhorter points out is reminiscent of the mystification that used to and perhaps to an extent still does surround the study of Latin. As the (French) intellectual historian Françoise Waquet documents in her study “Latin or the Empire of a Sign,” the insistence that to be educated one had to study Latin continued well past the time when that was actually the case. Like Latin, French is a legacy language, a language that once had an invaluable function as the international language of scholars and diplomats and today no longer serves. It does not seem to me philistine to point that out, particularly when so many people associated with French studies would prefer not to acknowledge it.

Anonymous said...

To be fair language exceptionalism is a lot more common on the French than on the American side. Believing that language is a marker of national identity makes you are a marginal right wing nativist in the U.S. but in France you're a mainstream républicain . And of course not only is French the language of the French , it is a gift that France in its grand generosity has bequeathed to humanity . English is barely good enough for compromised activities like haggling over the price of a loaf of bread , and Chinese is a local language spoken "in the northern hemisphere only", but French is universal, spoken and beloved (no, desired, il y a un désir de France et de sa langue) across the known world because of its well-known precision and expressiveness. I mean you wouldn't believe the rhetoric and ideology that underlie the plethora of French government programs that seek to spread the use of the French language throughout the planet. Even sensible people like Maître Eolas fall victim to this idiocy:

Le français est une langue élégante et précise, qui se prête particulièrement bien à des textes concis tout en étant dépourvus d’ambiguïté. Le Code civil, du moins dans sa version de 1804, regorge de ces textes qui disent tout en peu de mots. Cette concision est imitée par nos cours suprêmes, la Cour de cassation en tête, qui est réputée pour ses arrêts fort courts, mais sur lesquels les étudiants en droit suent sang et eau pour faire un commentaire en moins de huit pages. Comparez à cela les arrêts de la Cour Suprême des États-Unis, qui font joyeusement 80 pages, sans en être plus clairs.

http://www.maitre-eolas.fr/post/2012/06/12/Malfaçon-législative-%3A-le-changement,-c-est-pas-maintenant

For years, French diplomats advocated for a "langue unique" in international institutions - by arguing that English wasn't fit to be la langue du droit and that translation leads to ambiguity. Of course this suffisance and arrogance could only lead to defeat and today Europe speaks English . In the early 2000s the same cultural elites did a complete volte-face and started speaking out for "plurilinguisme" , against "la langue unique et hégémonique", English. At the time , the BBC and VOA broadcast in dozens of languages and dialects but the French equivalent , RFI, would only broadcast in French .

Philippe

DHMC said...

A beautiful riposte to The New Republic piece. But in reply to Arun's comment, I would argue that The New Republic has had a long-standing French-bashing editorial policy, at least an implicit one. I was a subscriber for years, and still read it on line regularly, and the magazine has long been a pretty reliable source of your bog-standard Anglo-American "this is France in disarray" pieces. That said, I am looking forward to reading Arun's piece over on his site.

MCG said...

Here is a response with good reasons to learn French: http://www.businessinsider.com/why-we-still-need-french-2014-2

But French is relatively easy for English-speakers?

Cheers,

MCG

MCG said...

This blog may not be the place to let the secret out, but in fact, as the following report on American Hustle actor Bradley Cooper's speaking French says, men speaking French are sexy. http://www.refinery29.com/2014/02/61975/bradley-cooper-speaking-french-video-american-hustle Surely that is an argument in favor of French.

Anonymous said...

DHMC: What you say about TNR was true in the '90s and early '00s, when the francophobes Andrew Sullivan and Michael Kelly were the editors-in-chief. And Peter Beinart, who supported the Iraq war, also engaged in a little France bashing if I remember correctly. But that's all in the past (and also as Martin Peretz, who was no francophile, is no longer at the helm).

My blog post is up, BTW.

Arun

Anonymous said...

MCG: I heard Bradley Cooper on France Inter yesterday. His French is fluent. Very unusual for a Hollywood star.

Arun

MCG said...

Yes, Anonymous, and Bradley Cooper's speaking French is very sexy, isn't it? Sexy languages do not exist in the two-dimensional world of John McWhorter.

Cheers,

MCG