440: The Story of French by Nadeau and Barlow

by Gerard


440.9: Nadeau, Jean-Benoit and Julie Barlow. The Story of French. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006. 450 p. ISBN 0-312-34183-0.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 400: Languages
  • 440: French and Romance languages
  • 440.9: General history of French and Romance languages

Currently, French is in the top twenty spoken languages in the world. In the Middle Ages, it was the gateway to the aristocratic lifestyle and the lingua franca of the Western world. While it has been eschewed to the milieu of wine drinkers, film buffs, and expatriates, French is still as dynamic and contentious as it has ever been. There is even a group of people—the Academie Francaise—that presides over the language and sets the guidelines on new words and phrases that enter. Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow, in The Story of French, try to do what many other linguists have done before them: make the early history and morphology of a language interesting and relevant to modern readers.

In the early days of the French language (the 11th and 12th centuries), the land of the Franks was littered with languages. There was Breton, Angevin, Gascon, Savoyard, Limousin, and even Picard French. Early French evolved from the combination of the Langues d’oil (in Northern France) and the Langues d’oc (in the South). The Crusade sent many Frenchmen to the holy lands in the Middle East, and men from all over France had to communicate with each other and their leaders had to relay messages from the monarch to the men. This combined with the creation of the Kingdom of France in 1204 spawned a unified nation that needed a unified language. The 1634 creation of the Academie arose amid a need to preserve the culture and language of the French against incursions from other nations.

Apart from the history of the language, Nadeau and Barlow also look at the spread of French across the globe, either through natural expansion or through colonial means. French is spoken not just throughout Europe, but also in the US, Brazil, Madagascar, Djibouti, and Vietnam (and many, many other countries). In many respects, the cultural aspects of the French language are far more interesting than its linguistic history. How French and French-speaking peoples are depicted is equally engaging. For the most, the authors keep the topics relevant, well-paced, and scholarly. There are moments of digression into minutia, but there are neither intrusive nor incompatible with the rest of the text. Overall, this was a decent and not too thick read.