The Language of Empire

How French conquered -- and then lost -- the world



IN 2003's entertaining and provocative "Sixty Million French men Can't Be Wrong," Canadians Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow sought to explain why the heirs to Charlemagne, Napoleon and—zut!—Jacques Chirac could hate globalization so much and yet be so good at it.

Despite—or perhaps because of—its status as "America's Oldest Enemy" (in the words of one recent conservative Philippic) and a land of "cheese-eatin' surrender monkeys" (as a character on "The Simpsons" memorably quipped), France has remained an economic juggernaut. It boasts the world's highest productivity index and ranks as one of the planet's top three exporting nations, Nadeau and Barlow wrote.

While describing the absurdities of the over-regulated and often-stultifying Gallic economy and welfare state in excruciating and hilarious detail, the authors argued that France continued to give many people, at home and abroad, exactly what they wanted.

Their latest offering, "The Story of French," is similarly provocative and counterintuitive, contending that la langue française may be "declining as an international language, but it has an enduring hold on the world, a level of influence that in many ways surpasses—and is even independent of—France's."

French, they inform us, is spoken at least occasionally by some 375 million and is one of just 15 languages with more than 100 million speakers. Perhaps more important, it has official status in 33 countries, making it second only to English.

In their wide-ranging and colorfully written account, Nadeau and Barlow give a history of the development of French (and the generally unacknowledged influence of English on French), the French Academy which polices the language but which cannot enforce its rules, the role of imperialism in spreading the tongue and much more.

The authors marshal an impressive amount of evidence and anecdotes that will force U.S.-centric readers to expand their often-parochial worldviews. Yet their main contention, that "the most fascinating chapters of the story of French have yet to be told," is debatable and ultimately unconvincing.

Languages tend to rise and fall with the economic and cultural powers that speak them and no one is expecting France to be a major player in the centuries to come. While there's no doubt that, at least for now, French "offers a counterbalance to the influence of English," it's unlikely that the language will prosper as the planet's economic energy shifts more toward Asia and Latin America.

Look instead for today's language of global hegemony, good old American English, to counterbalance the influence of Mandarin and Spanish in the not-too-distant future.

This article originally appeared in the New York Post.