Writing French in English

Helen Cooper

  • The Familiar Enemy: Chaucer, Language and Nation in the Hundred Years War by Ardis Butterfield
    Oxford, 444 pp, £60.00, December 2009, ISBN 978 0 19 957486 5

Some 25 years after Alsace had been returned to France at the end of the Second World War, I took an opportunity to work there for a few months, in the belief that it would improve my French. A few bare facts about the contested history of the region had stayed with me from school history lessons, but they couldn’t have prepared me for what I walked into. The mix of languages was the most immediately obvious: the stay did almost as much for my German as for my French. Education was in French, and the younger generation all spoke it fluently, but with their families many of them still spoke the local Germanic Alsatian dialect. On the streets and in the shops, I could usually get by in French; but some of the older generation spoke only German plus the local dialect, and some the dialect alone. The town’s one Protestant church held two services on a Sunday, one in French and one in German. For its annual celebration of confirmation, a day given the same prominence as the Catholic First Communion, only one service was held, with hymns chosen that had sets of words in each language, so that you could sing whichever you were happier with. There were also two sermons: one in the Reformation language of Luther, stress-heavy and hard-hitting; the other in the rational French of Calvinism, full of rhetorical questions and their self-evident answers that gave an illusion of argument rather than the substance. The region also preserved some local laws, not least to do with hunting, which were at odds with France’s national legal code, and all the more fiercely protected for that. More controversial was the war cemetery with its rows of white and black crosses: white for those who had died fighting for France, black for the boys who had been taken off in lorries from their classes one day for conscription into Hitler’s armies and had never returned.

It was a scenario that would have made an early medieval monarch proud, and given the long history of dispute over Alsace, no doubt similar conditions frequently did just that. To rule over an abundance of tongues and laws showed that you were more than just a local ruler: an increase in diversity signalled an increase in power. More lands meant an increase in the number of potential fighting men for further conquests, and when war was a matter of glory, of allegiance to one’s immediate overlord, and of loot, the pain of betrayed patriotism that marks more recent disputes was barely an issue. The subject peoples, with their various languages and laws, were not always accorded the respect that their existence reflected on their lord. Rival allegiances were always a problem, and conquest could easily be followed by outright political oppression. Difference from the political elite could very easily be interpreted as inferiority: when habits of dress as well as language or law marked a people as distinctive, as happened with the Welsh, they could invite ridicule from the English in a way that reinforced political dominance. Even if a language was notionally the same, certain dialects of ‘French’ or ‘English’ were all too easily confused with issues of political or cultural inferiority. French as the language of the Ile-de-France, and therefore the only correct form of French, imposed itself across most of present-day France only in the course of the 20th century, and, as in Alsace, its dominance is not yet total.

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