French In Translation

Claire Lundberg reviews William Alexander’s new book about the language:

I spent a lot of Flirting With French arguing with Alexander—pleading with him to just sign up for a class, for God’s sake. It’s no surprise to me—nor, probably, to you—that he doesn’t achieve fluency, and makes his greatest strides during a two-week Provence immersion class in the book’s final chapters. Studying French stresses out Alexander so much that he blames the language for his persistent heart arrhythmia. It was hard for me to relate to this Woody Allen level of neurosis: palpitations because you can’t remember when to use vous and when to use tu?

But perhaps I’m being unfair. French is scary, in part because of our stereotype of French people as haughty and rude—as David Sedaris puts it, in American films, “when someone makes a spectacular ass of himself, it’s always in a French restaurant, never a Japanese or Italian one.”

France also has, as Alexander reminds us, the venerable Académie française, an appointed body that has been meeting since the 17th century, whose purpose is to define and decide what exactly is and is not correct French. Most languages don’t have this kind of official governing body, and are free to grow dialects and adopt new slang without much fuss. However, in France there are official statements declaring common Anglicisms like le weekend and le shopping forbidden. It’s intimidating enough to cause occasional bouts of la panique.

Meanwhile, Hadley Freeman takes on the entire Francophile-lit genre:

After French Women Don’t Get Fat, French Women Don’t Get Facelifts, French Children Don’t Throw Food, Like a French Woman and French Women Are Just Better Than You So Shut Up About the War Already Because They’re Thinner and Sexier and We All Know What’s Really Important So Nyahhh!, yet another crucial addition to this delightful genre arrives called How To Be Parisian Wherever You are.

I’m afraid I haven’t read the whole thing due to a severe allergy to books that are predicated on national stereotypes so tired they would make the producers of ’Allo ’Allo! balk, but I did read an extract (hard-working journalist, me), and I can tell you, this book looks pretty spectacular. It was written, we are told, by “four stunning and accomplished French women … [who are] talented bohemian iconoclasts”. Coo! Stunning andiconoclastic? That is so Frrrrench, n’est-ce pas? So let’s see how this “iconoclastic” book shatters some French stereotypes. Well, we are told that French women “take their scooter to buy a baguette”. Take their scooter to buy a baguette? I’m sorry, is this a book about how to be French or a GCSE Tricolore text book? What next, “Monsieur Dupont habite à la Rochelle et il aime aller a la piscine”?