Monday, February 20, 2017


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I am known for occasionally getting the wrong end of the stick, and that's just what I did on last Tuesday evening (14/2/2017).

I went in to the Alliance Française thinking I was going to a talk on French bloggers blogging in English. Now, that will be fascinating, I thought. But it wasn't to be.

It was actually a book launch and the book was about people blogging in French about the English language in France. Now, that sounded equally fascinating and so it was to be.

Philippe Milloux

We were welcomed by the Director, Philippe Milloux, to the Alliance's new médiathèque which is where all future book launches will be held. Philippe's four year term ends in August and I can say that he has put some life into the place during his stint there. But more of that another time.

His function that evening was to introduce us to Kathleen Shields who had written the book and who would present the book in brief. Of course, we had always the option of reading the full story in the book itself which was on sale behind us at the usual enormous launch reduction. It's in French, just by the way.

Anne Gallagher

But first he introduced Anne Gallagher, a colleague of Kathleen's in NUIM, who gave her address in Irish, French and English. Most fitting I thought. The book is essentially about the Clash of the Titans, the English and French languages, where many of the French have a siege mentality when it comes to English invading their pitch.

But, of course, they share with the English the brutal suppression of regional languages within their own realms and who better than an Irish person to appreciate this, and we do see some reference in Kathleen's book to the irony of the present situation.

Anyway, the French had their day, and their way, with the "language of diplomacy" for long enough. Now the English language (UK and American versions) has knocked French for six off the world stage (pace the Alliance) and many of the French are throwing hissy fits and trying to legislate their way back into international prominence.

In an EU context I know that French was the dominant language in the Commission until the UK, and ourselves, joined in 1973. This recollection of a friend and colleague, Roger O'Keeffe, who worked in the Commission around that time illustrates the situation perfectly.
During my time in the Commission, when a Commission colleague and I replied in English to questions put to us in English, the French delegate rushed up to us after the meeting ended to complain because "The Commission always speaks French". During the transition to the present situation, where English is the lingua franca (!), I sometimes asked at the start of a meeting if people would prefer me to speak French or English.

My own unsuccessful attempt to pressure the Commission into getting its English translation act together is recorded here.

Anyway, among the various nice things Anne said about the book was that it should be translated into English, and indeed into many other languages, and, having just finished reading it, I agree.

Kathleen Shields

Make no mistake, it is an academic book and is written within an academic linguistic framework which makes it a little hard going in places for someone, like me, not already into the academic scene.

But it does break new ground by adding the blogging dimension to the current framework, and these are serious bloggers.

It also has the value of being written by an outsider, if Kathleen will forgive the term, who can bring an element of objectivity to the discussion and who, from an Irish background, can appreciate the psychology of minority languages, of which French is now becoming one on the international stage.

I am going to refer to some of the content of the book, but I have to confess to a lack of impartiality on my part. There were bits I agreed heartily with and others which gave me apoplexy. And in this context you must remember that Kathleen is the referee in the ring and not herself responsible for much of what she is retailing to us.

However, if I went through all that got me going, one way or another, in the book we'd be here all night. I took about 12 pages of notes, and that is not quoting junks of text, just referencing places where there is something of interest to be picked up on later. So, as I said above, if you want the whole story, read the book.

One element of the discussion attempted to establish whether English was a relatively hard or easy language to learn. I remember my own French teacher, Albert Folens, telling us that it was a very easy language to learn up to the point of utilitarian communication but that you wouldn't master its subtleties in a lifetime of learning. Sounds about right to me. The view in the book is that it depends on where you are coming from and where you are going with it.

I was always aware of the French view of their language as "langue et civilisation française" and it's a pity we didn't get more of this attitude in the teaching of Irish in my schooldays. But I never appreciated the link between this attitude and the French Revolution.

Indeed this statist attitude persists to this day when the Académie vets the terminology and the state (loi Toubon) decrees the use of French, as though you could legislate this in the longer term. The Irish legislated the revival of Irish and look where we are now - nowhere.

It is interesting, as Kathleen found, that the bloggers are a bit more laid back in these matters than their official "betters".

I was interested in the discussion of "Globish", a term I had never heard before. Broadly speaking, it seems to denote a minimalist common denominator version of English reduced to a limited utilitarian vocabulary - a sort of universal pidgin. But it is pointed out that each community eventually adapts it to its own image and you can still end up needing a translator. It reminded me of the Shaw's alphabet saga of yore, where it turned out that the spelling still varied depending on the accent of the writer.

I liked the phrase "la mémoire du mot" which encapsulated resonances and range of meaning. My mind went immediately to sterile Google translations which can't be expected to distinguish the context of a particular word.

The French seem to be more open to accepting English in the sciences than in the humanities in third level education. An amendment to the loi Toubon to this effect was passed in recent times. But I liked this rearguard defence of the inviolability of the humanities:
Les étudiants étrangers qui viennent étudier chez nous veulent apprendre le français, la culture française, la séduction à la française - et les mots pour le dire. Pas pour avaler un succédané de ce qu'ils ont à la maison. Ils viennent pour la part d'excellence qui nous reste - pas pour se noyer dans le flux médiocre d'une pensée normalisée, mondialisée, un prȇt-à-penser aussi insipide que le prȇt-à-vomir de chez McDo.

There is some pretty hilarious stuff in the chapter on advertising and on the cinema. In advertising the French go for the status of English in naming products or their descriptors while American companies go out of their way to use French.

And in the cinema, even where films have an English title for the anglophone market, the French translate this into an English title more appropriate to the francophone market, throwing in the word "sex" at the least opportunity.

I could go on and on but you, the reader, would run out of steam. If you want a bit of divarsion after all that check this out.

So we'll skip to the Director's invitation to "un verre d'amitié" and discuss the book and anything else that comes into our heads with those who have not already left for choir practice.

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