By Jean-Benoît Nadeau
This whole DSK debacle shed light on a particularly disturbing aspect of Western culture: widespread and uninhibited francophobia.
The English language press (in the U.S, Canada and the U.K.), write about the French in a way no one would accept if they were talking about Jews, Blacks, Mexicans or Native Americans. Is francophobia the last acceptable prejudice among English-speaking journalists?
The paradoxic is that a great number of English-speakers – whether American, English or other – are as much Francophiles as Francophobes. This is even true of the most xenophobic among them. It took me several years to finally understand the complex origin of this paradoxical attitude.
Blame it on William
It all began with the Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror, who crowned himself King of England in 1066. The French language might have floundered in England, but William and his successors were very competent rulers. They settled French speakers everywhere. Not only was Françoys the language of the court for 350 years; the English nobility, civil servants, employees of the palace and Court and bourgeoisie – even those born in England – quickly fell into line and spoke the language of the King.
The Latin of English
The most remarkable result of William’s victory was that English became the most Latin of Germanic languages. To this day, linguists debate whether a quarter, a third or half of the basic English vocabulary comes from French. Linguist Henriette Walter observed that the students who find it easiest to read Old French are… anglophones!
The reason is simple: Words like chalenge, plege, estriver, and estancher disappeared from the French vocabulary but remained in English as challenge, pledge, strive and staunch—with their original meanings.
Words that people think are pure English, such as mushroom, foreign, pedigree, budget, proud and view, are actually Romance terms pronounced with an English accent: mousseron (a type of mushroom), forain, pied-de-grue (crane’s foot)—a symbol used in genealogical trees to mark a line of succession, bougette (purse), prud (valiant) and vëue. Even the English word pudding is a deformation of the French word boudin (a type of blood sausage). The English language has even kept regional pronunciations: chaser was pronounced chacier in and around Paris, and cachieren en Normandy, resulting in chase and catch.
This linguistic story translated into a political reality.
During the first, lesser-known Hundred Years’ War (1159–1299), the Anglo-Norman aristocracy had to choose sides. Those who chose England got closer to the local grassroots, setting the Anglo-Norman aristocracy on the road to assimilation into English.
While French remained influential, the English people who won. English became the expression of a deep brand of nationalism in Britain.
Ever since, English-speakers have worked hard to ignore or camouflage the French roots of the language. They refer to many French borrowings as latinates (Latinisms), emphasizing the emphasizing the Germanic roots of English instead.
The Cultivated Layer
Despite this newfound nationalism, French long remained the language of British intellectuals and noblemen, even in the English colonies.
The English language has two layers: the first is made up of the Germanic words (begin, put up with, bother), and the other layer, more erudite, diplomatic and noble, stems from French origins (commence, tolerate, perturb).
The English Language is filled with thousands of duplicate words: quasi-synonyms that translate into the same idea but have different connotations. For dinner, English speakers do not eat pigs, cows or bulls, calves or snails: they eat pork, beef, veal and escargot.
This symbiotic relationship between English and French would have been less complicated if French had had the decency to die, just like Latin did. But of course, French continued to evolve alongside English.
English is still borrowing from French today. That’s because admiration for French culture persists, spawning françoides words like double entendre. And the very popular –ette suffix creates words like parkette and kitchenette, and other beautiful launderettes.
This whole complex linguistic and cultural issue would have been isolated to an obscure island in North-Western Europe… if the United Kingdom hadn’t tried to conquer North America, founded a vast empire and created new industries, especially in communications.
The result? English culture everywhere has a peculiar common feature – simultaneous repulsion by, and fascination with French culture. In America, the English francophobia/francophilia fused with a powerful dose of biblical Protestantism and primal anti-Catholicism.
The final result? 950 years after William ruled, any French speaker who dares open his or her mouth in front of a group of Americans sparks conflicting feelings.
Some Americans grind their teeth and hastily utter a xenophobic remark, often formulated as a joke. Others demonstrate their unreserved francophilia, declaring unconditional admiration for the beauty and elegance of the French language.
The majority of listeners experience both feelings at once: they laugh at the xenophobe’s joke while applauding the Francophile’s declaration of love.
This contradictory feeling is so deeply interwoven in American, British and Anglo-Canadian culture that it is quasi-unconscious (as I have often witnessed with my Anglo-Canadian in-laws). This unconscious, but very real attitude constantly pops up in artistic and cultural productions, and can often be heard in public discourse.
For Anglophones, French remains the language of chic, good taste and superiority. As a mark of the love/hate relationship English-speakers tend to have with French, French can represent these qualities in a positive or a negative sense. A great example is the Harry Potter series. Author J. K. Rowling, who studied French at Exeter University, was inspired by Old French when she named the enemies of Harry Potter: Malfoy (bad faith), Voldemort (flight of death), Lestrange (the stranger).
Nowadays, French is part of the linguistic subconscious of millions of Anglophones. The result is a messy confusion of the French language, the French themselves, France and all French speakers. The fact that French and France are richly diverse does nothing to hinder this intolerance.
If the French say “no” to George Bush, if a Quebec politician makes an off-putting remark or if a French politician gets caught up in a sex scandal – anti-French rise to the surface instantaneously.
Any opportunity to dismiss the French is fair game.