Sometimes I feel like the greatest difference between the other students in my study abroad program and I is that they’re all here for practical reasons.
I first realized it at an orientation meeting, when one of the obligatory activities was to rank our objectives for studying abroad for a year. Did we want a more competitive resume? Was our goal to become fluent? Or was a life-changing experience what we were seeking?
The third, I remember, made me laugh – it just seemed like a mighty strong expectation for an experience for which we couldn’t possibly have expectations.
But when I shared my observation with the group, I was (awkwardly) surprised that nearly every other student had ranked it as either highest or second-highest.
Yeah, I make friends easily.
My reason for going – and for studying French in the first place – was much simpler.
I love French.
I love speaking it, hearing it, reading it; I love its grammar and its history and its phonetics; I love its syntax, slang and songs.
But there’s one thing I don’t love, a thing that led me to skipping many a structure and development of French class (sorry about that, by the way, Professor Rottet): its long and complicated history – of which I’m about to give you an extremely abridged version.
Let’s start at 842, the year that the Oaths of Strasbourg – the earliest document written in a language considered to be French – were written. At the time, of course, French was still one of many languages spoken on the territory of present-day France, and many of those regional languages continue to be spoken today.
In 1539, Francis I declared French the official language of the court – not because it was a dominant language by then, but because it was the regional language spoken where he happened to be located.
Then 1634 happened.
As far as years in the evolution of French go, 1634 was a biggie.
That year, Cardinal Richelieu founded the Academie francaise, whose mission was (and still is) the preservation of the French language.
One of the modern manifestations of that mission has been a campaign against Anglicization.
During the course of a language’s history, words are lent to and borrowed from the tongues to which speakers are exposed – a natural phenomenon for linguists and speakers alike, and an abomination for the Academie.
The Academie’s solution to the “problem” of borrowed English words has been to simply invent Frenchier replacements – some of which, fascinatingly, fully integrate themselves into the spoken language. Some, of course, don’t, as evidenced by my daily confrontation with English words, which I’m forced to pronounce with a French accent. Try doing that without feeling like a douchebag.
More fascinating are the factors contributing to this hyper-preservation – one being France’s role as a lingua franca of European diplomacy from the 17th century until the middle of the 20th, when it was replaced by, well, English.
It makes one wonder – how will the superpower of America handle its inevitable replacement as the language of globalization?