Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Julie Burchill: A language only good for history’s dustbin - translate that, monsieur

As someone who has always believed that the Italians do the things the French are famous for (vino, vittles, va-va-voom, First Ladies of the French Republic) far better anyway, I was pleased to hear that the incredibly up-itself French language suffered another blow this week.

A Eurostat survey found that 66% of Europeans now speak English, more than 300 million use English as their first foreign language and half of these regard themselves as fluent.

English is, apparently, the first foreign language studied in primary schools in every country outside Britain and Ireland, except Luxembourg, where they do German instead. In secondary schools, English is the first choice in every EU country; German is the second most popular.

This being so, it seems absolutely crazy — even by the bathing in asses' milk and having your morning paper delivered by a caravan of pink-painted elephants level of extravagance of the average MEP — that a billion pounds-a-year is spent by Brussels translating every official document and speech by EU politicians and bureaucrats into the 23 recognised languages of the member states.

Who do we think would have a full-on hissy fit if this massively wasteful extravagance was curbed? Plucky Denmark? Cheery Portugal? I doubt it.

No, it's the French. If they thought for a minute that the EU was calling their twisty old tongue a dying language, they'd probably nuke Strasbourg.

Gone are the days when French used to be the international language of diplomacy. It must be a bitter pill that the remnants of this past glory can still be seen on international documents from passports to airmail — that ‘Par Avion’ which gave us such a kick when we were kids.

Until the UK joined in 1973, French and German were the only official languages of the EEC — you bet that De Gaulle said ‘Non’ for so long to our entry.

It was the advent of rock 'n' roll, though, which sent French into a tailspin that it would never recover from.

While perfectly appropriate for Maurice Chevalier to perv over little girls in, the more immediate emotions of this new music were a bad match with this emollient lingo.

To my mind the inherent phoniness of French is expressed in the paradox of Edith Piaf's Je Ne Regrette Rien, in which a perfectly sensible statement sounds like a person going crazy, so hard does the singer have to fight against the soppiness of the way it sounds.

Here we are so used to the idea that language is a living, breathing, changing thing that when I first heard about the Academie Francaise, I really thought someone was having a laugh; that or describing the plot of some weird Peter Sellers film.

So there's this organisation established in the 17th century by Cardinal Richelieu, made up of 40 members known as the ‘les immortels’, who, like the Pope, are elected for life and are kept in line by a ‘Perpetual Secretary’.

Interestingly, the list of French writers who never became members is far more impressive - Rousseau, Balzac, Flaubert, Moliere, Proust and Zola — than those who did.

Les immortels wear a uniform of long black coats and black-feathered cocked hats, each embroidered with golden-green leafy motifs, though I'm unclear as to whether they wield the ceremonial swords each member receives at their meetings. And then they get down to the serious business of attempting to keep their language pure, untouched by evil anglicisation. Just how comic is the idea of all these educated, cultured characters sitting around getting their French knickers in a twist over abominations such as le jazz hot and le weekend?

Anyone who's that precious about a language deserves to see it dumped in the remainder bin of history.

Learn Italian, because it's beautiful, or Spanish, because it's beautiful and because it's already the second language of the USA. If you're really smart, learn Mandarin or Russian.

If you're really, really smart, like me, learn Hebrew. After all, if the Jews really run the world to the extent we're always being told they do, doesn't it make sense to eavesdrop on them and find out exactly what dastardly Gentile baby-eating/Arab toddler organ-stealing deeds they're plotting next? Mazel tov!

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