Saturday, 15 October 2016

The TLS, October 14, 2016

Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau
The secret codes of French conversation revealed
320pp. Duckworth Overlook. £16.99.
978 0 7156 5125 4

A traditional complaint from English speakers who go to France and try to speak the language is that such efforts are usually met with indifference or hostility. Unless your French is grammatically correct and pitch perfect, the nonchalant reply will either be in English, or – as used to be far more common – an actual reprimand. “Vous écorchez la langue!”, British visitors would often be corrected – “you’re flaying the language!” This has helped to shore up the Anglosphere stereotype that the French, especially Parisians, are incorrigibly rude. But, as the two French Canadian journalists Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau explain in this anthropologically flavoured guidebook, this perception is based on a misapprehension. The French don’t merely speak a different language. They communicate in a different code.

The French will correct you because their language is intrinsically bound to their national identity. In 1789 less than half the population even spoke French. Most spoke regional dialects. Thus, the acquisition and implementation of formal French subsequently became core to universalist Frenchness. This is why they don’t refer to a linguistic mistake as “une erreur”, as anglophones might, but rather as “une faute” – a word with a graver moral inference. This fear of being “at fault” explains such correctness. It also explains why French supermarket assistants, bus drivers or civil servants will never admit to being wrong.

The two most important words in the French language, write the authors in this fascinating and delightful work, are “bonjour” and “non”. The first signals less a mere “hello”, but instead: “hello, here I am, ready to engage and talk with you”. The French love rhetoric and argument. They consider conversation to be a sport. That is why the second most important word is “non”. When the French say it, appearing obstructive and unhelpful, they aren’t necessarily being negative. They are daring you to answer back. This is the country, after all, which created the salon, the place where one went to display one’s rhetorical prowess.

The authors conclude by recommending not to broach the following subjects: family, work, money or race relations. These are faux pas. Never try Anglo-Saxon-style, self-deprecating humour, either. You will look a fool. In France – the land of the public intellectual – one must instead display wit.


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