Derek Sivers

The Story of French - by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow

The Story of French - by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

Just an interesting history and present look at the French language. I had no idea what an influence French was on English, and didn't understand its role in current Africa. Makes me want to learn French.

my notes

A Creole language is born when populations of different origins combine elements of their languages to form a new one. Properly speaking, it becomes a Creole when it evolves into a mother tongue, transmitted from parents to children - that’s what distinguishes it from a lingua franca or a pidgin (trade jargon). Of the world’s 127 Creoles, thirty-five are English-based and fourteen are French-based. There are more speakers of French-based Creoles than all other Creoles combined (including English), thanks mostly to Haiti, the biggest Creole-speaking nation in the world.

Esprit, a difficult concept to translate that is a combination of wit, cleverness, eloquent rhetoric and liveliness.

The art of conversation required speakers to be playful, to make witty comebacks and offer sudden and surprising insights.

In France the eighteenth century is known as le siècle des lumières (the century of light and knowledge, or the Enlightenment).

If triangles had a god, they would give him three sides.

English picked up hundreds of words during this period, including elite, avalanche, reservoir, bouquet, engagement, salon, buffet, liaison, caprice, façade, fanfare, pirouette, maladroit, bourgeois, éclat, manoeuvre and début.

Sans Souci (“free of care”)

Belgium was never meant to be.

Belgians have different terms for institutions; they do not speak of the maire (mayor) and lycée (college) but of the bourgmestre and athénée. They use terms such as wassingue (floor cloth) and drache (heavy rain). Germanic influence has led Belgians to use terms such as une fois (once), which is a calque, or loan translation, of the Flemish eenmaal. Belgians also count differently. Whereas the French have come to say soixante-dix (literally “sixty and ten,” for seventy), quatre-vingts (“four twenties,” for eighty) and quatre-vingt-dix (“four twenties and ten,” for ninety), the Belgians kept the more sensible septante, huitante and nonante, which are calqued on the French quarante (forty), cinquante (fifty) and soixante (sixty). For eighty some Belgians say octante, but more prefer, quatre-vingts. Although it sounds more modern to say septante or nonante, the terms actually come from an older system of counting.

The term restaurant originates from a shop near the Louvre Palace in Paris that in the 1760s served a meat-based broth known as a bouillon restaurant (restoring broth). The term gave birth to the idea of a restaurateur, the person who owned the establishment. But the big shift came with the Revolution. Prior to that, most chefs cooked for bourgeois or aristocratic families and their numerous guests. When their bosses fled abroad to avoid jail or the guillotine during the Revolution, these chefs and maîtres d’hôtel found themselves out of work, so they started opening their own establishments.

The French had invented the metric system during the Revolution.

Over half the fifty-seven countries in Africa and around the Indian Ocean use French, many as an official language.

Agence pour l’enseignement du français à l’étranger (Agency for French Teaching Abroad). There are now more than 430 French collèges and lycées in 125 countries. Today no country in the world is as actively engaged in cultural diplomacy as France.

A country’s reputation depends on its ability to represent itself through artistic and educational programs.

Diplomats today achieve as much by capitalizing on the attractions of their country as they do by using coercion or offering financial aid.

Fibre optics, HDTV and smart cards are all French inventions.

Léopold Sédar Senghor: The cultural renaissance of sub-Saharan Africa that started in Paris in the 1920s. The climate of intellectual and (relative) racial freedom in Paris in the first quarter of the twentieth century had drawn many black American authors of the Harlem Renaissance to Paris. They in turn inspired African intellectuals and future African leaders and intellectuals such as Senghor and Césaire. The encounter between American and African blacks sparked a transformation of African language, poetry and politics.

Ivory Coast French became a language of communication within an extremely diverse population - it was not just the language of the elite. Ivorians are known to speak their own brand of French, français populaire ivoirien. In addition, Dioula melded with French to create a widely spoken dialect called Moussa. Young Ivorians later transformed Moussa into an artificial slang called Nouchi. Nouchi is grammatically based on French, but incorporates words from other languages that have landed on Ivorian soil - Arabic, Chinese, English and more. This slang, in turn, has developed into another, competing jargon called Zouglou.

There are many more Arabicisms in mainstream French than Africanisms.

Two million Algerians have emigrated to France. As a result, terms such as clebs (dog), smala (tribe, following), caïd (big shot, mafia boss), flouze (dough, cash), baroud (ultimate battle), fissa (quick), souk (market, disorder), caoua (coffee) and bakchich (baksheesh) are now common in colloquial French.

The seventeenth-century French missionary Alexandre de Rhodes was the first to transcribe the Annamite (later called Vietnamese) language from ideograms into Latin characters.

Nguyen Tat Thanh (1890–1969), much better known as Ho Chi Minh (“he who brings light”). Ho Chi Minh studied at the French lycée of Hué and moved to Paris in 1917.

Although only ten percent of Senegalese are officially regarded as fully francophone, and another twenty percent as partially francophone, it was rare to meet anyone in a city who didn’t have a functional understanding of French. Even in the countryside, most people we met had at least a veneer of French.

Only ten countries in the world, and very small ones at that, are classified as strictly monolingual.

CLAC is a catchy abbreviation for Centre de lecture et d’animation communautaire (Centre for Reading and Community Activity). Small libraries - of about 2,500 books - that would offer other types of services, including Internet access, games, movie-screening facilities and sound systems for shows. 213 CLACs have been opened in seventeen countries. The rate of success in national exams is three to four times higher in communities with a CLAC than those without.

Forcing international civil servants, diplomats or ministers to express themselves in a language that is not theirs amounts to putting them in a situation of inferiority. It deprives them of the capacity for nuance and refinement, which amounts to making concessions to those who speak that language as a mother tongue.

Words express a culture, a way of thinking and a world view. offers tips on using the French language. Staff rewrites every news item with the world in mind.

The décloisonnement (decompartmentalization) of cultures. “I didn’t want an African film just to be for Africans. African cinema must be seen in Hanoi, Tokyo, Rio, Dakar, Cairo, and conversely.”

The language used in les cités is an important source of new vocabulary. The main form of jargon is a word-crunching system called verlan, whose origins date back to the seventeenth century. Verlan has been popular in France’s suburbs since the 1970s. It consists of reversing syllables and writing them phonetically; the term itself is verlan for à l’envers (in reverse). It has produced one of the most interesting expressions of the political landscape in France: les beurs, verlan for rab, the Arabic term for Arabs, referring to French of North African descent. The jargon of the cités is evolving constantly and regularly entering mainstream usage, often through publicity. Suburban kids don’t speak of français but rather céfran. The beurs who make it to the middle class are now called les beurgeois. A femme (woman) is meuf, a flic (cop) is keuf, mère (mother) is reum, père (father) is reup and a prof (teacher) is a frop. Verlan goes as far as reverlanizing its terms, so that Arabs, first beurs, have become rebeus, and femmes, first meufs, have become feums. Comme ça (like that) was first verlanized as comme aç, then as askeum, and then as asmeuk.