… and Definitely Not ‘Useless’!
Another week and another celeb of the male variety starts getting too vocal with his opinions. Yes, move over Jamie Oliver. It seems we are sliding further down the alphabet from J.O to J.P. Unfortunately, now the abrasive and forthright University Challenge host, journalist, broadcaster and author, Jeremy Paxman (who I used to quite admire), and who no doubt over the past week has ironically quaffed more champagne, Châteauneuf du Pape and canapés than most of us have had hot dinners, has branded le français as ‘long past’ it.
Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy!
This is not just a faux pas. It is taking the faux pas to a whole new level… and letting your column in the Financial Times go to your over-inflated head.
If you didn’t catch his ridiculous comments – which could have stemmed from the Victorian era – via Twitter or any of the newspapers’ articles, here is the narcissistic (in the true imperialist sense of the word) nugget of ‘wisdom’ he decided to impart to us:
“No one is going to deny that, historically, France has enhanced civilisation. European culture would be a thin thing without Montaigne, Descartes, Debussy and Cézanne, to say nothing of the dictator’s dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte…
The problem is that it is all long past and the new world is anglophone. In the centuries-long struggle between English and French there is one victor, and to pretend otherwise is like suggesting that Johnny Hallyday is the future of pop…
The outcome of the struggle is clear: English is the language of science, technology, travel, entertainment and sport. To be a citizen of the world it is the one language that you must have.”
— Financial Times (@FT) April 7, 2016
Bullshit. All languages are equal; as relevant to their speakers as the very air they breathe, regardless of how many people of the world are speaking them.
How can you even begin to label English as superior? Kirsty Winkler, founder of Fair Languages would certainly beg to differ. According to the so called engco model of language forecasting, featured on her website, English will most likely be number 3 in the line to the throne by 2050, with Spanish taking second place, and Chinese the coveted star role. Hindi-Urdu and Arabic are predicted to follow not far behind in fourth and fifth places.
You will rarely witness me swear, but there are few things that rile me in this life. One of them though is the public critique of my favourite language; the subject I have passionately studied since the age of 11, the basis of my degree, the language of my friends and former customers… the language of amour its very self for crying out loud!
As a linguist, when any language is attacked, I am always ready to speak out. Not so much as to put up a fight, that’s not my style…
But it seems that Monsieur Paxman needs un petit peu du refreshing on the positive aspects of this langue belle, as well as its very definite place in our hearts and minds in the 21st century. And I am all too happy to oblige with my 13 Reasons Why French is Fantastique:
1: Borrowed words: Take a look around you, Jez. You are probably sat in the BBC café feasting on your croissant as you snort with indignation at this. And that’s just for entrée (I mean starters). The English dictionary is teeming with some 80,000 examples of words which are, in fact, derivatives of the French language. That’s like 45% of our language! Now you may well argue that the term ‘borrowed’ defines a word which has been completely lifted and imported directly from the French dictionary, but the fact remains that 29% of modern English derives from this apparently ‘useless’ language. Hmm, not so insignificant now, is it? Had it not been for the influence of the mighty French language, it’s pretty clear that English would not have even come to fruition in the shape and form as we know it, making most of our historical conquests to rule the world, pie in the sky wishful thinking.
2: French is a veritable open door to the rest of the romance languages – as well as to all of the world’s languages, in and of itself. The French language is the perfect basis upon which to build our linguistic skills, creating friendships in every possible context, conducting business and research, sharing information, and generally helping to make the world a better place. And when we consider that Spanish is predicted to be the 2nd most spoken language in the world by 2050 (and Spanish and French can draw upon many Latin based similarities) and that a number of countries in North Africa speak Arabic and French (and Arabic is predicted to be the fifth most spoken language worldwide by this date), it’s a no-brainer that having a decent standard of French will help us all.
3: Cafés – yes, I am going to mention them again. Already. So soon. For what would the UK be without a café? We’d still be drinking in flippin’ inns at street corners, getting into rowdy drunken brawls and scrapes, that’s what. And so the seemingly modest word café (as with so many of the other French words we take for granted like Jeremy every day) is a metaphor for civilised behaviour; for building relationships, for sharing problems and woes, for solving dilemmas. Add a macaron or a pain au chocolat to the mix and even us Brits start to smile, momentarily… Cafés and all that the concept within the word entails, are quite simply groundbreaking life changers of establishments. Their continued existence, and the uplifting hope of affordable luxury they bring, is as quintessential a component to British life as talking about the weather.
4: Art – try telling Loris Gréaud, Fabien Vershaere, Adel Abdessemed and Fayçal Bagriche. These are just four of the ‘ones to watch’ when it comes to contemporary French art. All have undoubtedly learnt from the former French masters, yes. But each of these modern styles brings something previously unseen and gratifyingly beautiful in its own unique way. Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst aren’t the only statement makers on the block.
5: Fashion – well, this shouldn’t even need explaining. If it wasn’t for the continuous innovation of French designers, the fashion industry as we know it today would be a very lacklustre affair. And that permeates everything, doesn’t it, Jeremy? The very clothes on your back, the very loafers on your feet – all will have been shaped by the classicism of French couture at some point. It may be that the cutter outer of the leather adorning your brogues was trained in Paris. It may be that your Saville Row suit is (oblivious to you) made with the finest French blue wool. Indeed, the French have been exporting fashion before the rest of the world even knew what the concept was. And in a time and a place where first impressions, body language and self-assurance mean the difference between somebody getting hired for a job, or not; a business deal being secured, or not, and a budding artiste being signed up by a record label, or not, do not tell us that the French have no influence in the fields of science, technology, travel, entertainment and sport!
6: And while we are on the sport subject… it would be damn near impossible to go skiing, snowboarding or luging without a smattering of French terms, so that’s the majority of the Winter Olympics that you are telling us is now null and void. And Darcey Bussell would have a tête à tête with you over the importance of le français in modern contemporary dance… But that’s not all. Can you imagine a footballing world without Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira or Eric Cantona? To discount their language is to discount their contribution to our British teams. Do you honestly think they were coached in English?
7: Everyday British Cuisine has its roots deeply embedded in French cooking. And so, even if today’s foodie critics are regarding French cuisine as out of touch, it is the building block (and continues to provide that foundation) to all of Britain’s great chefs. Try telling Gordon Ramsey, Marcus Wareing and co that the achievements of the French are no longer relevant and get ready to duck à l’orange for cover… Without the bedrock of the French classics, the adaptation and fusion of their techniques and terms, British cuisine would be nothing more than a soggy bottom.
8: Cheese – yes, another foodie entry. But French cheese has a language all of its own and pairs with our beloved vin rouge like nothing else in this world. Can you imagine a food market, picnic, cafe, restaurant or episode of Masterchef without Brie, Camembert, Comté, Emmental, Gruyère (yes, the latter two ARE Swiss, but they are French words for Swiss towns) or Roquefort? We may well adore our Cheddar. But isn’t it funny how the French don’t feel the need to concoct their own version of that, whereas we – encore une fois – take the brilliance of their idea and run off with it as if it was always our creation. I mean Somerset Brie? What the f***?
9: Where would we be without the fun that is… being able to insert ‘rendez-vous, déjà-vu, laissez-faire or ménage à trois into a conversation? Oh yes, it’s not just single borrowed words that we love to pepper our language with to give it a bit more zing, but phrases; phrases that we are too inept to find an English equivalent for… so we will nick the French saying, because they do it with that certain je ne sais quoi – aka. panache.
10: You’d have to scrap most of the questions on University Challenge… since 69.4% of them will have a French historical link (okay that’s a guesstimate, but I can’t be far off) making you redundant of a job. I’m all too happy to give you carte blanche!
11: France is the world’s Number One tourist destination. And what were you saying earlier, Jeremy? It’s just that, call me intuitive… but I have a hunch that a recollection of words and phrases might stand the 80 million plus annual tourists in good stead when they visit Paris.
12: French is the second language of international relations. Yes, English may be in pole position (for now), but wouldn’t you say that based on the importance the United Nations, the European Union, UNESCO, NATO, the International Olympic Committee, the International Red Cross and international courts that French, maybe, just maybe, it isn’t entirely ‘useless’?
13: Once the pronunciation rules of French are learnt, That. Is. It. There is no ambiguity or silliness or random awkwardness. But what do we do with the English language? We make it as unnecessarily difficult to learn as possible by littering it with words like cough, bough, dough and ought. Yes, they ought indeed to all have the same sounding ‘ough’ in them. Why is it I picture a Professor Paxman from the 1300s, quill to hand, conjuring up these anomalies and recording them in ink forever more, just to appear more intellectual than the masses and trip everybody up?
I could go on. And on. And on. But instead I will make it simple and say just this:
Jeremy Paxman: quit giving Brits a bad name, as well as your (frankly) verging on racist remarks which do nothing to help the Brexit fence sitters make an informed decision on the merits of Europe. Save your opinions for your wannabe mini-mes on University Challenge… and tend to the grapes in your own backyard since you are clearly so eloquently superior to the neighbours at growing them.
France: we love you. No, really, we do. And not just because you gave us macarons, champers and brie. But because for many of us Brits, you were our first linguistic taste of something definitively less grey, negative and self-important; a touch paper for the adventures that lay outside of the run-of-the-mill drudgery that can all too often be Blighty. You welcomed us with open arms, giving us a sneak peek into the exotic world and words that lay beyond our needlessly complex grammatical rules and the white cliffs of Dover, inspiring hopes and dreams on a scale we cannot even begin to put in writing.
Or in other words, if you really need a resumé, it goes a little something like this:
France 1: Jeremy Paxman 0