Jewish World Review March 4, 2002/ 30 Adar I, 5763

Wesley Pruden

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A gift from Heaven, but not in French | English is the lingua franca of Heaven, as we all know, and a lot of people who live a long way from Trafalgar (or Times) Square are taking the precaution of learning it now.

This, and not the prospective loss of a lot of foreign arms business when war comes to Iraq, is actually what's infuriating Jacques Chirac.

The language of Napoleon, Voltaire and Joan of Arc is disappearing as swiftly as the pooof in a soufflé au fromage. The French are learning to their horror that anything worth listening to has to be said in the tongue of ancient English kings (and the cowboy president from Prairie Chapel Ranch).

"When I left Brussels in 1995," a French bureaucrat in the headquarters of the European Union tells the Economist magazine (in perfect English), "70 per cent of the documents crossing my desk were written in French. Nowadays, 70 per cent are in English."

This bureaucrat, once the chief spokesman for the French chairman of the European Commission, recalls the glory days when the language of the press room was the language of the Champs Elysee. But even then the handwriting, in words a Yorkshire yeoman or an Illinois plumber could readily understand, was writ large upon the wall. "Quite often, I would give the official briefing in French and then I would have to give a second briefing in my office in English."

And not just in Europe, and not only le drugstore and le Coca-Cola or even le Starbucks. Not so long ago I eavesdropped on a conversation between two heavy-machinery salesmen from Marseille in the elevator at the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi. "Can you believe it?" one demanded angrily of no one in particular. "The Vietnamese government is asking us to make our presentation in English." He spat out the word as if it were the vulgarism it has become in the salons of Paris and the corridors of Brussels.

Some Europeans speculate that the decline of French in the bureaucracy of the European Union is what was bugging M. Chirac the other day when he lashed out at Bulgaria and Romania for their support of George W.'s war on Saddam Hussein. The French have lately championed the admission of Romania to the EU, in part because Romania is the only one of the East European candidates where French is still taught and encouraged as the second language. If French was good enough for Count Dracula, it ought to be good enough for everybody else, but here were the ungrateful Romanians, promising support for the cowboy president, and worst of all, delivering the promise in the language of the Anglo-Saxons.

The French not only want to protect their privileges in the bureaucracy, but the Paris government spends beaucoup francs to protect the market for French music, movies and other "cultural industries." Their problem is that it's the dreadful American culture - movies, music and blue jeans - that the young everywhere actually want, and with the commercial culture comes the language. This definitely includes the slang. It's difficult to be playful with the language if your language is old and stuffy. Once, when I asked a fluently francophone friend to translate the term "redneck" into French, she said, with just a trace of hauteur, that it couldn't be done. "Well," I said, "even I know that the French word for red is 'rouge,' so just give me the French word for 'neck' and I can put them together myself." She was scandalized. You might have thought I had mispronounced a particularly stinky cheese.

But there's clearly more at stake in the calculations of M. Chirac's government than mere arrogance of culture. "It's not so much a single language that I fear, but the single way of thinking that it brings with it," Pierre Defraigne, a senior officer of the European Commission, argued at a Brussels conference on language. Not so long ago, French was not only the language of international diplomacy, but of French ideas, philosophy and culture. What galls the French now is that it may not be possible to speak English without thinking American.

The language of Shakespeare is England's gift to the world, but a gift delivered to the modern world by the Americans. As American influence - hegemony, as the Europeans insist - grew after World War II, so did the use of the language that accompanied the generosity and reconstruction, and after that, all the things the rest of the world loves to loathe and lust for, the Big Macs, the music, the fashions, the movies, and above all the American way of looking at life and life's possibilities. It's not only the language, but what the Americans distribute in their borrowed language, the ideals of liberte, egalite, fraternite, just the things the French regard as their inventions.

Of course, the French, who usually don't care what you do as long as you pronounce it correctly, will get their revenge. They're powerless to halt the retreat of their tongue, but they can take solace in the way the bureaucracies, the universities and often the newsrooms of America are pure hell on the language of Heaven.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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