|.. and the rise of international
Many years later I was introduced to one of the most readable authors
in the genre of history Barbara Tuchman whose book ‘The Guns
of August ’ is a lucid and compelling introduction into the
causes, as well as the first month, of World War One. You know what
is going to happen yet it is gripping both in overall scope as well
as individual human detail. I was introduced to the book by a gallery
owner and his wife who were generous enough to offer a couple of shows
and who had been teachers in previous lives. They were aware that
most art students have not had a general education in the arts.
If you ever get the chance you should also read a collection of essays
that she wrote called “The March of Folly’ which shows
the continual state of human thoughtlessness that has lead to conflicts
from Troy to Vietnam. The tragedies of Iraq, Afghanistan et al came
well after the book was written but only confirmed that she was right.
We don’t learn. We won’t learn. Refuse to learn even.
Stupid is too kind.
What this is leading to is an introduction to Graham Robb set whose
book ‘The Discovery of France’ I am re-reading. I had
to buy another copy as I inadvertently gave my original copy away
a few years ago under circumstances that prevented its retrieval with
dignity. I was in New Zealand and I trust my father continues to enjoy
the book. Anyway ‘The Discovery of France’ is a book much
different from normal history tomes. It is a cultural, geographic
and linguistic analysis where famous people and well known events
are almost peripheral.
It is the result of not just four years of conventional research but
also 22,000 kilometres on a bicycle across France. And a bicycle is
an excellent way to get to know a country. The book dispels the notion
that France has always been one nation, culturally united with diverse
regional cuisines and speaking one beautiful language.
So let us précis a little of what he says about language. French?
Who spoke that in France apart from Paris and its surrounds?
By the end of the nineteenth century, a century after the Revolution,
it was realised that national unity might be easier if people understood
what their neighbours were saying. So the Third Republic documented
that ,even then, there were still fifty-five major dialects and hundreds
of sub-dialects. These belonged to four distinct language groups:
Romanic (French, Occitan, Francoprovencal, Catalan and the Italic
languages spoken in Corsica and along the Italian border); Germanic
(Flemish, Frankish, and Alsatian); Celtic (Breton); and an isolated
group , Euskaric (Basque).
Parisians could travel into the country-side and find that they could
not be understood after a day’s journey - though users of the
trading corridors were much better versed. A self sufficient town
would be more likely to have an unusual dialect than a town that depended
on national commerce.
As Robb writes ‘Even if a place was known to outsiders, its
language might remain a mystery. The Pyrenean village of Aas had its
own whistling language that was unknown even in the neighbouring valleys
until it was mentioned in a television programme in 1959.Shepherds
who lived in for months in lonely cabins had evolved an ear-splitting,
hundred decibel language that could be understood for a distance of
two miles. It was also used by the women in worked in the surrounding
fields and was apparently versatile enough in the early twentieth
century to convey the contents of the local newspaper. Its last know
use was during the Nazi occupation when shepherds helped Jewish refugees,
resistance fighters and stranded pilots to cross the border into Spain.
So the Third Republic made the eradication of patois as a first language
a national educational priority, though to many it seemed like a colonial
campaign to erase local cultures. But standard French was carried
all over the country by conscription, railways, newspapers, tourists
and popular songs, which could hardly be sung n dialect without losing
Most of the descendants of the language groups and sub-dialects would
lose the language of their locality and acquire a highly codified
and formal language known as French – a language which, according
to many French speakers almost no one speaks correctly. In the land
of a thousand tongues monolingualsim became the mark of the educated
But that is only the smallest fraction of the book. Read it.