A few months ago, WikiLeaks’ publication of confidential cables from American embassies around the world inspired a mock news item headlined “Sarkozy Admits French Language a Hoax.”According to this report, France’s diplomatic missives were revealed to have been written in English, leading the French president to confess that “the French really speak English, except in the presence of the British.” He went on to explain that the French language “was in fact complete gibberish,” invented by William the Conqueror’s troops during their invasion of England in order to “seem a bit more exotic” to the locals.
Whatever its humor value, this absurdist scenario underscores the degree to which English has eclipsed French as the international idiom of choice. With his magisterial study, “When the World Spoke French,” Marc Fumaroli harks back to a time when the situation was exactly the reverse. In the 18th century, he shows, “the international community of the learned” tended “to speak, write and publish mostly in French.” Whether they hailed from Russia or Prussia, Sweden or Spain, Austria or America, the Enlightenment’s best minds gravitated to French out of their shared reverence for both the matchless sophistication of the French art de vivre and the spirited intellectual exchanges of the Parisian salon.
To Fumaroli, an eminent scholar of French classical rhetoric and a member of the Académie Française, the adoption of the French language necessarily entailed the absorption of a whole system of cultural values. Like the Ciceronian Latin favored by the intellectuals of the Renaissance, 18th-century French “was a language in itself inconvenient, difficult, aristocratic and literary,” inseparable from “a bon ton in manners, from a certain bearing in society, and from a quality of wit, nourished on literature, in conversation.” Notwithstanding the radical role it would eventually play in the French and American Revolutions, the language of Enlightenment liberalism and universalism paradoxically evinced the finest qualities of the French nobility: cleverness, leisure, cultivation and charm.