What I’m Reading Now


Another in an occasional series, which is becoming more frequent. And another that I have no memory of finding. As readers of this blog know, I love language. William Alexander’s Flirting With French feeds my addiction. Linguistics mixes with the adventures of learning a foreign language, which means also learning a culture. Throw in some history, cuisine (except for the meal of pigeon, rabbit, and foie gras) along with a big dose of humor, and this short (266 pages) work captivates.

After a brief scientific introduction, Alexander launches into an outrageous critique of Rosetta Stone, which he compares to a “first-person shooter video game”: “This initial vignette is utterly creepy. Are the Rosetta Stone developers unaware that they are closely mimicking a scene from every teenage slasher movie ever made?” Just two pages later Alexander describes a book about French history, “… which runs a whopping five hundred pages, although it feels not a page over a thousand.” Ouch!

Of course Alexander’s acquisition of language lacks both effort and ability. Once in France he and his wife brave gale-force winds and downpours as they bicycle through Normandy and Brittany. Their struggle careers from hilarious to pathetic because his utter lack of perception hinders easy navigation.

His adventures remind me of a dinner at which my companion asked the waiter to bring an ascenseur to the table. The waiter’s face was a mask until I giggled, which allowed him a brief conspiratorial smile, as I explained that my companion had just asked for an elevator, not an ashtray.

So far the most fascinating section traces how the French went from Celts to Franco-Romans to French as the language developed. I did not realize that for the Romans the Celts were Gauls. It’s just another example of Roman hegemony, though “Omnia Celtia divisa est…” does sound more than a bit weird. And though I knew about langues d’oc I had forgotten that the northern residents spoke langues d’oil. The latter won. French speakers say oui, not oc.


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