Wednesday, 24 December 2008

The words to say it: the English-French mésentente

Familiarity breeds contempt and the English and French are just too familiar with each other. A trip from England to continental Europe generally starts in France. As for the French, 300,000 live in London alone, making it one of the top ten French cities. But as in families, the deeper the ties the worse the animosity. Like many an Englishman, I love the Six Nations rugby tournament. Lots of the matches are enthralling, but the only one that really matters is England-France. If England loses all the others and ends up bottom of the table, victory in that one match means the season isn’t a complete failure.

In 1904, the two nations decided to bury the hatchet somewhere else than in each others’ heads, and signed the ‘Entente Cordiale’. French name: first blood to France. But the most important thing is that it was only an Entente: we fought and wasted our millions of lives side by side in the First World War, but we had only an ‘understanding’, not an Alliance.

Eventually we did become allies, but in NATO where our relationship was diluted by the presence of all the other countries. Even then, de Gaulle, not known as an internationalist or anglophile, pulled France out of the integrated military structure in 1966. When de Gaulle called for the US troops to leave France, the then US Secretary of State Dean Rusk asked ‘Does that include the dead Americans in military cemeteries as well?’ The French, who helped kick the British out of the American colonies, are famously the oldest allies of the US but also the most troublesome.

Even in Britain, the French have their allies: the Scots are proud of their ‘Auld Alliance.’ There’s even a pub of that name in Paris. That Alliance is, however, much more widely remembered in Scotland than in France. It’s like Britain which has a special relationship with America, though America seems to have no special relationship with Britain.

The real tension between Britain and France comes from the English, and that’s what the Entente was meant to solve.

One of its provisions was that each nation teach its children the language of the other. But teaching and learning aren’t the same thing. The English just won’t learn French, or any other foreign language. As for the French, if they’re finally and slowly beginning to master English, it’s only really for the sake of the Americans. We already speak the language and know we can’t get the Americans to listen. The French have got to learn English to make the discovery themselves.

In any case, the problem goes deeper than the linguistic incompetence of the populations. There’s a fundamental problem in the languages themselves. The words simply don’t match up, so how can the thoughts?

For example, there’s no French word for ‘privacy’. Now France is on the brink of entering the 21st century so it knows that privacy rights are a priority. It’s come up with the idea of ‘le droit à la vie privée’. But privacy and private life are not the same: an Englishman likes to enjoy privacy even in public. Anyway the people most concerned by the right to a private life are those who live in public, the politicians or stars, like the French president Nicolas Sarkozy and his model-turned-singer wife, Carla Bruni. Of course, one can be forgiven for thinking that French law now exists primarily for the convenience of the first couple, but to us in England we feel it should also protect the private individual (and try to translate that into French).

English has no word for ‘solidaire’, the adjective derived from solidarity. The French complain about it, but they pull together and support each other, and it pays off, for example in the better protection they’re enjoying from the credit crunch. They are solidaires. The English are sometimes notoriously solid or even stolid. But solidaric? solidaresque? solidarious? It’s a gap and it can’t help an entente if one partner expects the other to be solidaric, but the other partner doesn’t even know the word.

Similarly, English has no word for ‘intègre’, as in displaying integrity. I don’t think French public life is any more intègre than British – or indeed Anglo-Saxon, the concept the French use when they extend their thinking beyond Britain to include the vaguely English-speaking peoples in Australasia or North America. Perhaps the French still have the aspiration to be integral, while we Anglo-Saxons, more cynical or more realistic, have given up on the idea.

It’s clear from the languages themselves that the nations set store by different things. The French value partners who are solidaric and integral. An Englishman would just like them to keep out of his face, for God’s sake, just back off and leave him some space. It’s no surprise that the entente has turned out to be more of a mésentente.

In a sense, though, none of this matters. England beat France in Paris during the last Six Nations Championship. If they can pull off the same trick at Twickenham in the next campaign, well, solidarity, integrity, even privacy will count for nothing. A victory over the old adversary: how can anything else mean as much?


Brian Barker said...

Apparently President-elect Barack Obama wants everyone to learn a foreign language.

The British learn French, the Australians study Japanese and the Americans prefer Spanish. Yet this leaves Mandarin Chinese and Arabic out of the equation.

Why not teach a common neutral non-national language, in all countries, in all schools, worldwide?

An interesting video can be seen at Professor Piron was a former translator with the United Nations

A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at

David Beeson said...

The problem with neutral languages is, I guess, that they're neutral: like the waiting areas or public corridors of life, they belong to no-one in particular and have difficulty developing a personality or a soul. Some communication problems seem a price worth paying for Ronsard and Donne, Racine and Austen, Camus and Yates...

san said...

Isn't it more a question of the idiom being different?


David Beeson said...

Yes, the idioms are different. But I think my point is that if thought is essentially expressed in words when it becomes completely rational, it becomes impossible to reason about a concept which your local idiom can't express. If 'privacy' can't be distinguished from 'private life', then reasoning that depends on the distinction is simply impossible. That means that the idea of privacy while in public becomes difficult to grasp, for no other reason than the gap in the language.

Or do you think that's not the case?