Friday, October 22, 2010

Francophones, soldiers and a little humour

I live not far from Montreux on Lake Geneva. Most weekends I go to use the swimming pool at one of the big hotels there. I won't be visiting this week because the town has been turned into a military stronghold.

I'm not allowed to drive in. I'm not allowed to walk along the quayside. I'm not allowed to get the ferry there.

Armed soldiers patrol the streets. Jets and helicopters criss cross the skies and
Swiss patrol boats roam the lake between Switzerland and France.


The francophones are in town.

Fourty heads of state, including my personal bête noire, Nicolas Sarkozy (the first example I can remember of a French president with no sense of culture and who brings to the office an energetic arrogance combined with the petulant but dangerous aggression of a minor warlord. To me, he is a stain on the French nation - but I

The aim of the conference is to re-assure French speakers that theirs is not a 19th Century language sliding into decline down a ramp created by their own inflexibility but rather an important international language.

The press is full of statements such as "French is and remains a universal language because alongside English, it is the only language spoken on all five continents," "French is now spoken by 220 million people in more than 70 countries" and so on.

I love the French language but I have never had sympathy for France's inflated view of its imperial heritage and its role in international politics.

I've been unable to verify the claimed 220 million francophones.

My understanding is that French is the first language of only about 77 million people (about 10 million less than the population of Germany for example).

French does not make it into the top 10 languages world wide even if you count all the Chinese languages as one language.

English has about 340 million native speakers and is the mostly widely spoken second language in the world, with another 165 million or so speakers. (see here for details)

The arrival of the French in Montreux was being discussed on World Radio Switzerland (the state sponsored English language radio -there's also one in German, French and Italian) and was the occaision for a little piece of humour that stuck with me:

Two Brits backpacking around Europe are in the train station at Montreux when an elderly man comes up to them and says, "Parlez vous Francais?"
They stare at him blankly so he tries again
"Sprachen sie Deutsches?"
More blank stares from the Brits
"Parlate Italiano?"
Still blank.

"¿usted habla español?"
Faced with more blank looks the old man departs to find someone else to ask whatever question he had in mind.
One Brit turns to the other and says, "You know, maybe we need to learn another language."
The other Brit replies
, "Why bother? That bloke spoke four and it didn't do him any good, did it?"

And this is the problem the French speakers don't want to acknowledge.

Theirs may be a language of philosophy and poetry but is not and will not become a global lingua franca.

Normally this would not be a source of humour to me, but when I think of how much that much annoy the execrable Sarkozy, it makes me smile.

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