How the French became effete David Steinsaltz



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How the French became effete
David Steinsaltz

Department of Demography

University of California

2232 Piedmont Ave.

Berkeley, CA 94720

The N. Y. Times (5/23/04) has reported on a Bush-campaign strategy to "make insinuations about Mr. Kerry's manliness, and go so far as to call him French." Even a year earlier, according to the Washington Post (7/13/2003), "White House aides like to suggest that Bush's Democratic rivals are a bunch of sissies. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry 'looks French,' while North Carolina Sen. John Edwards is known as the 'Breck girl.'" More recently, GOP strategist Whit Ayres was quoted as saying that "Kerry's Francophilia 'plays into this stereotype of the effete, French-speaking, northeastern Massachusetts liberal elitist. The fact that his position on Iraq seems reasonably close to that of...Jacques Chirac is just icing on the cake.'" On a more conciliatory note, Senator Gordon Smith (R-Oregon), speaking for the Bush campaign, allowed that "It's not John Kerry's fault that he looks French. But it is his fault that he wants to pursue policies that have us act like the French. He advocates all kinds of additional socialism at home, appeasement abroad, and what that means is weakness for the future." Whether or not France deserves to be cast as an enemy of the U. S., or of its right wing, how did it come to pass that calling a man "French" works a slur on his masculinity, not unlike comparing him to a female fashion model? How did "effete" and "French-speaking" come to form as natural a pair as "left-leaning" and "latte-sipping", or "red-meat" and "conservative"?


What would it take to make the French tough and masculine? Conquering Europe? Done that. Atrocities against brown-skinned colonials? Check. Electing a right-wing president who opposes gay marriage? Déjà fait. Defend Paris? Pace the wags who chuckle about this never having been attempted, Gallic epicures gallantly traded their blanquette de veau for raton and the zoo elephants Castor and Pollux, in the siege 1871. And when it came time to overthrow a democratically elected government in Haiti this year, who could be relied upon to fulfill its traditional role, shoulder-to-shoulder with the U. S.? Yet, to listen to the chatter in the popular media, one would think France a purely feminine tribe of distaff Amazons, who had done nothing since the days of Asterix but sample unpasteurized fromage and rail against the established order in the world.
The popular explanation traces French effeminacy back to a long-ago war when the "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" (a phrase gleefully picked up by right-wing jounalists in the U.S. from "The Simpsons") capitulated to a brutal foreign dictator, and treated their savior to ingratitude. True enough, but the savior in question was the Maid of Orleans, Jeanne Darc; the dictator was our anglophone ancestor, Henry V of England; and the saucy B. S. who codified the principles of France-bashing was not Bart Simpson, but London theater impressario Bill Shakespeare. Ultimately, American attitudes toward France and the French have their roots not in the Second World War, not even in the more than two centuries of hot and cold relations between the two great modern republics, but in the dynastic wars of the Middle Ages.
It is hardly a secret that French was, once upon a time, de rigeur in nook-shotten Albion. 1066 saw the medieval equivalent of "shock and awe", decapitating the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy and replacing them with Norman French. For nearly three centuries, the laws and court proceedings of the realm were conducted in a tongue alien to the vast majority of the populace. It is in this period that the English language absorbed reams of French vocabulary, which maintains, even to this day, a bone-deep connotation of leisure and hauteur. This is nowhere more conspicuous than in the division -- found in no other European language --- between words for animals, and for the meats derived from them. The animals -- cow, pig (or swine), sheep, deer --- are named in the Anglo-Saxon of the husbandman; the meats -- beef, pork, mutton, venison -- speak the Norman French of the ones à table. Even when, in 1362, legal proceedings were switched to English -- the nobles had been cut off from their Norman estates and assimilated to English speaking -- the royal court remained incorrigibly francophone, and new laws were still written in French.
How did the common Englishman feel about the high prestige accorded a foreign language? Faced with upper-class contempt for one's ethnicity, sex, or language, self-hating and identification with the oppressor are not uncommon reactions. Thus, Holinshed's sixteenth-century Chronicles aver that the court's contempt for English took hold "in the country with every plowman, that even the very carters began to wax weary of their mother toungue, and labored to speak French, which as then was counted no small token of gentility. And no marvel, for every French rascal, when he came once hither, was taken for a gentleman, only because he was proud, and could use his own language, and all this (I say) to exile the English and British speeches quite out of the country."
To be sure, Holinshed's account suggests considerable disaffection among the yeomen. In fact, the chronicler Robert of Gloucester, writing around 1300, had already lamented, "But that a man speaks French, we hold him of little account. Only the lowly hold to English, and to their own speech. I know that there is no country in the world that does not hold to her own speech, but England." Absent political or ideological impulses, though, even a democracy can repress the vernacular, excluding the majority tongue from the venues of prestige: government, the law courts, the arts and sciences. Witness Quebec, where the majority French was treated as a peasant's dialect from the British conquest in the 1760s, until the "quiet revolution" of the 1960s. (It is interesting to note that while George W. Bush's rudimentary Spanish is invariably linked to Mexico, and seen as helping him communicate with Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, John Kerry's fluent French is not linked to our francophone northern neighbor, or to Haiti, or to Africa, and is not seen as helping him communicate with anyone but Jacques Chirac.)
It was Edward I, who himself probably spoke only rudimentary English, who seems first to have recognized the incipient resentment toward the French, and incited it for political ends. Having embarked on an all-consuming war to conquer France and seize (reclaim, he would have said) the throne, he sought to mobilize popular sentiment against the French across the Channel, by linking them to the covert French presence sneering at home. Thus, he broadcast the peculiar warning, that the French king was plotting “to destroy and wholly annihilate the English nation and language”. This accusation was repeated by Edward III, who also made the switch to English in court proceedings.
This linguistic nationalism slowly gathered pace, with the Lollard move to translate the Bible into English. The tipping point, though, came in the reign of Henry V. Already his father had pointedly spoken English to Parliament when deposing Richard II, and again when he claimed the throne as Henry IV. The son, with a dubious claim to the throne, turned once again to foreign conquest, and simultaneously played the language card with finesse. Early in his reign he patronized the preeminent English-language poets Chaucer and Gower, financing the publication and dissemination of their great works, and sponsored their canonization as emblems of English greatness. Embarked on his military campaigns, he let it be known that his orders and letters from the field were written in English. Hoi polloi -- the London Brewers' Guild, for instance -- took this as a signal for their own switch from French to English.
Henry conquered France, but in a matter of years his feckless son lost his grip -- hardly surprising, since the lad was not even a year old when he was crowned king of England and France. Civil war ensued. A century later, the Tudor dynasty saw itself regenerating England's grandeur, unifying the nation after generations of war and dynastic battles. How do you recover your martial honor when you have suffered a humiliating military defeat and been driven from your conquered territories? The code of chivalry demands --- as the U. S. practiced in the days following the Sept. 11 attacks --- that you belittle the enemy, attributing their (temporary) victory to perfidy, and generally tarring them with cowardice, lubricity, and the lack of all manly virtues. These themes were taken up both by commoners, and by Elizabethan-era poets and writers. The argot of the London underworld was termed "pedlar's French" (indeed, some French words were used), while a "French lesson" was a visit to a prostitute, and the "French disease" was venereal. (To this day, a backhanded apology for vulgarity is "Pardon my French.") The influential Richard Mulcaster, wrote that “I do not think that any language, be it whatsoever, is better able to utter all arguments, either with more pith, or greater plainness, then our English toungue is.” More directly, one treatise was titled "The Fickle and Wavering Estate of France", while a travel guide calls the French "childish and ridiculous", "idle, wavering, and inconstant", wondering above all at the paradoxical immutability of this French inconstancy ("flipflopping" this might be termed in todays politics) through the ages. The French language is accounted the source and witness of this national pathology: "As the Frenchmen's pronunciation is very fast, so are their wits wavering," and "the French neither pronounce as they write,[...] nor think as they speak."
This brings us to Shakespeare's histories. Looking back of the century of war, the great playwright saw, above all, a struggle for the sovereignty of the English tongue. There is little in contemporary France-bashing that does not find expression in those plays, explicit or implied. The French are effete, wavering, dishonest, and craven, and (what summed all these qualities up) womanly. This quality of the people finds its expression in the characteristics of the language. Thus, an English lord, his position surrounded, pressed to surrender, declares "Submission, Dolphin? 'tis a mere French word;/ We English warriors wot not what it means." Not as pithy as "Nuts!", but it makes a similar point. The budding tyrant Richard III --- no girlieman he --- mocks the "French nods and apish courtesy" of the court, so inimical to himself, a "plain man" of "simple truth". Even in private soliloquy of the French we hear "Done like a Frenchman -- turn and turn again." Nor are the roots of popular francophobia neglected. A popular t-shirt among law students quotes a 15th Century peasant rebel in Shakespeare's Henry VI, part ii, saying "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers". While the selection of John Edwards for the second slot on the Democratic ticket might revive that slogan itself for current electioneering, the rebel leader Jack Cade provides the context, condemning a captured judge to hang with "He can speak French, and therefore he is a traitor."
As in life, so in the plays, Henry V is the apex of the Norman revenge, and the exaltation of English. Already in the Henry IV plays, the young prince insinuates himself among the rabble, studying their slang, learning to "drink with any tinker in his own language". As king, his command of the common speech is so sure that he can insinuate himself incognito among the soldiers. When the play bearing his name shows the king with the common touch leading his people to overwhelming victory over the craven, effeminate French, English virtues and French depravity are represented in their language. Henry eschews oaths, while the French prince blusters and swears like a sailor in French (and reminds us what this is about when he calls the English "bastard Normans"). The English express quiet courage in few, simple words, while a captured French nobleman is almost pissing over himself in French (which an English ruffian turned soldier mistakes for the thieves' "pedlar's French") to plead for his life. This culminates in the strange final scene, where the conquering king plays court to the French princess, in a mixture of French and English, saying, "It is as easy for me, Kate, to conquer the kingdom as to speak so much more French." The French language he compares to a woman, who "will hang upon my tongue like a new-married wife about her husband’s neck." The princess, in turn, praises his "false French", which is "enough to deceive the most sage demoiselle dat is en France." To this, Henry retorts, "Fie upon my false French! By mine honor, in true English, I love thee." At this point, French speech is trounced and abandoned.
Before the great battle of Agincourt, Henry bucked up his men's spirit with a rousing speech. As reported by Hall's chronicle, this was a piece of heavy, gallic-tinged oratory: "For if you adventure your lives in so just a battle & so good a cause, which way soever fortune turn her wheel, you shall be sure of fame, glory and renown: If you be victors and overcome your enemies, your strength and virtue shall be spread and dispersed through the whole world: If you overpressed be with so great a multitude shall happen to be slain or taken yet neither reproach can be to you ascribed." When this speech reappears in the mouth of Shakespeare's Henry, though, it is close to pure Anglo-Saxon monosyllables: "If we are marked to die, we are enow/ To do our country loss; and if to live,/ The fewer men, the greater share of honor." John Kerry, former warrior turned statesman, now finds himself accused at every turn of a regal bearing, and of gallic leanings to boot. It is perhaps no wonder that he has chosen to adopt, as one of his signal slogans, the succeeding lines from Shakespeare's avenging angel of anglophonism, the kingly warrior with the common touch: "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers".
David Steinsaltz

Department of Demography

University of California

2232 Piedmont Ave.

Berkeley, CA 94720

© 2004 David Steinsalt


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