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The Story of French

3.93  ·  Rating Details ·  589 Ratings  ·  115 Reviews
Why does everything sound better if it's said in French? That fascination is at the heart of The Story of French, the first history of one of the most beautiful languages in the world that was, at one time, the pre-eminent language of literature, science and diplomacy.

In a captivating narrative that spans the ages, from Charlemagne to Cirque du Soleil, Jean-Benoît Nadeau
Paperback, 496 pages
Published January 8th 2008 by St. Martin's Griffin (first published February 28th 2002)
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Jul 15, 2009 Helynne rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is another book that took me forever to read because I savored and annotated it to the point of compulsion. Authors Jean-Benoit Nadau and Julie Barlow, Canadians who are life partners as well as writing partners, earlier wrote a book called Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't be Wrong, which I also enjoyed. While the first book was about understanding contemporary France and French people, The Story of French is a much more global look at the French language, how it began, developed, and where it ...more
Feb 26, 2008 Lawrence rated it liked it
Not as humorous as their previous book and the structure forced much repetition that could have - and should have - been eliminated with a different organizational format. Some interesting points but, by no means, a scholarly inquiry into the socio-cultural aspects of French and its prospects for the future. But it's interesting that the book in some ways ignores the truth of its own analysis, e.g., when considering why France is itself such a minor player in the international francophonie and F ...more
Matt Cavert
The book starts off good, but goes off the deep in towards the end. Too many unsubstantiated claims and misleading sentences take the book down a path that I did not care for.
Perhaps a second edition could smooth things over. The book's occasional references to the US showed a lack of understanding, especially mentioning things about the roll of slaves in the Civil War or that Hawaii is to the US as Tahiti is to France. Yes, they are both islands far from the mainland, but they do not share the
Nov 08, 2010 Erok rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jessica Howard
Sep 19, 2007 Jessica Howard rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: language
I agree with several other reviewers that this book has some slow spots. But, all in all, I really enjoyed it for two reasons. First, most of the language history books I've read have been either based on English, or based on obscure disappearing languages. This was the first book I've read on another international language except for English. Second, the historical section at the beginning of the book did an excellent job of contextualizing all the random French history facts that I still remem ...more
Aug 13, 2008 Walt rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: language
In addition to being THE authoritative history of the evolution of the French language, this thoroughly-researched work identifies where French is today and what its future may be. The evidence presented identifies the largest impediments to the advancement of the French language: the attitude and misunderstandings of the people in the mother country – France. It is interesting to note that just as these observations could probably not be made by Frenchmen, the authors of this book are French Ca ...more
Jul 19, 2014 Ty rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: canadian
Reallying enjoy it, about two thirds of the way through. I love the joint perspective of an anglophone from Quebec with that of a francophone from Ontario. It starts way back to before there could be said to be something called French, gives context for the creation of l'académie, la dictée nationale and other cultural phenomenons that make francophonie unique. It also explains the complicated relationship English and French have with each other and has given me a more appreciative way to look a ...more
Jan 24, 2009 Andrew rated it liked it
Shelves: history
I loved the first half or so of this book - I find the evolution of languages to be fascinating, and Nadeau and Barlow do a very nice job of condensing hundreds of years of history into a readable narrative.
Unfortunately, the second half of this book didn't quite live up to the first half. At least for me. It was far drier, and it seemed that about every other page, the authors were trying to remind the reader that French is still an important language.
But overall, a fun pop history book, part
A charming idea, the story of French. It offers scores of anecdotes and repeated opportunities to grow one's French vocabulary. It is a trove of "did you knows?": on Indochine, Acadians, the French Republics, ancien regime, Alliance francais, Cajuns and Cadiens.

But reading it felt like a chore.

One issue: Lesotho is inaccurately described as a good example of democracy in Africa. It's a constitutional monarchy (minus one point) where there is little by, of and for the people (minus another poin
Jackie Jacobsen-Côté
I was hoping this was going to be a look into how the language was formalized and has morphed since then. The first part of the book focuses on this - but then it gets into accents and worldwide adoption of the language, and into the development of the Francophonie as an institutional body.

I was a bit turned off when one of the co-authors (who's from Quebec) went on a long tirade about how Quebec's accent is perfectly intelligible, and French speakers just "pretend" not to understand it. This Fr
Dec 20, 2014 Meg rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2014
So good! This was right up my alley right now. The details about the evolution of the language were fascinating and it was amazing how much history of the entire francophone world the authors fit in. Of course since they are Canadian, I am now biased in favor of whatever words the Canadians come up with new words for the contemporary word.

The only thing better might have been had I realized sooner (the authors mentioned it late in the book) that there was a French edition and read that--but it
Feb 04, 2014 Lauren rated it liked it
Overall, I found "The Story of French" to be an entertaining and interesting book. It's very thorough, covering not only the many forces and influences that shaped the French we know today, but how French fares today as an international language and is expected to fare in the future. The book contains lots of fascinating trivia (for example, that Paul Revere was of French Huguenot (Protestant) descent, and his father anglicized the family name from "Rivoire" to "Revere") and explanations for dif ...more
Jul 02, 2016 Jacqueline rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
And over 1 year later, I've finished this book! I learned a lot about the placement of French in the world, and why it still hangs on as "the other global language." Some good stuff in this book. I was particularly shocked that I had never heard of "le Grand Dérangement," where the British expelled thousands of Acadians from their homes in Canada after the French and Indian War. Many of these people settled in Lousiana. Seriously, I double-majored in History AND French! I realize it's more Canad ...more
♥ Ibrahim ♥

If you write a book on the story of French, shouldn't you begin with the story of French in France? Or do you begin with French as known to the francophone world? The authors in this book want to teach us about the francophone influences throughout the world. I feel disappointed. French should begin with France, not with Canada. Arabic, my native tongue, should begin with Arabia, not Indonesia or Somalia.

The book has some misinformation here and there. For instance, on page 13, the author claim
Dec 03, 2014 Rodrigo rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Amazing. This wonderful investigation, full of data and interesting info, brings light over the so-called supremacy of English in the world, and the need of a plurilinguistic culture in the world. The historic part is awesome: the origins, where the French comes from as a language, and how it became the language of culture, chic and modernity. And also how and why it lost its place to English. But then it comes the hard data and the facts that really overwhelmed me. It is amazing to read how lan ...more
Dec 27, 2010 Ilya rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: linguistics
French is a Gallo-Romance language, which is to say Vulgar Latin with a Gaulish (and pre-Gaulish? Nobody knows for sure where the French counting-by-twenties comes from) substratum and a Germanic (Frankish, Norse) superstratum. It went even further than most Romance languages in simplifying Latin morphology and dropping unstressed syllables: "Augustus" became "août", pronounced "u". An 842 treaty between two grandsons of Charlemagne was written in Strasbourg in an early form of French and an ear ...more
Aug 13, 2008 Julie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'm reading this oh-so-slowly; just a few pages each morning as I down my pre-gym coffee. And it will get set aside if I'm eager to finish another read, or yesterday's newspaper, or Lola simply demands my 5 am attention. This isn't to say that THe Story of French isn't engaging! I am really enjoying this long, slow encounter with the rise and development of the French language. In a previous life I was interested in pursuing psycho- and sociolinguistics and exploring how a society's mores, colle ...more
Apr 26, 2007 liz rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Out of all the books that have taken me *forever* to read recently, this one is my absolute favorite. By far. Sure, it gets a little draggy toward the end (when they go through every single way that French could ever apply to anything in the modern world ever. But so much more than that, it's a history of the development of French, the development of its influence, a culture, a worldview, outposts of thought; everything, really. Will you still enjoy it if you don't speak French? Absolutely; it's ...more
Jerome Baladad
Jan 17, 2010 Jerome Baladad rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I got this book from my favorite thrift store, thinking I'd be able to read it soon, but I didn't start doing so until I thought I could learn a thing or two from its espousal on making French one of the leading international languages (based on it's brief review on its back cover) even in these times when Mandarin is actually spoken by more people than English (considered by most as the international language of business). I mean, I'm not exactly reading nor studying French at all---it does not ...more
Mar 31, 2010 Ryan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was an interesting exploration of the development of French through a historical and linguistic lens, a very interesting anecdote-filled explanation of how French influenced other languages (mainly Enlgish), and a not-so-interesting set of essays on French's continued effect on the world. The authors know how to bundle their history well, so European history in the context of the development of French from early Frankish, Latin, and other local dialects was cool to know. King Francois beat ...more
Jun 06, 2015 Drakeflock rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A comprehensive description of the evolution of the French language. It puts flesh on the outline of a living language. I learned new background to French speakers in Quebec and Louisiana, and I was able to (and will continue to be able to) share those stories with my classes. It also has encouraged me to learn more about those cultures and their history.
I am not a fan of non-fiction, but the stories were so rich and relevant that it was still a good read.
Mar 22, 2016 Jessica rated it really liked it
This book starts off as an interesting strongly-etymological view of the French language before veering more towards a discussion of the influence of French and the struggles of establishing French as an international language. While it has some hefty blind spots (such as glossing over the problematic legacy of French in former colonies and fewer well supported arguments in the second half of the book), it still provides decent insight into the complicated global history of the language.
Nov 10, 2015 Jan rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was disappointed, as I hoped for a more linguistic approach -- but it seemed to focus on how many places are inhabited by French-speakers, especially places that are not France, and how great it is to speak French, and a rather defensive insistence that French is not going away. It was pretty well-written and well-researched, but a bit chatty and not so much about the language nor its history, as I expected it to be.
Feb 09, 2011 Paula rated it it was amazing
Francophile that I am (perhaps francophone, according to the authors' definition), I found this book about the French language fascinating from beginning to end. Nadeau and Barlow are comprehensive and thorough to the point of risking redundancy in their investigation of the history (past, present & future), structure (linguistics), culture, geopolitics, economics etc. of French. The authors' perspective is that of bilingual/ bicultural Canadians from Montreal, each having learned the other' ...more
Mar 26, 2013 Misha rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Finishing "The Story of French", written by English/French
husband/wife team of authors from Quebec. Part of the book is a la
"Russians invented everything and the radio" only for French. The part
about the history of the French (or as they say "francophones") in the
new world is enlightening. Now they argue that the French campaign for
the usage of their language and in international institutions is not
just arrogance but a rational powerplay. People who use their mother
tongue for communication are a
Jun 13, 2012 Meg rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Sigh...I loved the last book this couple wrote...60 Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong. One of the few books about France...that is HONEST, and knows about the country...and not written to insult, but to inform. So, when I saw this book at the Embassy...I grabbed it to read. Only took me 4 years to open the book, but I am happy it is off my bookshelf. The book was interesting, but not as good as the last. As a linguist, I enjoyed this book...but as a human on the subway (or reading before bed) I h ...more
Dec 09, 2008 Sam rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I very much enjoyed this lively history of the French language. While my French is not what you would call fluent, I certainly have a lot of exposure to French and French culture which was only illuminated more by Nadeau's and Barlow's research. It helped explain many things I always wondered about how and why French became such an influential language, and why it managed to survive in North America but not Southeast Asia. One of the more amusing sections of the book tells us the origins and wor ...more
Richard Koerner
Jan 21, 2016 Richard Koerner rated it really liked it
Being a French teacher and all makes me want to read it. This is an amazing explanation of the rivalry and competition between French and English and between the Anglophones and Francophones.
Feb 16, 2008 Andrea rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: linguists and francophiles
I was immediately intrigued upon discovering this book. Five pages into the tome, I was wondering what ever I was thinking... a whole book about the history of the French language? But despite a tendency toward repetitiousness in driving home the key points, the book is a very interesting and engaging. 'Readable' comes to mind, though it doesn't do it justice. As a student of French, the story of how French came to be - and that I've already been unknowingly indoctrinated in "bon usage" - is fas ...more
Apr 21, 2009 August rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A great book for the general readership to learn about some key points in the history and spread of French through the world, why it's widely considered an 'elite' language (of culture, literature), how it is doing as an international language (the authors are quite adamant about it faring well vs. English), etc. And if you're interested in the francophone world and you want to find authors to read or music to listen to, websites you can look at; this book mentions tons of that stuff and that's ...more
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Author, journalist and conference speaker, Jean-Benoît Nadeau has published seven books, over 900 magazine articles, won over 40 awards in journalism and literature, and given more than 80 lectures on language, culture and writing. His books include Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong, The Story of French and The Story of Spanish, which he co-authored with his wife, Julie Barlow. He currently r ...more
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“The mixture of a solidly established Romance aristocracy with the Old English grassroots produced a new language, a “French of England,” which came to be known as Anglo-Norman. It was perfectly intelligible to the speakers of other langues d’oïl and also gave French its first anglicisms, words such as bateau (boat) and the four points of the compass, nord, sud, est and ouest. The most famous Romance chanson de geste, the Song of Roland, was written in Anglo-Norman. The first verse shows how “French” this language was: Carles li reis, nostre emperere magnes, set anz tuz pleins ad estéd en Espaigne, Tresqu’en la mer cunquist la tere altaigne… King Charles, our great emperor, stayed in Spain a full seven years: and he conquered the high lands up to the sea… Francophones are probably not aware of how much England contributed to the development of French. England’s court was an important production centre for Romance literature, and most of the early legends of King Arthur were written in Anglo-Norman. Robert Wace, who came from the Channel Island of Jersey, first evoked the mythical Round Table in his Roman de Brut, written in French in 1155. An Englishman, William Caxton, even produced the first “vocabulary” of French and English (a precursor of the dictionary) in 1480. But for four centuries after William seized the English crown, the exchange between Old English and Romance was pretty much the other way around—from Romance to English. Linguists dispute whether a quarter or a half of the basic English vocabulary comes from French. Part of the argument has to do with the fact that some borrowings are referred to as Latinates, a term that tends to obscure the fact that they actually come from French (as we explain later, the English worked hard to push away or hide the influence of French). Words such as charge, council, court, debt, judge, justice, merchant and parliament are straight borrowings from eleventh-century Romance, often with no modification in spelling. In her book Honni soit qui mal y pense, Henriette Walter points out that the historical developments of French and English are so closely related that anglophone students find it easier to read Old French than francophones do. The reason is simple: Words such as acointance, chalenge, plege, estriver, remaindre and esquier disappeared from the French vocabulary but remained in English as acquaintance, challenge, pledge, strive, remain and squire—with their original meanings. The word bacon, which francophones today decry as an English import, is an old Frankish term that took root in English. Words that people think are totally English, such as foreign, pedigree, budget, proud and view, are actually Romance terms pronounced with an English accent: forain, pied-de-grue (crane’s foot—a symbol used in genealogical trees to mark a line of succession), bougette (purse), prud (valiant) and vëue. Like all other Romance vernaculars, Anglo-Norman evolved quickly.

English became the expression of a profound brand of nationalism long before French did. As early as the thirteenth century, the English were struggling to define their nation in opposition to the French, a phenomenon that is no doubt the root of the peculiar mixture of attraction and repulsion most anglophones feel towards the French today, whether they admit it or not. When Norman kings tried to add their French territory to England and unify their kingdom under the English Crown, the French of course resisted. The situation led to the first, lesser-known Hundred Years War (1159–1299). This long quarrel forced the Anglo-Norman aristocracy to take sides. Those who chose England got closer to the local grassroots, setting the Anglo-Norman aristocracy on the road to assimilation into English.”
“Jean-Benoît arrived at McGill University speaking a kind of abstract English that was much more formal than the language the anglophones around him were using, especially in casual conversation. Fellow students usually knew what was meant when he mentioned that he was “perturbed” by a sore ankle or had “abandoned” his plan to travel to Africa. But off campus, such stiff language produced blank stares. Julie often served as an interpreter, explaining that Jean-Benoît’s ankle was bothering him and that he had given up his travel plans. Jean-Benoît’s sophisticated English was normal for a French speaker. French is the Latin of anglophones.” 0 likes
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