Language and Light
In the beginning was the la Parole.
Elohim uttered the clarion call let there be light! in the Hebrew language (יְהִי אוֹר). God’s words begat heaven and earth, and those words still resonate within the hearts of Abraham’s contending offspring thousands of years later.
The second call to bring light into the world was French: Que les Lumières soient !
Reason was the source of the Enlightenment’s light, and the French language bore the beams of this light to the world. This became for the French a self-evident mission statement, such that the expression le rayonnement de la France is as well-known to them as America, land of opportunity is to Americans.
In reason as in art, the French have a particular obsession with light. Some etymologists may insist that the French word luxe (luxury) is derived not from the latin lux (light), but instead from luxus (sumptuous excess)...but is not luxus derived from lux?
The lux of all luxury begins with language.
Luxury is an art of the most refined sensory experiences, and requires a medium to express them--a language capable of forming the subtlest of sentiments and distilling with clarity the most lofty ideals. In the same way that a fine champagne can only be appreciated in a proper coupe, so also the delight of dégustation demands to be named by the perfect words. The medium accentuates the intrinsic qualities of what it conveys.
The French language is, of and by itself, a luxury experience. Those who reduce this to snooty national pride are like tone-deaf music critics. The dwindling few who still master the language feel something greater than pride; they feel immense admiration, if not adoration. Some would give their life for the language, even before their country. Surely I am exaggerating?
In 1896, George Clémenceau praised the French language as the genius of its people, the glory of its past….the invincible hope, the solid anchor of the future.
Regardless of how proud your countrymen may be that everything is bigger in better where you come from, can you imagine any of your statesmen proclaiming this about your native language?
That was only a starter. Nineteenth century French writer Anatole France pontified :
" La langue française est une femme. Et cette femme est si belle, si fière, si modeste, si hardie, si touchante, si voluptueuse, si chaste, si noble, si familière, si folle, si sage, qu'on l'aime de toute son âme, et qu'on n'est jamais tenté de lui être infidèle."
Yes, he is truly idolizing the French language as if it embodied his feminine ideal: so beautiful, so proud, so modest, so bold, so touching, so voluptuous, so chaste, so noble, so familiar, so wild, so wise, that you love her with all of your soul and could never even be tempted to be unfaithful to her.
What has Anatole been sniffing? Here is a man intoxicated by his love of the French language.
Before Anatole France incarnated his feminine ideal in the language itself, the language has, since the time of the troubadours, been dedicated to conquering the heart of the beloved.
Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac was so eloquent in his wooing that he could have won over Roxane, his precious rose, in spite of his nose....if he had only believed. Cyrano’s tragedy in love was not his prominent proboscis, but never being able to incarnate sentiments that were too perfectly spoken to ever exist. Tragically assassinated, he learns this too late, and in his last breath praises his own panache. It is the final of his 1600 alexandrins, resounding like an eternal epitaph.
The theatre is sold out, and the audience bursts into applause as if Cyrano were a rock star.
What, exactly, is panache? It is the hero’s humility and humor, making light of his own tragedy; it is the smile, ever so slight, that crowns his sublime. It is Jupiter with a feather in his hat, an iron tower that evokes lace.
By virtue of its excess, it is akin to the spirit of luxury. Hatched by the same hen, we might say.
What is it about this French language that inspires such admiration, if not adoration?
Some have said that it is the most difficult language to master, but that in itself would not inspire many to learn it.
What makes it exceptional and exquisite? What gives it such panache?
I believe the answer has everything to do with our enduring attraction to a higher realm of beauty. Even though the language has been internationally recognized for its grammatical clarity and precision, French is more about beauty than about communication, and even less about business transactions.
French is the language of luxe because it emerged from a culture containing all the seeds of luxury; through a process of ongoing symbiotic interaction, the language produced a unique cultural florescence.
Its vocabulary thus evolved to capture every nuance. The spoken tongue has been deliberately refined to balance vowels and consonants. Its prosody has been perpetually polished like a precious stone.
For example, the words “la plus élégante” are pronounced “la pluzélégante”, in adherence to the phonetic rule of elision, referred to in French as liaison. The final consonant of a preceding word blends into the opening vowel of the word that follows. This is why the language enthralls the ear much like a velouté tantalizes the tongue. Even poisson pourri sounds poetic even though it’s nothing but rotten fish.
Some might object that Texans achieve a similar effect with such expressions as “where’s the beef?” (pronounced wherezabeef). While they may be capable of simulating such elegant phonetic effects, their intent is to sound laid-back and down-to-earth. Heaven forbid any signs of literary learning. Deep in the heart of Texas, elegance is no match for ease.
The French language has purposefully refined its prosody without downgrading its grammatical precision in the written form. There is never ambiguity regarding who the subject is and when the action is occurring.
For example: “Ils entrent” is pronounced eelzEntre. This is the third-person plural, present-tense conjugation of the verb “to enter”.
The ending consonant is ignored in the spoken language to give full resonance to the vowel. We hear the subject as plural only because of the elison between the subject and the verb. The “E” (pronounced rather like “awe” in English) is like a musical note: the longer life-span gives the sound time to expand. Nietzsche described French as a petite musique de chambre.
The musicality of the language itself is such that French song sounds more like vocalized poetry than music. Compare the lyrical British melody Greensleeves, or any Broadway musical or any Beatles tune with a famous French song such as Jacque Brel’s “Ne me quitte pas” or Edith Piaf’s ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien”. The lyrics of the French songs, and the feeling with which they are pronounced, steal the entire show. If you have an ear for the language, the songs will give you goosebumps; without lyrics, you’ll ask for your money back. In contrast, the Anglo-American tunes have all been adapted as purely instrumental music that keeps us humming.
La fin d’une époque ?
Dear French friends, would you please stop being so bamboozled by American catchphrases such as elevator pitch, power plates, business plans, cashflow, co-working, crowdfunding just because they make you feel like a high-tech, in the know, Marlboro-man entrepreneur?
Call to mind George W. Bush’s hilarious attack on French welfare:
‘The problem in France is that they have no word for entrepreneur”.
Over half of the English vocabulary is derived from French in the wake of the Norman invasion. Entrepreneur only happens to be one word that survived the transfer perfectly intact.
Dear French friends, you are quick to forget the beauty of your language. You talk her down, toss her around and bruise her up. And you think she’ll stick around with you and never leave?
I sentence you to isolation in the Mississippi backwaters for forty days and forty nights, where you will hear nothing but gibberish drawl. When the day of your emancipation comes, when the Light in August again upon you shines, and when you rise from that pit to once again hear the sound of your language broadcast from afar, then you will fall to your knees and weep. You will drink every word as infants suck their mother’s milk.
The current capitulation of French to Globish marks the final victory of utility over beauty in a war that has been going on for more than a hundred years. This tipping point of Western civilisation presents two poignant paradoxes. To begin, the absolute amount of wealth has never been greater in the history of the world, nor has the total amount spent on luxury goods. The more people grasp for luxury with money alone, the greater the emptiness of every glossy package. Furthermore, just as French is receding, so also is the rule of reason and the capacity for intelligent conversation. The peoples of our “advanced” capitalist civilisation appear to be regressing towards an infantile state of spoon-fed simplifications, even though freely-accessible knowledge is expanding exponentially. The darkness from which the enlightenment sought to deliver mankind is swiftly sweeping over today’s mass consciousness. Just as thousands of species have already been eradicated from the earth, so also the steam-roller of mass-produced culture is crushing human and intellectual diversity.
I have not come to mourn la fin d’une époque; the winds blow as they will, and in the end the light will prevail. The destruction of life on earth is more tragic than the demise of French, but even the earth will overcome homo sapiens in the end. We may not be able to preserve this delicate language, but we can cherish the rare and fragrant flower it has offered us while it is still here. Remember her, before the golden bowl is broken, the silver cord severed, and the magnum spilled. If we cannot save the French language, we should still never give up our aspiration to restore beauty in our world.
Calme, Luxe, et Volupté
The French language has been my doorway into the experience of luxe, just as I have experienced the language itself as an intrinsic form of luxury. Passing through its gates has brought me a sense of freshness, liberation, and joie de vivre. Language programs us in subtle ways, which is why a single language is so limiting.
I made a good start at learning Spanish and German, but it was only the complete immersion in the French language and culture that changed me. I devoured the French language as a lover. There are French words to name things that would not have existed for me without French, such as amuse-bouche or haute-couture. These require explanation rather than translation.
There are other words that have an official equivalent in English (such as embrasser, sensuel, beau, la volupté, la féminité, un baiser, le ravissement, l’enchantement) but that come wrapped in many subtle layers of implicit connotations. This allows us to experience a known experience in a fresh way--such as a kiss (un baiser).
Une délice is something deliciously delightful, not restricted to edibles. In the same way, the French can refer to a woman as délicieuse on a level far removed from lust. Describe a man as sensual in English and watch those eyebrows round you raise. The same description in French, un homme sensuel, is standard and fitting for any man particularly attuned to the pleasure of the senses (not only sex).
Similarly, la volupté renders the English word voluptuous almost vulgar and trivial. La volupté is a state of being in which all that is pleasurable--even a sip of Sancerre-- is felt with sexual intensity. This is the atmosphere of Beaudelaire who wrote about “calme, luxe et volupté”.
Finally, there are English words of unmistakable French origin, whose meaning is equivalent, but whose sound in French is more rich and satisfying. The sound of la grâce resonates in the throat and mouth like a fine cognac releasing its essence. Over a two-second life-span, the vowel blooms and fades, and that has made all the difference. Similarly, because the English were unable to pronounce moelleux, they transformed it into mellow. For certain, as English words go, mellow is softly-padded, but it is not moelleux. Watch the lips and listen to the sound of your most attractive Frenchman or woman as they very deliberately pronounce the word moelleux. The word is reaching out to smooch you. A French kiss is only a whisper away.
Even the name France is really not the same as La France. The rapidly-uttered English version of France rhymes with ants. The French version is a hymn unto itself. I still remember the first time I heard the late President François Mitterand’s new year greeting to the nation. With the demeanor of a Roman emperor, 80 generations down the road, he majestically pronounced in closing:
Vive la République ! Vive la France !
That final sound seemed to send ripples across the vast, wavy countryside. It also touched something in my heart. I wasn’t born or educated in France, so there was no patriotism in this emotion.
It was the sound of those words. It was the light of that language.
There is power in a voice, beauty in words, and genius in grammar. This was my French Revelation.