EMIGRĒS : French words that turned English.

Richard Scholar

ISBN978-0-691-23400-7  Princeton £14.99

Reviewed by Alan Dent


All modern, and probably many ancient, languages are mongrels. French developed from Vulgar Latin, English in its Anglo-Saxon seed arrived with the northern invaders. Languages are always on the move. What do we mean when we say “English”? What they speak in Glasgow or the very different speech of Alabama? It’s in the nature of words to migrate, to be purloined, to be shape-shifters. What remains stable is the language faculty, unchanged since its emergence 50-70,000 years ago. Language, the externalised phenomenon, is so flexible because what underpins it is so fixed. Scholar is concerned with the externalised form. His title perhaps creates an expectation of more than he delivers, in the sense that he focuses on only four French words or expressions: à la mode, naïveté, caprice and ennui. What he has to say about them is, however, fascinating and informative. His research is excellent, he writes clearly, and the book is full of charming and memorable detail.  

To begin, perversely, at the end: Scholar quotes Sir Thomas More’s speech from Act 1 of Munday and Chettle’s play, named after the Lord High Chancellor. The original play was re-worked by Chettle, Dekker, Heywood and Shakespeare. The speech in question is the latter’s only surviving original manuscript. It’s excellent and pertinent. Scholar says his book isn’t about migrant peoples, yet he can’t help using More’s speech to the crowd of London xenophobes in 1517 as a metaphor for the need for exchange, the benefits of openness, the creative energy of miscegenation. This conclusion is a poignant comment on what has gone before: this isn’t merely a book about a few words which travelled from one language to another; it’s an exploration of the nature of foreignness. We are all foreign, of course, as Shakespeare is at pains to make his audience understand. There is no language against which all others can be measured. They are of equal value, as language. To be nervous of foreign words is absurd. All the words of our own language are foreign. In the 1640s John Hare called for French and Norman words to be expunged from English because of the “depravation” they had caused, Today he might be made Home Secretary.  

George Orwell, in his effort to improve the quality of written English, suggested that foreign terms for which there are perfectly serviceable English terms, should be avoided. Was Orwell deluded, a linguistic xenophobe, a man on a fool’s errand? The barbarity of the English has long been observed by foreign visitors. In the 17th century, French manners were considered civilised and civilising. This found its way into two plays Scholar discusses: Dryden’s Marriage – à – la- mode and Etheredge’s Man of Mode. What Orwell is regretting is the unnecessary use of foreign terms. Sometimes there are employed for showing-off. Orwell sees the sense in using them only when they touch on something we can’t otherwise render.  

From the use of à la mode as one of the signs of sophistication in late seventeenth century England, Scholar moves onto a more abstract level to elaborate his theory of creolization. He brings the concept of creolization together with that of “keywords”, derived from Raymond Williams’s famous 1976 book. Scholar is favourable to Williams’s effort to show that language is not delivered from above as set of fixed meanings, but is rather an ever-changing capacity people can mould according to their own needs and priorities. He adds to Williams’s categories the notion of the “émigré”, ie the word borrowed from another language which never becomes fully integrated. Williams pointed out that “ideology” for example was derived from French, but had been fully Anglicised. Scholar is interested in those words which refuse complete naturalisation, which retain a residual foreignness. This might put him at odds with the prevailing attitude: maybe there are some who believe such words should be shipped to Rwanda.  

Having established his theoretical basis and aims, Scholar goes on to explore  naiveté, ennui and caprice. This is where the book comes into its own. Scholar lectures in French but he also knows his way round English literature. He’s previously discussed Evelyn who in 1665 defended the importation of foreign terms on the grounds “we have hardly any words that do so fully expresse” their meaning. In his discussion of naiveté, he  embraces Montaigne, Pascal, Schiller, Rousseau, Blake and also Le Carré. He treats the latter as an equal, but though The Naive and Sentimental Lover may be a decent novel, it can’t stand comparison with the best writers he cites: Le Carré’s prose can’t match Flaubert’s. Perhaps he’s been nibbled by the post-modern bug: there are no hierarchies of value. A truly naïve (in the worst sense) perspective.  

In his chapter on ennui, he touches on de Scudéry, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Lamartine, Verlaine, Laforgue, Mallarmé, Chateaubriand, de Staël and also George Cheyne’s famous The English Malady and the unduly neglected Edgeworth’s Ennui. Not surprisingly he dedicates some paragraphs to Sickert’s famous painting. What his fascinating exploration reveals is the remarkable prevalence and endurance of ennui over the past several centuries. Interestingly the Situationist International and others railed against the boredom of modern life and identified its cause in our economic arrangements with their demand for subordinate labour, repetitive tasks and diminished status. Perhaps the inauthenticity imposed by our economic and social relations for centuries is the cause of what George Cheyne diagnosed. Scholar quotes Christopher Hill on the freedom of the Anglo-Saxons prior to the Norman invasion. The conquest of the English might be part of the problem, but the complaint seems to have been Europe-wide. It seems more likely that the pursuit of material wealth has divorced us from the possibility of authenticity.  

Caprice takes us to Richard Strauss, Edgeworth’s Belinda and the little known in the UK, George Bowering whose novel Caprice was published in 1987. One of the delights of this book is its signposts to reading. Follow up Scholar’s suggestions and you’ll be kept busy and engaged for weeks.  

Whether Scholar’s theory of creolization will take hold remains to be seen, but notwithstanding he’s written a captivating book in an accessible style. It would be good if reading him became de rigueur among students of language and literature, but perhaps ça serait trop beau.