The French just announced that they will make some major changes to their language. This is a major move, quite different from other moves by other countries. You see: the French are not only the great bastion of culture, they are the great bastion of culture because they were the first culture--the first culture to specifically engineer their language so that it would not change. And that is why their culture remains with us--constant, unchanging--a monkey embryo preserved in the cloudy formaldehyde room of scientific pecimens.
The puissance of the French language came about during a time when they had reached the height of their power and saw within the periphery, a great decline in the wasteland that is the future. This happened in the 18th Century when the French would produce all that god-awful Rococo furniture and emerge with the crowning achievement of verbiage: la dictionnaire.
In that cultural monument, they knew what was to come: England and America and Russia and China would sweep them into the great dustbin of history, a repository of tourist kitsch and puzzling fashion choices, quaint street side bistros and the puzzling habit of allowing canine companions to poop willy nilly on the sidewalk of the grand boulevards. Like a society woman in a shabby subway, this was their way of clutching their pearls to their chest.
For a time, the French language became the great ambassadorial language of the modern age. And there is a reason for that: France had--and still holds--a vast empire that hopscotches through the continents of India, of Asia, of America, of Africa. French is still the most widely spoken language in the world, mainly because of a deep colonial past in Africa.
I speak French but refuse to speak French. It is one of the ways that my mouth is branded--a mouth not made mine, a thousand times unspooled. I choose not to speak French because I want to erase a bit of this colonial past, as if I were a priest in a bare chamber involved in a tedious act of self-abnegation--with my hairshirt, my cat of nine tales, my breviary. I will make myself clean.
But here's a paradox: I can't stand to speak French to an American (the accent is just awful, the dog-like need to display facility--grating). I can't stand to speak French to a Frenchman (there is too much history there and I would rather make the French uncomfortable and deal with the fact that he has to speak to me in English--a comeuppance, of sorts). The Canadians can hardly be said to speak French at all (at least a French I can understand). I'll speak to Africans (out of solidarity but only if I need directions).
The Vietnamese language was first transcribed by the Chinese over a millennium ago, when they occupied the land. Later, a Portuguese priest named Alexandre de Rhodes arrived and translated the bible, ensuring that the process known as Romanization would crystallize. By the time the French arrived to begin their exploits, a system was in place that would allow the native people to be easily exploited...that is to say, "educated."
There is a double-edged sword to Romanization: Romanization meant that literacy spread to 95% percent of the population--a quantum leap over the mere 5% that could use Chinese letters. And it is in the Romanization--the agent of oppression--that there came to arise a language of liberation. Newspapers, pamphlets, letters--these instruments of rebellion could not be made possible without widespread literacy. And the agents of Independence--these folks were trained in the great Lycee's that indoctrinated a certain class of people with the niceties of the French language.
I hear that the French are not only getting rid of a lot of words but also simplifying even more--a shock to most native speakers. But what is even more shocking is the decision to get rid of the circumflex, which is a hold-over from ancient conventions of spelling that are no longer relevant.
The circumflex always makes me think of the subjugation of my people through the act of translation. My mother always made me know about the circumflex, which she called the "petit chapeau," and my childhood was spent looking for it in every word--the familiarity of rice patties and white egrets and peasants working in the muddy water. The circumflex always seemed like such a powerful word to me as a child, because there was also that part of it that had to do with making a muscle, and all boys--small boys--want muscles. All boys are called upon to "flex." Then, it makes me think of a camera--a Rolleiflex--in a sad Brasilian Bossa Nova. The song was written by Tom Jobim. The lyrics are about ingratitude. It is also about sadness and nostalgia. But chiefly it is about love, I think.