In a Paris cab last week, an Algerian driver picked up on something I said and told me the French word ‘hasard’ (chance) came directly from Arabic. He had seen me on a TV programme the night before and said as an ‘ecrivain’, I ought to know that.
First, I still feel odd when people describe me as a writer. Second, I felt this was a very high level of knowledge expected by cabbie of customer. Still, it was better than the usual London fare of can Lampard play with Gerrard, why doesn’t Gordon smile more and they should hang the muppet who invented roadhumps (I think it happened on Ken Clarke’s watch, but he should not be hanged in my opinion).
I had no way of knowing if my Arabic-French lesson was accurate, but when he started telling me his favourite Shakespeare plays, then reciting from them (in Arabic – again, no way of knowing) I realised I was with a very special taxi driver.
‘Mais vous,’ he said ‘vous avez de la chance.’
‘Pourquoi?’ I asked.
‘Ah, l’anglais monsieur … C’est la langue de toutes les langues.’
It hasn’t always been, and I’m not just talking about Latin. Even when I was at school, and there came the moment of A Level choices, and I was still keen on maths, I remember my parents talking about the Common Market, and how it meant we would all need one or more of the European languages. So English, French, German it was.
I’ve kept up my French, mainly through reading and holidays, but my German, like my bagpipes of yesterday’s blog and vlog, has gone shamefully rusty. Though a lot came back during the World Cup of 2006, there are eleven year old Germans who speak my language better than I speak theirs.
When I lived in France 31 years ago, I used to rather enjoy the efforts to minimise the influence of English on French. Successive French Presidents would try in different ways to halt the onward march of OK, sandwich, burger bar.
But the power of Anglo-Saxon culture, particularly film and music, has been too strong. I’m not sure where Sarkozy stands on the French protection front, but his more pro-US position than Chirac (who spoke more English than he let on) suggests the onward march will continue.
It is nonetheless embarrassing to watch otherwise well educated Brits in French restaurants unable to ask for bread or water without sign language or shouting. And equally embarrassing to watch foreign footballers speak better English than some of ours do. But maybe the US and UK arrogance on languages is what helped make us dominant in the first place.
As for my taxi driver, he told me that when my grandchildren are growing up, either Arabic or more likely Mandarin will be the dominant languages. I doubt it, though he did seem very wise.
Meanwhile, partly to show off, partly to continue to promote my novel (Portugese translation rights latest to be sold) and partly because another only-in-France type TV programme sent me the tape, I have put up on the vlog section the programme the driver was talking about, La Grande Librairie. J’espere que ca vous amuse ou interesse. (Apologies for lack of accents. My computer only speaks English).