Friday, 5 November 2010

France or England? French or English?

I received an interesting question on formspring yesterday (yes, it does happen, not every question is about sexual habits), a full answer to which required a bit more space than is reasonable on formspring, so here it is. I've left the question verbatim. 

To all intents and purposes, France is three different countries: there's Paris, there are other big cities, and there's rural France.

In that respect, England is not dissimilar, with London, other big cities and rural England presenting quite distinct characters.

I prefer  to live in London rather than Paris (I've done both), but I prefer Paris to visit rather than London (I've done both). Paris is quite horrifyingly expensive (especially now, given the poor £/€ exchange rate) and the stereotype about Parisians being rude and aloof towards foreigners is generally a deserved one. They also consider themselves better than most Frenchmen, though, so there's no need to feel TOO aggrieved.

As a place to visit as a tourist, Paris is quite exceptional: it's small and compact, and all the famous sights are relatively close to each other (except perhaps for Versailles which is still a lot closer to Paris than, say, Windsor is to London). Public transport is a damn sight cheaper and easier to use. And there are always a million interesting things to see in countless small museums and galleries.

In London, everything is spread around and hard to get to. And it's all far more commercial, with all the sights selling the same tat just with different logos.

Large cities in France have a different attitude to those in England: Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and a few other places are resentful of London and want to be London. French cities know they aren't Paris and delight in their own identity, and are much more easy-going for it. I've spent time in Lyon, Toulouse, Bordeaux and a couple of other places, and they're much better than their English counterparts.

I adore rural France with a passion. French farmers have an odd reputation on this side of the Channel as intransigent, money grabbing xenophobes but they're really just trying to make a living. Of course they're often not very highly educated and rarely speak a foreign language so you're better of speaking French with them.

If you do take the trouble to converse in their language, you'll get an honest opinion about most things and they'll point you in the right direction to get the best produce and wine at the best price. And one real advantage of rural/small-town France over village life in England is that you can be accepted very quickly, if you take the trouble to integrate  yourself and play a part in village life.

By contrast, small communities in England are famed for their reluctance to accept strangers. The owners of holiday homes in small villages who price the locals out of the property market and are hardly ever there are generally seeen as intruders and are not very welcome. Small-town French people feel honoured that people from outside their community pay an interest and are aware that thanks to new residents, local craftsmen and traders can earn an honest living. They are simply far more pragmatic.

Of course, any British tourist to small-town France will complain of the complete lack of any sense of  punctuality, that arranging for a tradesperson to call "on Tuesday" actually means "any time between Monday morning and Friday night". And most places (even large ones) close down for several hours at lunchtime and it can be a right pain.

But it's a more relaxed and convivial mode of life which it's actually easy to get used to.

Village and rural politics are a nightmare in both cultures but the thing to remember in small-town France is that the Maire (mayor) is a truly important person. They are the foot of the pyramid of French democracy and of the national political system, and they can make life very easy for you, or - if you get on their bad side - very hard. The Mairie is the first stop for pretty much any administrative matter or local dispute. But not only - it is also your first port of call for things like utilities, so you make a personal enemy of the Maire and his staff at your peril. And in most small towns and villages the Mairie is also the post office, telephone exchange, police station and local information centre so knowing when it's staffed is a Very Important Piece Of Information.

On the subject of language, every language has its strong and weak points, its advantages and disadvantages.

English spelling is infamously horrendous, French is slightly lesss idiosyncratic but still full of potholes; English is good with expressing most technical things while French is generally more comfortable with matters of the intellect such as philosophy and the arts. (People say French is the language of love but I tend to disagree; Italian is MUCH better at it.)

The main strength of English is that whilst English grammar is a minefield and most native speakers know very few of the rules which govern our language, it is very easy to be perfectly comprehensible and relatively clear by stringing simple sentences together, as long you stick to a Subject - verb - object structure. Grammatical correspondence, pronunciation and very often spelling and punctuation are largely irrelevant.

In the musical My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins exclaims that the French never care what they do, as long as they pronounce it properly; this isn't entirely true - what's important is that the sentence is  structured properly and the nouns and verbs correspond by gender and number, and the correct pronouns are used in the correct way to determine relationships. It's not fussiness or pedantry; the fact of the matter is that otherwise more than likely the sentence will literally make no sense.

So in short, I would say that the beauty of English (and probably one of the reasons for its popularity world-wide, it's not JUST because of the ubiquity of American culture and technology) is the fact that it is a very fluid language, in which it is extremely easy to make yourself understood. It is a very diffficult langauge to master because rules of correct syntax and grammar (if one wishes to be prescriptivist) are instinctive and intuitive rather than learnable by rote.

The beauty of French, on the other hand, lies in its precision and despite appearances, the sheer logic of it all. It is actually a fairly easy language to learn well out of a book of grammar, and speaking it idiomatically can be extremely difficult. Knowing which rules are relaxable and which are not takes much skill, experience and understanding.

I'd like to conclude by bringing together the language point and my love of rural France. It is almost impossible to understand a French farmer if you have learned your French at school from books.

There are so many regional variations where other influences from Spanish, Moorish, Italian, German, Flemish or various Old French varieties are so ingrained that you would need your interlocutor to speak slowly and repeat everything for you to understand him/her. Of course, they would understand you because the French media are Paris-centric and spoken in "proper French" to an even  greater extent than English media are concerned with London.

Over the years, it's become normal in British television, for instance, to hear voices and accents from all over our country and we can all think of significant television presenters with a strong regional identity. This remains almost unheard of in French television - even though many presenters are proudly associated with wherever they may come from, they MUST speak the French equivalent of Received Pronunciation or they will simply never get a serious job in broadcasting. Some of them are famous for havig the odd foible, in the way they might pronounce a certain word or phrase, but by and large Parisian French is Comprehensible French.

I'd like to hear anyone's views on these topics, however well or badly informed, either in comments here (which can be a pain) or by way of a new question on formspring, which can be a lot easier (I do allow anonymous questions so you don't need an account or anything):