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  • Mille ans de langue française: histoire d’une passion
  • T. M. Rainsford
Mille ans de langue française: histoire d’une passion. By Alain Rey, Frédéric Duval, and Gilles Siouffi. Paris: Perrin, 2007. 1465pp., 16 pp. ill. Pb €29.80.

This epic survey seeks to chart the history of the French language through the ‘sentiments et [. . .] opinions’ (p. iii) of francophones. While the work is aimed mainly at those with a general interest in the history of French, rather than at linguists or philologists, it is invaluable for all as a compendium of views and quotations from authors and observers on French throughout the language’s history. The three authors each discuss a ‘grand moment’: Duval the Middle Ages, Siouffi the classical period, and Rey the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The trifocal structure does not always lend itself well to a comprehensive history of French, leading one to question whether the work may have fared better as three volumes, each with a more specific focus. Some themes and periods seem to fall through the gaps between sections, most notably Rey’s cursory treatment of the nineteenth century, and the patchy, fragmented coverage of French outside France throughout. By contrast, Siouffi’s expertise on the grammarians and remarqueurs of the seventeenth century leads to perhaps over-extensive coverage of the linguistic and stylistic debates of the court and salons of Louis XIV’s France. Moreover, there are significant stylistic differences between the three authors, with Siouffi’s highly literary prose and Rey’s more factual style sitting awkwardly side by side. Duval’s decision to adopt a thematic rather than chronological structure in his treatment of the Middle Ages is very successful, as peripheral themes such as the contact between French and other European languages are more coherently represented here than in the other two parts. The relationship between French and Latin is particularly well illustrated for a general volume on the history of French. Navigation of the book by topic is complicated by some vague chapter headings and a rather insubstantial index (why, one wonders, does the thematic index refer only to Rey’s contribution?), which may limit the work’s usefulness for scholars. At the same time, a cover to cover reading will not prove especially coherent, as the chronological structure causes the book to jump between themes in order to deal with everything in every period. In short, this volume contains a wealth of interesting material but suffers from rather poor organization, and an attempt to be too comprehensive may limit its appeal for all but the most passionate students of the history of French.

T. M. Rainsford
University of Cambridge


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