A new book by Dr. R-J. Berg, French, is already causing waves across the Atlantic. Péril en la demeure, Regards d’un Américain sur la langue française (Time Is of the Essence: An American’s Views on the French Language), published in French for a French audience by Éditions France Univers, is a rallying cry for the preservation of the language Berg has come to love and to which he has devoted much of his professional activity.
While calls for defending the French language are by no means new, Berg’s book is unusual on several counts. As an American, he does not take his adopted language for granted (he is unabashed in his affection for it), and he has no illusions about its endangered state today and the full urgency of arresting the alarming “English-ification” of French grammar and vocabulary.
Although the book is highly polemical, Berg often employs humor and personal anecdotes to make his points, offering hilarious but disturbing examples of what can happen when English is substituted willy-nilly for French. The cover illustration of a seated man (Berg) looking across the Seine at the Institut de France, home to the Académie française, the bastion of the French language and official regulating body whose role is to set standards for grammar and vocabulary, was done by BGSU undergraduate art major Kelli Fisher. In her first paying job, Fisher captured the light-hearted style of famed French illustrator François Avril.
In this short but provocative argument, Berg pulls no punches, calling out by name those august authorities who, he feels, have neglected their sworn duty to protect the language. He criticizes the glacial pace of the Académie at coming up with necessary new words — which Berg says they have been so slow at as to almost insure that the handy English versions will be adopted instead.
Berg examines and explodes the prevailing myths about why French should be preserved, taking a no-nonsense approach to creating a living language available to all needs. “French needs to compete on the level of business and practicality,” he said.
He systematically refutes a common refrain: “Those who repeat that ‘a living language has to evolve’ are simply belaboring the obvious. No one is claiming the contrary. The question is not whether French will and must change, but how it is changing and what we can do about it.”
Rather than simply lamenting the situation, he offers a real agenda for reversing the trend. Like many others in France, he favors a legislative approach. “Language is part of the heritage, an integral component of national identity. As such, it can and should be defended legally.”
In spite of Péril en la demeure’s criticism of some of its members, the association Défense de la langue française (DLF) has given the book its official stamp of approval — it appears on the cover — and advertised it prominently in the latest edition of its review. The magazine Valeurs actuelles also plans a profile of Berg and the book.