From barbarism to universality

From barbarism to universality: Language and identity in Early Modern France. By Christopher Coski. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2011. Pp. 216. ISBN 9781611170368. $49.95 (Hb).

Reviewed by Heather Pardee, Northeastern Illinois University

Christopher Coski chronicles the rise of the French language between 1549 and 1784 by examining the works of several notable authors and placing them in conversation. C’s own voice is confined to summarizing each text and identifying sections relevant to individual and national identity, the reputation of the French language, and the linguistic connection between reality and thought.

Ch. 1 examines Joachim du Bellay’s Deffence et illustration de la langue françoyse (1549). Since French remained in the shadow of the ancient languages, du Bellay argued against the view that Latin was better suited for literary work. Du Bellay recognized the disadvantages of the French language but remained optimistic, calling on poets to stop writing in Latin and to perfect their own language. Michel de Montaigne’s Essais (1580), discussed in Ch. 2, employed French vernacular writing for a new genre: the creative, nonfiction essay. Montaigne justified writing his Essais in French rather than Latin because writing in his native language was consistent with his individual identity. C devotes Ch. 3 to Discours de la method by René Descartes (1637), which demonstrates that French is adequate and even preferable for intellectual writing. C calls it an act of intellectual rebellion to write this philosophical work in French. Descartes, diverging from the fluid, changeable nature of Montaigne’s self-expression, describes his method as a process that privileges artificial and systematic reason.

In Ch. 4, Claude Favre de Vaugelas, one of the original members of the Académie Française and author of Remarques sur la langue françoise, defended the purity of the French language through the prescriptive criterion of ‘good usage’. Usage can be judged on aesthetic quality by the authority of the social elite. His work acknowledged that French had evolved into a state of perfection, hence the necessity to codify the language to avoid corruption. Ch. 5 resumes the topic of language and thought with Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines by Étienne Bonnot, Abbé de Condillac (1746). Condillac asserted that language is inseparable from rational thought. Perception and sensation can exist without language, but as perception builds towards reason, so instinct grows towards sophisticated human language. This process is what Condillac calls the liason des idées, wherein individual sensations are connected to signs that create the symbolic system of language. In Ch. 6, Antoine Rivarol’s De l’Universitalité de la langue française (1784) claims with overwhelming nationalism that the French language has reached maturity and is now on par with the classical languages. While Rivarol concedes that French is too logical for music and poetry, as the language of reason, it is ideal for philosophy.

An appendix offers a concise overview of the French language from the Middle Ages through the eighteenth century and provides historical context for the works discussed in the previous chapters. C’s text is a helpful tool for those wishing to familiarize themselves with this period of French literature, since it is, in essence, a biography of the emerging French language.