The decline of German (and French) as languages of culture

In his book Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century, the late Eric Hobsbawm writes on the decline of Mitteleuropa as a sociocultural phenomenon. This remark on the disappearance of German as a language of pan-European culture struck me, being in line with some anecdotal musings that I have had for some time:

Equally, and perhaps even more significant, is the end of German linguistic hegemony. German is no longer the lingua franca of the educated from the Baltic to Albania. It is not merely that a young Czech meeting a young Hungarian or a Slovene will most probably use English to communicate with him or her, but that none of them can any longer expect the other to know German. It is that nobody who is not a native German speaker is now likely to use Goethe and Lessing, Hölderlin and Heine as the foundation of educated culture, let alone as the way from backwardness into modernity.

European literary culture has been massively affected by the change of the European lingua franca to English and increasingly nothing but English. I have always thought it remarkable how many European intellectuals born in the 1920s and 1930s were fond of Hölderlin, participating in his 20th-century resurgence even if they were from outside German-speaking countries proper. Hungarians and Italians upheld him as a poet to know. Now, a few decades on, Hölderlin may well be of interest only to those working in Germany, Austria or Switzerland.

It is not just German. I wonder if Samuel Beckett’s novels (namely the trilogy) have fallen so drastically into obscurity compared to his plays because the former were usually read on the continent in their original French, and now people are less likely to know French or at least read it for pleasure.


It occasionally happens that a word newly encountered, which I suppose to be completely defunct and perhaps even a hapax legomenon, is met again soon after somewhere very different. While reading Saint-John Perse’s work Amers, his long poem in honor of the sea, I was not sure of the definition of one of the terms in this dizzying list:

Et c’est la Mer qui vint à nous sur les degrés de pierre du drame:
Avec ses Princes, ses Régents, ses Messagers vêtus d’emphase et de métal, ses grands Acteurs aux yeux crevés et ses Prophètes à la chaîne, ses Magiciennes trépignant sur leurs socques de bois, la bouche pleine de caillots noirs, et ses tributs de Vierges cheminant dans les labours de l’hymne,
Aves ses Pâtres, ses Pirates et ses Nourrices d’enfants-rois, ses vieux Nomades en exil et ses Princesses d’élégie, ses grandes Veuves silencieuses sous des cendres illustres, ses grands Usurpateurs de trônes et Fondateurs de colonies lointaines, ses Prébendiers, et ses Marchands, ses grands Concessionnaires des provinces d’étain, et ses grands Sages voyageurs à dos de buffles de rizières.

Amers, ‘Invocation’, 6

I had no idea what a prébendier might be, but I was too lazy to find a French dictionary and look it up. Perse is known anyhow for Frenchifying classical terminology otherwise rarely attested in the language, and I wasn’t sure if such a word would be in any commonly available French dictionary.

But oddly enough, the only other work of literature I’ve taken along for my current travels in the Middle East, the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, uses the word in English in its chronology of the author: 1742 (8 January) Admitted as prebendary of North Newbald.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as: The holder of a prebend; (formerly) a canon of a cathedral or collegiate church who obtained income from a prebend; (in later use) an honorary canon in any of various Anglican cathedrals.. A prebend according to the OED is Originally: the estate or portion of land from which a stipend is derived to support a canon of a cathedral or collegiate church, or a member of its chapter (more fully corps of the prebend).

The etymology, again according to the OED, is lit. “things to be supplied”, use as noun of neuter plural of gerundive of classical Latin praebēre to present, show, to offer, to provide, supply, contracted < praehibēre to provide, supply (Plautus) < prae- PRE- prefix + habēre to have, hold.

Finally, prebend was clearly reborn out of classical literature. The descendent of the Vulgar Latin neuter plural of the gerundive of praehibēre came down to us as a different word but somewhat more often read, namely ‘provend’, having undergone a characteristic b > v shift in Middle French.

France getting a taste of its own medicine in language policy?

In the February 2008 issue of the Journal of Sociolinguistics, David Greer reviews Robin Adamson’s The Defence of French: A Language in Crisis? (Multilingual Matters, 2007). I’ve not read Adamson’s work yet, but I was intrigued by this bit from Greer’s review: Continue reading France getting a taste of its own medicine in language policy?

Fun with Old French declension

I am trying to improve my French for a winter trip to francophone Africa. However, being an obsessive historical linguist, I am not content just to brush up on conversation, and so I’ve checked out some books from the library on the whole evolution of the French language. One is Peter Rickard’s A History of the French Language (London: Hutchinson, 1974). While I have always thought of French as the most obnoxiously innovative of the Romance languages, I think it is neat that it held on to declension of substantives longer than any of the other western Romance languages. Old French declension, compressing the Vulgar Latin system into Nominative and Oblique cases, is usually clearly descended from Latin forms, though analogy has played its part.

Most masculine nouns decline with the expected reflexes of Latin 2nd declension nominative and accusative endings:

Sing. Pl.
Nom. murs < murus mur < muri
Obl. mur < murum murs < muros

Many 3rd declension masculine nouns are just as straightforward:

Sing. Pl.
Nom. frere < frater frere < *fratri
Obl. frere < fratrem freres < fratres

Yet there are nouns which ‘for good phonological reasons’ show more variety, but obviously the days of such irregularities were numbered:

Sing. Pl.
Nom. ber < baro (‘warrior, hero’) baron < *baroni
Obl. baron < baronem barons < barones

Rickard goes on to list the declension of feminines and of adjectives as well. All in all, a fascinating book. I was also surprised to learn that many changes which took French so far from its Vulgar Latin basis took place not in antiquity when the language was put on top of a Gaulic substrate and then came into contact with Frankish, but rather as recently as the 14th century.