John McWhorter's recent opinion piece for The New Republic on learning French ("Let's Stop Pretending that French Is an Important Language," February 2) is a thinly veiled parti pris in a battle over the symbolic role of France in American life, in which 'conservatives' ritualistically denounce this country as marginal and passé, and 'liberals' insist on the valuable lessons Americans can learn from its commitment to labor unions and to slow food, and from its reticence at entering into (American-led) military operations.
I do not wish to engage the provincial culture-war dimension of McWhorter's essay here. I would just like to correct two basic errors. One is the author's claim that French began as a 'peasant dialect' of Latin. A professional linguist, whatever his specialized domain of research, should know better. French is a product of the complex and multi-layered encounter between Latin on the one hand and the indigenous Gallic and Frankish languages of the region on the other. Further significant influence came from the Normans, and from other Germanic and Celtic sources. Few of these influences involved people who could be recognized as forming a peasantry.
A second correction has to do with the place of French in the contemporary world. It is true that the French empire has contracted greatly from its maximum extent. So has the Spanish, and in both cases this is surely for the better. But France remains a regional hegemon throughout much of Africa, where the legacy of the former empire can still be seen and felt in that massive cultural-linguistic region known as Françafrique. If you are interested --say, as an aid worker, or as a diplomat, or even, perhaps, as a linguist-- in Mali, Niger, Chad, Congo, the Central African Republic, for better or worse knowledge of French is indispensable.
Does McWhorter not know this? Does he think Africa is not important? Or is it just that for the rhetorical purposes of the inane culture war in the US, in which McWhorter is seeking to play a part, 'French' may be understood as shorthand for the phantasms of his 'liberal' compatriots?