La grammaire est une chanson douce

Author: Erik Orsenna
Year: 2001
Genre: Kids' fantasy

What is the purpose of the Académie française in the 21st century? How can it rejuvenate its image to make it seem like a positive force for the French language, rather than a reactionary, prescriptivist, anti-American relic? This book, which has been translated into English as Grammar is a Sweet, Gentle Song, shows how one Académie member would answer the question: Language needs people to care for it, not in the way that museum curators preserve holy relics, but as nurses love and protect their delicate patients.

The plot is an airy fantasy: a brother and sister are shipwrecked on a desert island and lose their ability to speak, and must learn to "respeak" with the help of a kindly old man called Monsieur Henri. On their adventure, they meet an old woman who revives dying words in the dictionary; visit the village of words, where adjectives and nouns get married; and tour the sentence factory, whose machinery transforms meaning into grammar. There's also a villain whose laboratory takes the souls out of words through cold scientific analysis and brutal pedagogy (shades of The Golden Compass's "Gobblers"), but Orsenna cannot stand to look at such cruelty, so our heroine is promptly rescued.

It's clearly kid stuff; and when Monsieur Henri says, "If you don't love grammar by the end of the week, I'll smash my guitar," it's obviously Orsenna addressing his readers. Despite his saccharine Little Prince allegories, you can see that his heart is in the right place - and he speaks to an issue that is of clear professional importance and personal interest to me. (Just last week, I was complaining that I want language teaching to be treated as an art, while heartless bureaucrats are trying to make a science of it.)

As I was reading, I amused myself by considering the challenges of an English-language translation. Like any book on language, this book includes a few scenes that would really have to be re-envisioned to make the same impact on an English-speaking audience. In the village of words, for instance, the article's job is to announce the grammatical gender of the noun that employs it. In the evil lab, teachers are forced to read from publications of the French Ministry of Education (Orsenna's foray into politics). The secret back room in the factory hides the workshop where Saint-Exupery, Proust, and La Fontaine are secretly still writing. What would be the English and/or American equivalents? I'm curious to look at the existing translation; I suspect that the translator may have left it more or less French.

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