Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Culture Entropy Problem

We all know English sounds better when spoken by a native French-speaker.

But it's also true that English spoken by a native French speaker sounds better than both English spoken by a native English-speaker and French spoken by a native French speaker.

For all its elegance and mellifluousness, French on its own has a kind of pedantic, donnish quality to it. French encourages complete sentences and precise word choice. It discourages one-word wisecracks and creation and appropriation of words like "wassup" or "bling."

For all its lively spontaneity, English on its own has a kind of flat and passive sound to it. You can make the sounds with a minimum of mouth effort, and the vowel sounds, they're just kind of not that great.

But you put the French sounds together with the English words and voilà! Instant cool.

A lot of things are like this: putting together two really different things makes something better.

On the one hand, that's something I love about American culture and about the English language: both have built into them a kind of flexibility and openness to what is new. You got something new, fun interesting? Hip-hop, you say? Drinking espresso out of little cups in coffeehouses? "Extreme beers"? We'll take it! Sign us up!

It's the opposite of the traditionalist impulse, like that behind the French Academy who oversee language use and decide what is and isn't a real "French" word.

On the other hand, here's where I get tripped up, because without French being what it is, there would be no interesting mix of French and English. Really, many of the best new things come from mixes between things that are really different to start with. But there won't be much in the way of different things for very long without that traditionalist impulse kicking in at least occasionally.

It's a culture entropy problem. You let the hot and the cold mix together and what do you got? "Lukewarm," I suppose. Which isn't very interesting.

So members of the French Academy? Knock yourselves out, I guess.


Daniel said...

Huh, I like your point about the necessity (of sorts) of some traditionalist way. I sort of view American English and British English similarly. I think that British English is probably way more open than is French to neologisms and stuff, but British English and American English have the same sort of tension, to my mind, as French and English. America is cool, but particularly IN COMPARISON.

Patricia said...

Yeah. Change or sameness? It's like Kierkegaard said, if you marry you'll regret it; if you don't marry you'll regret it.