A rose by any other name…
When we moved to France, back in December of 2020, I had a bit of schoolboy French and that was it; just enough to, sort of, get by in a bar or restaurant. Obviously, that needed to change, and I’ve been hard at work learning the language ever since. It’s a tough job, made tougher by an aging brain that is reluctant to study again after all these years, but I’ve definitely made quite a bit of progress, and as long as someone doesn’t mind going slowly and will tolerate the occasional English word thrown into the mix (vocabulary takes a long time to build!), I can have a conversation in French. It’s an ongoing process and you have to practice constantly but I have enjoyed learning and it’s rewarding to be able to listen to the radio and tv and recognise words and phrases and follow what’s been said, even if you don’t get everything. When you move to another country, language takes on a whole new level of importance and I’ve been pondering on the nature and importance of language quite a lot since my last column.
The main reason for this has been a news story that has gained quite a bit of traction here, concerning the current Italian government’s plan to crack down on the use of English words, with Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s party proposing fines of up to €100,000 for businesses which use English words instead of Italian ones, under plans to “defend national identity”. It’s something that, obviously, has potential implications for native English speakers, and not just in Italy. Here in France, since 1996, we have had the Commission for the Enrichment of the French Language, a government office charged with creating new French equivalents for borrowed words. For example, computers came into the French language with their English language name but are now known as Ordinateurs. France has one official language, the French language. The French government does not regulate the choice of language in publications by individuals, but the use of French is required by law in commercial and workplace communications.
Now, in Italy, it has been suggested that the link between language and national identity is more about deflecting criticism of government than anything else. This new plan on language has been grouped with a recent crackdown on rave parties, a ban on the much-debated ChatGPT chatbot, the first of its kind across the world, and a ban on synthetic meat. Francesco Strazzari, a professor in International Relations at Scuola Universitaria Superiore Sant’Anna, has labeled these increasingly bizarre policies “a weapon of mass distraction”. A means to deflect criticism of the handling of the cost of living crisis and rising energy costs. That said, there is an increasing debate about the dominance of the use of the English language in European countries. Despite the UK no longer being a member of the EU, English is still an official language of the European Union and, in many mainland European countries, it is still the lingua franca for a lot of people. We see it all the time here in our part of France. The British are almost certainly not the dominant group of immigrants in the Northern Dordogne; that title is more likely to go to the Dutch, but we also have a lot of Belgians, some Germans, and various Scandinavians, mainly from Denmark and Sweden. Whenever you have a gathering that brings these different peoples together, the common language is always English.
Now, I’m blathering on about this because it has implications for the spread of americana music in Europe. As we know, it already has a strong following in Northern Europe, but is the fact that it is sung, predominantly, in English a hindrance or help when it comes to gaining ground in countries like France, Spain, and Italy? I know that there’s a healthy americana scene in Italy, which seems ironic given how this topic started, and it does seem to be gaining traction here in France. When the band I play with started out most of our audiences were a mix of Brits and other North Europeans but we are seeing more French people in the audience and more French bar and restaurant owners seem prepared to book bands playing ‘la musique américaine’. Now, the big question, I think, is do songs that are considered americana have to be sung in English? When I talked to Martha Fields, a Texan americana artist based here in France, she said that French audiences like authenticity in their music, and that meant there were few French musicians playing americana because they didn’t sound authentic when singing English lyrics, but could we start to see non-English speaking musicians singing americana in their native languages? I’ve already mentioned a couple of French artists in previous posts with a distinct americana leaning, Valentine Lambert, with her Gallic singer/songwriter style and La Maison Tellier who could be seen as a French Calexico. Might we see more French artists incorporate americana influences into their music and what would it mean for the genre? For those that think americana means English language songs, I’d remind you that a lot of Tex-Mex music includes Spanish language songs, and Cajun music is predominantly sung in French, so the precedents are there for different language versions. One aspect of americana that is well established here, as I’ve mentioned before, is Bluegrass, and we are starting to hear a French take on bluegrass songs. My music selection this time round is three French bands who will be appearing at this year’s La Roche Bluegrass festival. Two of them, Silène & The Dreamcatchers and Sunshine in Ohio, deliver their songs in English and though we might be able to hear that it’s not their first language, they’re well received by local audiences and there’s no question about their authenticity. The third band, La Foxy Family, make no concessions and deliver all their songs in French, and are equally well received. What I think all these tracks show is that, regardless of what language the songs are sung in, they have a distinct French aspect to them that brings something different to the genre. Vive la différence.