William Boyd Interview with Le Point

William Boyd
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Le Point interview with William Boyd


The French Academy has just launched a website to warn against the most frequent and « ridiculous » errors in the use of the French language. What do you think of such an initiative? Do you think languages should be protected from impoverishering or evolving?

It’s very difficult to protect languages. You can issue all sorts of edicts and rules but in the end people will speak they way they want to.  I suppose the Academie Francaise is at least providing a set of guidelines – standards -- and that’s a good thing, however unenforceable.


Do you approve of neologisms?

It’s a matter of taste, I believe.  Some neologisms work very well – others grate horribly.  You can pick and choose, I suppose.  The only good thing you can say about neologisms is that they don’t have a very long life, on the whole. Another neologism will come along to replace one that appears tired and worn out.  A language is a living thing – it almost always answers to usage, not legislation.


The Academy also points out some frequently used anglicisms. Do you believe in linguistic protectionism? Can you understand such a special diffidence of the English language?

Linguistic protectionism is impossible. We use French expressions in English all the time – je ne sais quoi, cul de sac, chic, ambience etc etc.  However, it does seem to me somewhat strange, and I’m talking as a French speaker, that so many English words and expressions are used in French when there are perfectly good French words that do the job ideally. For example, why say 'house' instead of 'maison'? It must be a question of fashion – somehow an English word must seem 'cooler' or 'punchier'.


Would such a concern for the preservation of the language be possible in the Anglo-Saxon world? Or is it typically French?

Absolutely impossible – English is so easily corruptible.  The great advantage of French is that the grammar appears unswervingly obeyed.  In English – street English – the simplest grammatical rules are constantly tossed aside and ignored.  'I is going', 'I wouldn’t not have went', 'he done well', and so on. Uneducated native English speakers speak a terrible, shockingly poor, diminished language – it’s not slang – it’s just a corrupted, degraded language.   I don’t ever see that happening in France (or indeed in other European countries).  It’s a very British phenomenon and you, the French, are very lucky that you don’t suffer from it.  In this context the language concerns of the Academie Francaise seem very minor indeed.


As a Francophile, what do you like the most about the French language (past and present)?

To a British ear the French language sounds very beautiful – it has a kind of flow and music in it that is hard to achieve in English.  Also – because it’s harder to contract, I suppose, unlike English – everything that’s said in French sounds more elegant and slightly more formal.  When I see my novels translated into French I always think the language makes me seem far more intelligent and sophisticated than perhaps I am!


Interview for Le Point magazine. September 2011

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