Richard Scholar


On his book Émigrés: French Words That Turned English

Cover Interview of July 14, 2021


Words that cross languages and cultures are my subject. Why concern myself and readers with these? Such words matter to me, not as self-sufficient objects, but for the stories they tell of what it is to live a human life in history and for the role they play in the making of concepts, practices, and forms in and across cultures. I’m endlessly fascinated by these interactions, particularly as these are found in literature, which shapes and is shaped by language, of course, in unique ways.

I write not so much in defense as in illumination of French émigré words as they have been received and recycled—used, abused, and reused—in Anglophone culture. I treat the particular words I study in detail—words like caprice, naïveté, and ennui—as points of access into a wider exploration of the processes of translingual and transcultural migration in literature and its sister arts. This, then, is a book about translation and its other. Above all, however, it casts light on those untranslated French words that have ‘turned’ English in their movement between languages and their powers of cultural transformation.

We live at a time, of course, when many more English words are ‘turning’ French than the reverse. The historical reasons for this are obvious. After the British empire spread English across the world, the United States entrenched English as a global lingua franca, causing the unprecedented amount of lexical borrowing from English that is currently taking place in French and other languages. The response in the Francophone world to this process of Anglicization is an unresolved mixture of receptivity and resistance. It largely mirrors the Anglophone attitudes I explore in the book towards Frenchification.

What I want to suggest to my readers, above all, is that the current dominant position of English in relation to French ought not to be allowed to conceal a longer and more complex story of linguistic and cultural interaction. Anglophones have borrowed words from French for centuries. Why and how they do, and revealing what attitudes in the process towards French and the foreign, are questions at the heart of Émigrés.

To existing studies I bring an approach that is innovative, in that it yokes together keywords and creolization, two hitherto unrelated concepts in cultural criticism. When combined with due care, I contend, these concepts make unique sense of the processes that have entangled and enriched English and French language and culture in history. For they show untranslated French words not only ‘turning’ English, but making it anew, causing ambivalence and controversy in the process.

The result is an experiment in a cosmopolitan cultural criticism that is sensitive to language, to the vexed social and cultural questions that language raises, and to the dialogue between the arts.

I recognize that the book is, in many ways, a caprice. I will leave it to others to judge whether or not it is also a naïveté. Perhaps my greatest hope is that the book does not cause too much ennui.