Plain Language Part 2

The Nun’s Story is probably my all-time favorite novel. Kathryn Hulme’s 1956 bestseller (subsequently made into a Hollywood movie starring Audrey Hepburn) recounts the struggles of a devout Belgian nun who works in an African hospital. When World War II begins she finds herself back in Belgium, where she defies convent rules to work for the Resistance.

When I first read The Nun’s Story as a teenager, I was too absorbed in Sister Luke’s story (and probably too young ) to appreciate the novel’s sustained irony. Again and again, the convent’s rules and customs get in the way of true spiritual values – but the nuns are too absorbed in their quest for sanctity to realize what’s happening.

Today, though, I’m going to focus on a different aspect of the novel – the languages spoken in the convent. Because Sister Luke is a nursing nun from an upper-class family, she speaks French. Other nuns are assigned to the laundry and kitchen because they grew up on farms and have limited education: they speak Flemish. So we could conclude that Flemish is an earthy, robust language that can’t handle the linguistic demands of a modern corporation, hospital, or university.

And we would be wrong. After WWII, the people of the Flanders region began to rebel against the requirement to use French in schools and business. A strong push for their own language began, and today Flemish is the language of commerce, education, and science.

Linguistics experts tell us there’s no such thing as a “simple” or “primitive” or “coarse” language. Every language has the capacity for subtlety and sophistication. I once knew a counselor who studied sign language so that she could work with hearing-impaired clients. She told me that the sessions where she “talked” with her hands were no different from those where she used spoken English.

So let’s talk about English, a sophisticated and worldly language that’s never been subjected to that kind of prejudice…right?

Wrong. After William the Conqueror and his army invaded England in 1066, French became Britain’s official language. Anyone who wanted a prestigious job made it their business to master the French language. The result was a split in our language that lives on today.

Let’s use roast beef as an example. Wealthy French-speaking families could afford to buy cows for their meat. Poorer families (who spoke English) used cows for working animals and sources for milk and butter. And so we continue to call the live animal a cow (an English word); but when it shows up on a plate, we give it a French name – beef (from boeuf). Today – almost a millennium later – the language is still full of these French/English pairs: legislator/lawmaker, paternal/fatherly, attire/clothing…you get the idea. When we want to impress someone, we automatically switch from English to French.

In my next post – the third in this series of four – I’ll talk more about the prejudice against English that has so often led to mistakes, confusion, and inefficiency.

The Nun's Story


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