Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Sentence - Style versus Content

France and England are on opposite sides of the English Channel.  Aside from being technically democracies and sharing some language roots, they have traditionally been enemies and rivals, going different directions.  Being half French and half American, I appreciate each of their strengths.  I love to combine English efficiency and French joy of life.

One area in which their different approaches to life appears in the sentence, specifically what each culture values in its written expression.  French is a relatively homogenous language.  Its English root content is increasing, but not yet that significant in terms of written language.  Most words used in French are based on Latin-based, long-established French roots.  This means that French words have a similar "song" to them and carry common endings, such as e, ant, é, and ons.  This makes writing poetic language even in prose quite easy.  To put it simply, a writer has to work hard to write ugly sounding French.  In addition, French culture has always valued aesthetics in all aspects of life, whether it be food, clothing, or culture.  Quality equals style or, put in other words, no style means no quality.  However, there is a price for investing such energy into form:  content becomes less important.  My impression of modern French daily writing, such as newspaper and magazine articles, is that content has become almost irrelevant.  It is almost impossible to understand anything of what actually happened when reading a French newspaper or magazine, aside from my favorite Le Canard Enchainé ,of course.  France and the French language is the complete victory of style over substance.

By contrast, the English language has stolen freely and invented profusely words from all languages from all over the world.  There is no single pattern of emphasis or word building in English.  Often, it seems that the rule is the exception.  Moreover, the English speaking world, especially England and the United States, has historically admired deeds and distrusted intellectuals.  The Anglo-Saxon world is much interested in what you want to say than how you say it.  Time is money and money is extremely important.  This emphasis combined with the rich vocabulary available means that readers of English expect you to say something in a clear and efficient, but not necessarily elegant, manner.  Elegance in English takes great effort.  For example, George Orwell's writing is deceptively simple.   He must have expended great effort in polishing his prose.  Therefore, in contrast to the French language, substance defines good writing.

Ideally, writing should be both communicative and elegant, but it is hard to have both.

I am interested in any comments you may have in reaction.

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