The Forgotten Language of My Youth

Language of my Youth

I took four years of high school French, primarily because it wasn’t German. German was mach-uber-scarrrry, with its hundred-character words and its link to some of history’s greatest wrongs, like lederhosen. But French was soft and lyric. In my classes, I loved saying the French word for “garbage,” which is “garbage.” Only better.

By my senior year, only about a half-dozen students had stuck with the language, and as a reward, Madame Virgillo had us read two French classics that we had no hope of understanding, even in English: Voltaire’s Candide and the subject of today’s musings, Le Petit Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. She also had us watch a truly bizarre French movie called L’Argent de poche, which included young kids telling dirty jokes and a scene where a toddler falls out of a third-floor window only to jump up and play gleefully. Between the surreal movies and Voltaire’s scathing political satire, it’s surprising that we didn’t switch to the German classes and invade.

The Little Prince is one of the most published and beloved novels in all of human history, having been printed more than 140 million times in over 250 languages, including a Latin version that my son has for his own high school foreign language travails. And it is so French, filled with liberté, fraternité, and snakes that swallow whole elephants. In the story, a pilot crash-lands in the Sahara Desert—something that did in fact happen to the author—where he meets up with a diminutive prince, recently arrived from his asteroid homeland. Through their conversations, the two explore the strangeness of being an adult—at least up until the childlike prince tries to commit suicide. Bread and Jam for Frances never had a suicide scene, even with “France” in the title.

It’s been many years since I read this work, but I still recall the opening words: “Lorsque j’avais six ans j’ai vu, une fois, une magnifique image…” (“When I was six years old I saw a beautiful picture….”). It’s a simple opening for a book that is deeply philosophical and at times political. The baobab trees that try to take over the prince’s asteroid, for example, represent Nazi aggression. Naturally. It’s not a straightforward book. But if you can catch the subtle allegories, an adult can get a lot out of the text. And a child will get even more. Especially if they can read French.

[Image Credits: Brenn]


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