Letter to the LRB (not published) commenting on a remark in William Doyle’s article “Revolutionary Yoke” (LRB 27 June 2002).       

    26 June 2002

    The Editor,

    London Review of Books:

    Dear Editor,

    William Doyle (LRB, 27 June 2002) doubts the significance of linguistic diversity in pre-Revolutionary France by citing the analogy: ‘The dialect of the Yorkshire village where I was born was incomprehensible to people from outside the county, but nobody who spoke it thought it was not English.’

    Unless Doyle is a lot older than I imagine, I assume his village had radio (even before television reached Holme Moss) and newspapers (the Yorkshire Post had a dialect column, but was otherwise written in very proper English). The village doubtless had a school, and there was probably a library and even a cinema just a bus‑ride away. Doyle and his fellow-rustics were thus regularly exposed to ‘standard’ English (and to other regional variants – The Archers??). They just did not speak it. A very different situation from a French peasant circa 1785, who was going to need a lot of persuasion that there was an entity called ‘France’ that was worth dying for.

    Incidentally, Julian Jackson (same issue) has no need to go back to Ernest Lavisse to discover who broke the Vase of Soissons (one of Clovis’s soldiers). There is a perfectly adequate account in the Nouveau Petit Larousse, which I presume is on every French scholar’s desk.

    Yours sincerely,

    Ian Birchall