Language lovers tackle the Story of Spanish

Journalists Jean-Benoît Nadeau, BA’92, and Julie Barlow, BA’91, are partners in every sense. The Quebec francophone and Ontario anglophone learned each other’s languages, married shortly after graduation from McGill, are proud parents of twin girls and have collaborated on a number of best-selling books about France and the French language. They shift linguistic gears with their latest work - The Story of Spanish. McGill News contributor Diana Grier-Ayton recently interviewed the couple.

I understand you met very shortly after arriving at McGill?

JB: First day, first class, first hour. I happened to come in the room by the wrong door at the front of the hall right next to the teacher. The class had already started, so I interrupted 300 students.

J: It wasn’t exactly love at first sight! He looked like a ragamuffin, wearing rumpled old clothing. So I was staring at him, and he came and sat beside me because he thought I was someone else, and that’s how we met.

I read that when you began living together, you used to switch languages every Monday morning. Does one language dominate now?

J: Well, we’re living in Paris, so more of our life takes place now in French than in English. Our children are francophones who speak English. Jean and I interview and work in both languages. I write in French, he writes in English. Working in two languages all the time makes you relativistic about things. There are two sides to every story; we always know there’s another way – an entirely different way – to look at a situation.

JB: You also have access to information first-hand. What we know about France doesn’t come to us by translation from the Daily Mail or the Economist. What you read in the U.S. press on France essentially comes from Britain. The British and the Americans contaminate each other with their ideas because no one has access to that information directly. Languages are the real frontiers of the world today. People who are unilingual are living within a single country.

Your books require exhaustive research. How did you prepare for The Story of Spanish?

J: We picked the story of Spanish because we had already travelled a fair bit in Spanish-speaking countries and were attracted to the language. I had to learn Spanish to write the book, so I spent a lot of time in Mexico and then we moved to Phoenix, Arizona, for six months. We wanted to live in the U.S. to understand the dynamic of the audience we were writing for. That was just the greatest experience.

JB: What we do is the anthropology of a language. Linguistics is part of it, but languages don’t spread because they are beautiful. They spread because of politics, of demographics, of their sociology. Considering the margins of that language is always fascinating, which is why we devote six or seven chapters to the United States. The U.S. is not officially a Spanish-speaking country, but there are more Spanish speakers [there] than in Spain.

Did anything surprise you as you learned about the language?

JB: One surprise for me was the dollar sign. During my first trip in Mexico I noticed that the symbol for peso is the dollar sign. I found it odd; why would they write peso with the dollar sign? But it’s the other way around – the dollar uses the peso sign. In the colonial period there was so much silver coming out of Mexican and Peruvian mines, it became the petrodollar of the time. The Spanish dollar, or the “piece of eight,” was the currency of reference when they created the U.S. dollar. And the New York Stock Exchange traded in eighths until 1997 because of the piece of eight.

How easy is it to turn all the research into a book?

J: The writing process is a lot harder, putting everything together from two perspectives.

We divide the material according to what we have more affinity with. We put it together in drafts, we edit, we tear it apart. The chapter on the influence of Arabic was very tough to get our heads around. It’s practically another language you have to understand in order to understand Spanish.

JB: Julie’s English is more idiomatic and a lot better than mine, so she’s the one who does the final edits.

You’ve written histories of both French and Spanish. How do they compare?

J: One thing that fascinated me was how Spanish became defined with dictionaries much earlier than French. Another difference is the way they organized the languages internationally. French is considered the property of France; there is only one French academy. In Spanish you have this incredible sharing of the language between countries, because the size of the Spanish empire rendered Spain a small player in the Spanish world. That changes the way people think about the language, and who sets the standard for the language. The United States is part of that standard building now.

JB: French, like English, is much more of a world language than Spanish. The number of people who speak Spanish as a second language is a lot smaller than the number of people who have Spanish as a mother tongue. French is totally different. You have maybe 80 or 90 million people who learn French as a mother tongue, but three times more people who speak French as a second language.

Is there another “Story of” book in the works?

JB: We’re writing another book on France right now, but we’re also doing research for The Story of Arabic. There are a lot of Arab speakers in France and we’re close to the Arab world. Getting to Mecca is a lot simpler from Paris.

J: My pet project is to do The Story of English, but our publisher is lukewarm about the idea.

JB: Having done so much research on Spanish, French and Arabic, we bring a perspective that not many people could. We think we’d really have something.