A couple of weeks ago on Word of Mouth (Radio 4), there was a very interesting piece about the role of the French and the English languages in diplomacy.
French was widely used in international diplomacy for two main reasons: first, because France used to be a huge political power. It was commonly used in the whole of Europe from the 18th century, with the reign of Louis XIV. Later, Napoleon "helped" the language spread even further. The use of French in international treaties started declining with the emergence of the USA after the First World War; in fact, the Treaty of Versailles was written both in English and in French.
The second main reason is that it is the language of clarity and precision: it uses a lot more determiners, adverbs, conjunctions and the like to link parts of sentences together and clarify their relationships. This links very well with the "foisonnement" (expansion) phenomenon in translation from English to French, with the French translation being on average 15% longer than the source text. Conversely, English is more likely to create ambiguity and its concision can be seen as bluntness, which was described in the programme as "the enemy of polite discourse". Nowadays, despite the French language losing much of its prestige, the English diplomatic vocabulary is still haunted by a few French ghosts, here and there: regime, coup, etiquette, rapprochement. I suspect these words are still in use only because they don’t have equivalents in English.
This led me to think about diplomatic language in the current turbulent international climate. I wonder if this "blunt" aspect of the English language might explain, in part, why George Bush, who clearly likes his language straight and simple, often fails to impress European and Arab audiences. He pushes the concision of English to its extreme limit, which, regardless of what he has to say, can be off-putting at best and irritating and condescending at worst, like when he said on Wednesday :
"First, people in Iraq must understand that I view those practices as abhorrent. They must also understand that what took place in that prison does not represent America that I know."
This modal must is terribly harsh and definite (almost an order) within the context of a man apologising for his soldiers torturing Iraqis. Of course, one might say that this is his style, and that he would be just as blunt if he was a French speaker, but I do think the "efficiency" of the English language might mean that George Bush often sounds more tactless and simplistic than he perhaps intends.