Years ago, an Hungarian friend of mine, eager to finish a novel, decided to go to Corsica to find the peace and quiet he craved. Some six months later, after he returned to Paris, I asked him if, during his stay, he had picked up any Corsican. Not much, he admitted, except for a phrase he had often heard and had found appealing for its curious sonority: “U lu brutu!”

My friend’s subsequent explanations as to just what those three words meant were vague in the extreme. Apparently, brutu was one of those convenient, all purpose words people—more particularly, the young—invent to express varying degrees of enthusiasm—such as formidable in French, fabelhaft (“fabulous”) in German, estupendo or Caramba! in Spanish, and everything from “wizard,” “super,” “terrific,” and the latest, singularly weak-kneed superlative—”brilliant”— now used by the British. I was reminded of the “Que brutal!” I had heard in Mexico at a time when the bamba was first being danced—in 1946, no less!—and which was no more “brutal” in its connotations than the popular English superlative “terrific!”

The four repetitive u (as in our “you”) sounds in “U lu brutu!” clearly linked it to the ancient Provençal, more closely derived from the Latin than modern French, in which the words would have to be phonetically (and more clumsily) transcribed as “Ou lou broutou!” I have no idea who invented this phrase or if he could in any sense be considered a “Provençal,” but its mere existence could provide a convenient argument for those French men and women who like to think that the island of Corsica has “indissoluble” ties linking it to the “hexagone” of mainland France.

Ever since last July, when Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, in desperate search of some miraculous wav of “pacifying” the restive island of Corsica, caved in to the demands of certain “nationalists” by outlining a four-year plan designed to allow the inhabitants to “rule themselves” with the aid of a local mini-parliament arid to have the Corsican “language” taught in all its schools, French newspapers, like the radio and TV channels, have been deluged with articles, interviews, and speeches expressing every conceivable nuance of opinion—from the forthright refusal to make any vital concessions manifested by French Minister of the interior Jean-Pierre Chevènement, who reluctantly resigned from the government rather than condone a policy likely to destabilize France and undermine the “indivisibility” of the Republic, to the casual indifference of Raymond Barre, a former prime minister and now outgoing mayor of Lyon, who more or less intimated that, if they so wished, the Corsicans should be allowed to go their own way and stew in their own juice.

Not the least curious aspect of the resultant debates has been the striking way in which they have cut across traditional party lines. In his adamant opposition to concessions that would, in his opinion, lead to an eventual independence and to the triumph in Corsica of a drug-peddling mafia, Chevènement, an outspokenly left-wing Socialist, was immediately joined by another former minister of the interior, Charles Pasqua, who (despite being of Corsican origin) is an equally outspoken archconservative ex-Gaullist. Early on in the debate, two former French foreign ministers—Jean-Raymond Bernard and Hervé de Charette—appealed (in the pages of Le Figaro) to Jacques Chirac, asking the president, supposed (according to the terms of the constitution) to be the “guarantor” of the “integrity of the Republic,” to throw the full weight and prestige of his high office into the battle against the Socialist prime minister—something Chirac has shown no signs of doing, preferring (as he privately explained to members of his entourage) to see Lionel Jospin “mire himself up to the chin” in a (Corsican) bog of his own making.

The Corsicans themselves are profoundly divided on the subject. At least two mayors—Emile Zuccarelli, the leftwing mayor of Bastia (near the northeastern tip of the island), and Dominique Bucchini, mayor of Sartène (in the south)—promptly joined Henri Emmanueli, a former secretary general of the Socialist Party, in supporting Chevènement; and when Jose Rossi, a “Liberal” deputy in the French National Assembly and the foremost advocate of the four year “peace plan,” rashly tried to “seize” the mayoralty of Ajaccio from its incumbent, he was soundly trounced by the “Bonapartist” Marc Marcangeli. A scathing critique by Charles Lambroschini, the foreign editor of Le Figaro, accused Rossi of wanting to make himself the Prince Rainier of a Monaco-type principality; and in a pathetic plea for tolerance, Jean-Pierre Colombani, the editor-in-chief of the distinctly left-wing and fashionably anti-bourgeois Le Monde, sought to remind his readers that it was the “jacobine” Robespierre who had hailed Corsica’s independence in the early 1790’s—actually, it was the anything but “jacobine” Mirabeau—and Napoleon who had ruthlessly suppressed it toward the end of that momentous revolutionary and postrevolutionary decade.

The most intriguing aspect of this debate has been its almost classic exemplification of the highly contemporary phenomenon of “linguistic drift.” When a “progressive” buzzword is invented, it quickly acquires a social momentum of its own. Before they begin to realize exactly what is happening, even its adversaries end up the hapless victims of their enemies’ vocabulary. This is what has happened with the so-called “Corsican language,” just as it has happened with the equally mythical—or should one say, “mystical”?—cause of “Corsican nationalism.”

There are those—such as Alain Madelin, a former finance minister and noted “liberal” in economic matters and himself of Breton origin—who argue that the Corsicans have as much right to have their own “language” taught in their schools as have the Basques, the Bretons, the inhabitants of the Languedoc (in southwestern France), and the Alsatians. What, after all, could sound more reasonable in a “tolerant” country, which prides itself (rightly or wrongly) on its “multicultural” diversity? But even the most “reasonable” of attitudes can rest on a fatal flaw, and there are comparisons which, as Madame Malapropre might have said, are “odorous” and which, when closely sniffed at, give off a fishy smell.

No one can reasonably deny that the Basques, whether they live north or south of the Pyrenees, have their own language—one whose roots go so far back (to pre-Celtic times) that it may even, according to certain philologists, be the oldest in Europe. Nor can anyone reasonably deny that the Bretons have a language of their own—one closely related to the Gaelic dialects still spoken in parts of Wales and Ireland. And no one who has traveled extensively in southwestern France can have failed to notice that, in cafes and restaurants, many of the “locals” speak a language that is almost unintelligible to Parisians and Frenchmen living north of the Loire, which some call “occitan” and others “provençal.” A distant descendant of the “vulgar” Latin which survived from the shipwreck of the Roman Empire, it is closely related to the Catalan spoken north of the Pyrenees at Perpignan and south of the Pyrenees at Barcelona, and to the mallorquín of the Balearic Islands and the valenciano of Spain’s Mediterranean littoral. But can a patois (a word significantly derived from an old Gallo-Roman root word for “paw”) which has far-flung connections but no distinctive “center”—unless it be Toulouse?—be properly considered a “language”? And the confusion is compounded when, if only by extension, people begin to talk loosely of an “Alsatian language” and, thus, of a “Corsican language” as well.

There was a time, not so long ago, when Paris editors, smitten by the fashionable disease of “ethnicity,” began publishing books of foreign origin as having been translated from the Venezuelan, the Argentinian, the Peruvian, the Chilean, and—of course—the American language. I once had to protest this bad habit for a book of my own, and it was duly published with the notice, “traduit de l’anglais (USA).” Other authors must have done the same, for books by Latin-American writers are now properly presented by French publishers as “traduit de l’espagnol” followed by (Venezuela), (Argentina), (Uruguay), or whatever country it may be. There is, of course, no such thing as an Argentinian, a Chilean, a Cuban, or a Venezuelan language, any more than there is such a thing as a Canadian, Australian, or New Zealand language. By the same token, there is no such thing as an “Alsatian language,” any more than there such a thing as a Bavarian, a Saxon, a Swabian, or an Austrian language. What many inhabitants of French Alsace speak at home is a colloquial form of plattdeutsch (“flat” or low German) which is spoken on both sides of the Rhine and which resembles the svitzerdutsch spoken by the inhabitants of Bern and Zurich. But what young Alsatians are taught in their schools is not plattdeutsch, which, if they chose to speak it beyond the borders of provincial Alsace, would immediately brand them as deplorably uncouth—as uncouth as was Walter Ulbricht, the East German dictator who built the Berlin Wall and whose dreadful Saxon accent was an object of ridicule on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The German that young Alsatians are taught, usually as a second language, is essentially the hochdeutsch, the “high German” which was given its titles of nobility by Lessing, Goethe, and Schiller during the second half of the 18th century. The intelligent Alsatian—for this eastern region of France also has its militant minority of hotheaded crackpots—knows that, if he wants to get ahead in the world, a sure way of doing so is to master a language spoken and, above all, written in a more or less “classic” manner by 100 million Europeans. He has little to gain by obstinately penetrating into a linguistic Sackgasse, cul de sac, or what we Anglo-Saxons call “dead-end” or “blind alley.”

Underlying the clash of languages in Belgium—between a Flemish-speaking majority, centered on the great seaport of Antwerp, and a French-speaking minority of “Walloons,” with a provincial capital at Liège (a conflict which has often threatened to tear that fragile country apart)—is the insurmountable fact that Dutch, because of the relative smallness of the Netherlands, never became an international language of the first rank. Had the Dutch colonized all of what became New England, or had they, like the British and the French, carved out vast areas of Africa to form an empire, or conquered a huge continent, like the Spaniards in South America, Dutch would have become a major international language, and the French-speakers of Liège and the Ardennes would have less cause to complain because they are obliged by law to learn a second, “unimportant” language which, compared to English or German, “leads nowhere.” Conversely, if the clash of languages in Switzerland has tended on the whole to be muted, it is because the three languages (we can forget about “romansch”) commonly spoken in the different cantons of the Helvetian Confederation—German, French, and Italian—are all of them important languages, each spoken elsewhere by at least 60 million Europeans. Recently, some hare-brained Zurichers who had forgotten the elementary lessons of their long, exemplary history began suggesting that English replace French as a compulsory second language, since it was an infinitely more useful means of international communication. But what makes “economic sense” (we have recently seen this happen in Russia), if “unimentally” applied, can all too easily become a recipe for social disaster. The inhabitants of Zurich should be the first to realize that it is the linguistic conviviality of the different cantons that has assured the survival of the five-centuries-old Helvetian Confederation. Because, for most abstract words, French and English have common Latin roots—assimilation, coopération, éducation, exposition, extermination, fabrication, imagination, répétition, satisfaction, etc. — French, for German-speakers, is a very useful stepping-stone toward English. It can never be repeated too often: Knowing three languages is always better than knowing two, and the truly “good European”—as Nietzsche liked to call him—is the one who knows Latin and ancient Greek as well.

Nietzsche, who, though born a Thuringian (like Martin Luther), disliked Saxon speech—he once complained to a friend about the “atrocious” German spoken by the famous Zurich novelist Gottfried Keller—wrote that Language was the most powerful instrument of collective coercion that Man had ever invented. This was both a blessing and a curse: A blessing, since no human community can possibly subsist without a common, collective means of communication; a curse, since this indispensable uniformity of speech can easily generate a constricting herd mentality, which a “healthy” society should be ever ready to combat. This was what had already happened during the French Revolution, with the attempted implementation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “sovereignty of the people”: a grotesque conceptual centaur forged from the forcible welding of a monarchical head onto a plebeian body, but in which (in a dramatic reversal of roles) a theoretically unitary body (“one and indivisible”) was accorded the divine right to impose its “sovereign will” on the administrative head. It was what, in an even more brutal and monolithic form, occurred after Nietzsche’s death with the intoxicating slogans of fascist Italy’s “Giovanezza! Giovanezza!” (as though youth and “dynamic” inexperience could ever be a valid substitute for adult wisdom and a sure recipe for “national salvation”); and again in Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, with the goose-stepping, arm-raising, bellowing delirium of “Ein Volk! Ein Reich! Ein Führer!“; and, not least of all, in Lenin’s and Stalin’s Soviet Union, where the “sovereign will” of the triumphant narod—the monolithic Russian equivalent of the Germanic Volk, of the Italian popolo, of the French peuple (each being, by ideologico-linguistic and revolutionary definition, “one and indivisible”)—was cynically used to justify the ruthless tyranny of an omnipotent Party and, finally, of an omnipotent dictator.

At the risk of being simplistic (always a danger in such complex matters), it is, I think, fair to say that every major European language acquired its particular force, character, and “style” thanks to the genius of a handful of poets and writers. (If one includes “prophets” among the “writers,” this general “law” is probably valid for other continents as well.) In ancient Greece, a common but, at the same time, “classic” language was forged by Homer (even if there may have been more than one) and his successors, Hesiod, Pindar, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, thus making possible Thucydides’ great works of history, Pericles’ and Demosthenes’ orations, and the dialogues of Plato. In ancient Rome, it was likewise a small number of gifted writers—the comic playwright Plautus, the philosophically inclined Lucretius, the forensically brilliant Cicero, the whimsically lyric poet Horace, and (above all) the epic poet Vergil—who perfected a “great” Latin language which—thanks to the administrative talents of Roman lawmakers, the hardy discipline of their soldiery, and the prestige of the empire, rather than to the dubious merits of its orthography was for centuries, not to say millennia, Western and Central Europe’s major unifying factor. “Modern” French (originally called francien), which gradually emerged as a “dominant” language from a plethora of provincial patoiswallon, picard, bourguignon, lorrain, Norman, the angevin of the Loire valley, the franccomtois and the romand of the Jura mountains, and the savoyard of the Alps—was largely the work of three remarkable writers: the delightfully rambling essayist Michel de Montaigne, the soft-spoken and unassuming René Descartes (the great simplifier of a cumbersome arithmetical system), and the epic tragedian Pierre Corneille. Similarly, “modern” Italian was largely created by two great poets, Petrarca (let us, for once, write his name correctly!) and Dante, and two remarkable writers, Giovanni Boccaccio (Renaissance Europe’s first great “teller of tales”) and Niccolo Machiavelli, the stiletto-sharp anatomist of short-term political success. “Modern” English (if such it can be called, for it has retained many archaic features, including a system of phonetic orthography that is second to none in its junglelike complexity) was largely created by the brilliant trio of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and—not least of all—William Tyndale, who did for English what Martin Luther had done for late-medieval German by translating parts of the Old and New Testaments into a rich, poetic language, which makes the standard French translation of St. Jerome’s Vulgate sound dull and pedestrian in comparison. Spanish (or, more precisely, Castilian) was largely the creation of a single genius, Miguel de Cervantes, as effortless and unhurried a “stylist” as there has ever been; the same can be said of the Russian language, which was pulled virtually single-handedly up from its peasant loutishness and transformed into a lovely language thanks to the verbal ingenuity and exquisite sense of euphony of the poet Alexander Pushkin.

All of which brings us back to the island of Corsica and its “language.” If Corsican were, in any strict sense, a language, it should logically have produced at least one writer of genuine significance. But no matter how passionately the advocates of Corsican “nationalism” plead their cause, this has not been the case. One could go back for millennia, all the way back to the Stoic Seneca (originally an Iberian, who was condemned to eight years of exile on this lovely island during the first century A.D.) without encountering a major writer or poet who expressed himself in Corsican. During the last half of the 19th and the early decades of the 20th century, the far larger island of Sicily (three times the size of Corsica) produced two major authors—the short story writer Giovanni Verga and the playwright Luigi Pirandello—and, in the mid-1950’s, in a kind of mini-volcanic eruption which astounded Europe’s literati, it produced a Quixotian “throwback” (for, in his travels, he was always accompanied by a servant, and even by a cook) in the noble figure of Giuseppe Tomasi, prince of Lampedusa, author of Il Gattopardo (The Leopard). Even though the short stories of Verga— the Anton Chekhov or Maupassant of Sicily—were filled with colloquial expressions, it never occurred to him (any more than it did to Pirandello and Lampedusa) to write his tales in Sicilian—for a simple reason that was also recognized as a linguistic “fact of life” by all those gifted Irish writers (Jonathan Swift, William Butler Yeats, John Millington Synge, Lady Augusta Gregory, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, etc.) who preferred to express themselves in English rather than in Gaelic. All of them realized that, for good or ill, English, like Italian, was a major international language. None of them had any burning desire to remain “provincials.”

Strictly speaking—and in such complex matters we must beware of the sloppy “thinking” underlying so much wild talk about “ethnic rights,” “freedom of expression,” “healthy diversity,” etc.—Corsican has no more right to be considered a valid “language” than the Milanese vernacular that Ettore Bugatti, the famous automobile manufacturer, liked to use with certain of his close confidants and “lieutenants” in order to keep his latest innovations secret and unknown to his French competitors. The Italians are rightly proud of their various vernaculars, but few of them are stupid enough to insist that any of them be taught at school rather than simply spoken at home, since these vernaculars are all variations of Italian. Even though Carlo Goldoni, the most prolific of Italian dramatists (no fewer than 250 plays!), occasionally wrote his plays in the Venetian dialect, it was for him a local divertimento, no more. Most of them were written in Italian, and even in French—which, in 18th century Europe, was regarded (rightly or wrongly) as the language par excellence of polite society, and thus used as a natural lingua franca by another extraordinary Venetian, Giovanni Jacopo Casanova, the self-ennobled “Chevalier de Seingalt,” whose “shocking” memoirs are certainly among the most entertaining ever penned by a robust bon vivant.

Like Milanese, like Venetian, like Neapolitan, like Genoese and Pisan— and I mention these two because various parts of the island were, at different times, ruled by Pisan “counts” and Genoese mariners and robber-bankers—Corsican is a dialectal derivative of Italian. Last September, Jean-Guy Talamoni, a vociferous advocate of Corsican “nationalism,” explained (in an interview granted to a Paris weekly) that he did not recognize the Marseillaise as being his national anthem. His national anthem was, and would always remain, Corsica’s “Salve regina . . . “

I must confess that I feel some sympathy for this point of view, but for quite different, non-nationalistic reasons. The Marseillaise—with its bellicose call to arms of an embattled citizenry, enjoined to form themselves into battalions—was written by Rouget de Lisle, a French captain of Engineers in April 1792, shortly after the newly created Republic had declared war on Imperial Austria, the homeland of the soon-to-be-executed queen, Marie Antoinette. It was a typically chest-beating, muscle-flexing piece of superpatriotic doggerel, and every bit as stupid and intemperate as such later exercises in the same bellicose genre as August Hoffmann von Fallersleben’s “Deutschland! Deustchland über alles!” and the British national anthem, in the second verse of which God is asked to “confound the knavish tricks” of the king (or queen) of England’s enemies. Compared to this rhetorical rubbish, the “Salve Regina . . . ” of the Corsicans comes close to being poetry. But it is not Corsican but Latin poetry that is involved; and the Queen whose merciful aid is here invoked to save the plague stricken and oft-exploited inhabitants of the lovely island is the Catholic Church’s “Queen of Heaven,” better known to us as the Virgin Mary.

I know very little about Jean-Pierre Talamoni’s religious beliefs, but I frankly doubt that they have had much influence on his political convictions. Corsican “patriots,” like those who founded the originally clandestine but now officially tolerated Armata Corsa movement (one of whose leaders, Jean-Michel Rossi, was mysteriously assassinated in August 2000) or who swear allegiance to Talamoni’s Corsica Nazione, keep denouncing the “jacobine” oppression to which they have been subjected for the past two centuries by political and administrative “centralists” in Paris. But nothing could be more “jacobine” and intolerant than their openly avowed aim to make the teaching of Corsican a compulsory obligation in all of the island’s schools.

Not long ago, a Corsican friend of mine, who happens to belong to one of the island’s most distinguished families, was informed that the name of the village near Ajaccio from which the family had derived its name would have to be “Corsicanized ” (in French, “corsisé“). This peremptory declaration was made by a “university” official closely linked to the so-called “Territorial Assembly” (composed of 51 members from 16 different factions) in the “capital” of Corte. A picturesque old burg dominated by the ruins of a medieval castello, in the mountainous “hinterland” of the island, Corte is little more than a one-horse town (it barely numbers 5,500 inhabitants), which, a few years ago, was elevated to the rank of “capital” and offered a “university” in an effort to circumvent the traditional rivalry between the northern seaport of Bastia and Napoleon’s hometown of Ajaccio, with its quaint, ochre-hued houses and its magnificent crescent shaped bay. Although tax receipts and other documents obtained from the senate archives in Genoa indicated that the village’s name had remained unchanged from the early 16th century on, my friend was informed by the university “professor” in Corte that the ancestral name would have to be changed on the official records “in the name of the spontaneity and authenticity of the local toponymy, the Tuscanized forms being more derived from literary forms, and thus imported.” “What those people are doing,” my friend exclaimed with a mixture of amusement and disgust, “is inventing a crazy new language!”—in a war of “liberation” fought not only against French administrative rule but against the “tyranny” of the Italian language.

It certainly is crazy—and Lilliputian, too. For all this hubbub concerns the “national” future of no more than 250,000 souls—roughly one 50th of the population of “greater Paris,” or of what is more elegantly called l’Ile de France. Islanders do not even have enough “Corsophonic” instructors capable of teaching the local vernacular in the island’s 44 lycées and secondary-school collèges. But nothing more flatters the wounded ego of certain Corsicans than the idea that, by occasionally blowing up a French fiscal bureau or other administrative building, or even by assassinating a prefect (as happened two years ago to the luckless Claude Erignac), the fearless Corsican David will eventually reduce the arrogant French Goliath to such a state of fear and trembling that he will toss in the sponge and grant the island its independence. This would constitute the sweet, long-overdue revenge of the genuine patriots against the pinzutti (literally, the “pointed ones”), the sarcastic appellation applied by the “natives” to the intrusive French because of the pointed caps (similar to those of the Redcoats during the American War of Independence) worn by King Louis XV’s soldiery when, after centuries of manifest indifference to the fate of this lovely island, they finally invaded Corsica in 1768—one year before the birth of Napoleone Buonaparte (whose ancestors, according to the man who later became his father-in-law, Emperor Francis I of Austria, came from Treviso, just south of the Dolomites, in northeastern Italy).

And after that, what? Well, having created an “authentic” new language and renamed Ajaccio “Aiacciu,” these superpatriots will probably feel the need to establish their “national” identity by rewriting the turbulent history of their island. It will not be an easy task, at any rate as regards the events of the past 200 years. For these “historians” will have to invent some ingenious reason to explain why, following the example of the great Napoleon, so marry “renegades” preferred to leave their homeland to try their luck in metropolitan France. For, in this respect at least, the Corsicans resemble the Irish. For every Corsican willing to remain on the island, there are at least five or six who chose and still go on choosing to make their political, financial, and (in some cases) gangster fortunes “beyond the brine.” One of them is Jean Tiberi, the distinctly controversial ex-mayor of Paris.