It is common knowledge that the French like to play with their language, and the French are particularly fond of using synonyms to embellish a text or avoid repetition. But when it comes to the names of languages, beyond ‘English’ or ‘the English language’ there are no real alternatives. This is where periphrasis comes in. A widely used figure of speech, periphrasis denotes a word group expressing a single word through one of its characteristics, such as ‘the City of Light’ for Paris, or ‘the Sun King’ for Louis XIV of France.
The French have invented specific periphrases to designate languages. Often used in literature, these expressions are nevertheless commonly employed and known to the general population. The most famous periphrases used to refer to a language are constructed according the model ‘the language of…’ followed by the name of a seminal writer from that country. Thus French has been ‘the language of Molière’ since the 18th century, in homage to the country’s home-grown playwright and actor. Variants using other great French literary figures, such as Voltaire or Hugo, are also sometimes heard.
How does this work for other European countries? English is of course referred to as ‘the language of Shakespeare’ – who else? For Spanish, Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, is the chosen writer, as Goethe is for German. These classic authors are also the standard-bearers for the learning of these two languages the world over, via the Cervantes and Goethe Institutes. Italian is referred to as the language of Dante, author of The Divine Comedy. For the Danish, their language is epitomised by Andersen and his fairy tales; Russian is the language of Tolstoy and Pushkin. As for classical languages, Ancient Greek remains incontestably the language of Homer, attributed as the author of the great epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey. Latin, meanwhile, is the language of Virgil, or sometimes of Cicero, statesman and writer.
Oriental languages also have their phraseological synonyms in French. So Chinese is the language of Confucius or of Lao-Tseu, and Japanese the language of Mishima, breaking the mould by paying homage to a 20th century writer. Hebrew and Aramaean have their own specific periphrases related to their roots in Christianity: thus the former is ‘the language of Moses’ and the latter the ‘language of Christ’ or the ‘language of Jesus’. Not writers, then, but highly emblematic figures.
Such periphrases are not always associated with people. They can also be based on a temperament or characteristic linked to a particular nation. So Italian is often known as ‘the language of love’, French as ‘the language of diplomacy’ and English as ‘the language of business’.
Lastly, it is interesting to note that certain periphrases refer simply to the word ‘yes’ in the appropriate language. The most well-known, in France at least, are the ‘oïl’ and the ‘oc’ languages, rival tongues spoken respectively in northern and southern France before the arrival of modern French. The words ‘Oïl’ and ‘Òc’ mean ‘yes’ in these languages.
Whether through literary figures or the characteristics of a country, periphrases used to designate languages are a very useful stylistic device to enrich phraseology and provide variety in expression.