After visiting a good number of museums and historical sights throughout France, we made an interesting observation. Once we got past the Louvre, the Orsay, and a couple of the other big name visual arts places where the artifacts on display could pretty much speak for themselves, we noticed that the displays in other museums were heavily focused on words — attempting to tell and explain rather than show all about prehistoric life, some period of French history, or even, a genre of art or literature. It prompted me to think of the adage, “Show, Don’t Tell” that we often use to direct students in writing or creating an engaging presentation. We encourage them to use all their senses to help the audience experience their story. And, indeed, that’s what people love… to hear and truly experience a good story. Well, at least I think that’s true for Americans. I’m not so sure about the French.
Americans nowadays have very little patience for a lengthy dissertation on any topic and perhaps that’s the fault of the media. However, I don’t think that this visually stimulating world in which live is such a bad thing. It might be acceptable to admit that it’s progress. While touring France, we would often enter a museum and after passing through a few galleries that bombarded us with placards of explanations larger than the artifacts, I would sigh and say, “Ah, too many words!” And Norman would nod in agreement. He pointed out that one thing Americans know how to do well is put on a show. Though I had never really thought about this in comparison to the rest of the world, I realized that it’s true. We know how to tell a story and make it come to life whether real or imaginary. Think Hollywood, Disneyland, Fourth of July Fireworks Shows, Olympic Ceremonies, Presidential Inaugurations, weddings, funerals, the first day of school… the list goes on. Everything large or small has a story behind it and becomes a production either personal or public.
I’ve never been a big fan of reading all the museum curators’ detailed analyses of artwork, but it’s even worse when you are looking at… arrowheads, hundreds of them! Really! Case in Point #1, the newly designed and built National Prehistoric Museum in the Dordogne. From its description online and in brochures, it sounds like an intriguing museum not to be missed. On display are 18,000 pieces from its collection of 300,000 objects. Imagine! This is daunting and impressive at the same time. When you arrive, you soon discover that the majority of the items on display are bones and arrowheads all very neatly lined up in long glass cases. A 10-minute video re-enactment of early man using his tools plays repeatedly on multiple screens throughout the museum. And the rest… words, words, and more words.
The French don’t seem to mind this approach. Case in Point #2, the Musée Marmottan in Paris. We were excited to visit this museum as it houses the largest collection of Monet paintings anywhere. We were not disappointed. In fact, there were so many works on display that it was almost difficult to view them from any appreciable distance. Nevertheless, it was stunning to see so much of Monet’s work. As we made our way downstairs to an additional temporary exhibit of the work of Berthe Morisot, one of the few female members of the Impressionist movement, I noticed that a crowd of people had gathered on the intermediary landing in front of a wall… of words! The entire 12-foot high wall was filled from top to bottom with a written chronology of the artist’s life and work. It was the same information that could be found on the brochure you received when you purchased your ticket. I could understand some people wanting to stop and read it, but one man was meticulously copying it down into a small notebook word for word. On the way back up, I observed a woman doing the same thing. I’m sure they were French. Why were they doing this?
Perhaps this French obsession with words is simply a natural reaction to the dilemma they face in having so few words to express themselves. It’s difficult to get a clear count from any reliable authority on the official number of words in any given language. However, it is widely accepted that English has about half a million words while French has somewhere around 100,000. This necessitates creating multiple meanings for a large number of words as well as using groups of words for a single item for which there is no specific word. I wish I could give you some concrete examples as we ran into this constantly during our travels, but after three weeks back home, we can’t think of any which is slightly ironic and funny. This phenomenon is completely confusing to the novice French speaker. You think you have a few words and phrases under your belt only to discover them employed in a different, unrelated context. There are also many words that are spelled differently but pronounced exactly the same. Sometimes even native speakers had trouble understanding each other. It’s not like we don’t come across some of these same linguistic situations in English, but I could swear they are much more prevalent in French.
I suppose in the end it’s not the number of words you know or that exist, but how well you use them to communicate your ideas, thoughts, feelings, needs, and desires. I can vouch for the fact that you can get by with very few in a language you are still struggling to learn and understand. That’s the true beauty of travel when you open your mind and heart to experiencing a different people and culture. Everyone manages to make themselves understood and have a good time in the process. This summer, we had the maximum opportunity for this type of cultural exchange and we will cherish this once-in-a-lifetime journey through France for the rest of our lives.