Wednesday, 5 September 2012

French Language vs English Anglicisms

I see this abomination several times a week, merde!
The French language has always been held in very high esteem in France, and quite rightly so. It's an elegant and highly expressive language and it sounds like music to these English ears. French is considered to be part of the country's heritage and it has a fierce watchdog to protect it. It's name? L'Académie Française.

The Academy decides which words, spellings, grammatical structures and other elements of the language may or may not be used and how, although it is difficult to keep up with all of its rulings as there are so many of them.

Another of the Academy's responsibilities is that of keeping foreign words from 'polluting' French, which it considers to be a 'pure' language, and I have an image of the French language, at least as the Academy sees it, as being besieged by would-be foreign invaders, which is why it is surrounded by virtual barbed-wire fences, booby traps and hundreds of hidden French-protecting nests of heavy machine guns which fire bullets charged not with explosives but with French grammar and spelling edicts and diktats.

Words from many countries have entered the language over the years, and some of them have been officially endorsed, but two of the biggest threats to French today are the use of texting language, which purists see as a threat to the correct use of French, and the massive infiltration of Anglicisms, which is becoming a major menace to its beauty.

Anglicisms have existed in French for many years of course, with words like 'weekend' and 'parking' (car park) being universally employed with little or no opposition, and the use of English is common practice in this globalised business world, but the last 15-20 years have seen a veritable tidal wave of Anglicisms flood over French shores from Britain and America, and into everyday French.

Some of them are relatively innocuous, although I realise that deciding which Anglicisms are acceptable or not is a subjective process. The French, like Anglophones, use 'un must' to designate something that is a must-do/see/read etc, computer terms such as scanner and mail/email are common and French TV has 'prime time' viewing hours. Another one which sits easily with me is the term 'gore' to describe gory photos.

But who could possibly find the slightest shred of elegance in the answer given earlier this year by potential French presidential candidate Martine Aubry to a journalist who asked about her capacity to be a good president? "Je serai capable de faire le job" she blurted clumsily, and it was at that precise moment that I and many others decided that she most decidedly wouldn't. Nobody needs a prez who can't speak French correctly.

You would most surely find that phrase if you googled it, and on the subject of Google, one paper once referred to the Internet giant as "une gigantesque cash machine." The paper was right in its analysis of course, but its use of French was very wrong indeed. What's wrong with the perfectly apt French equivalent - 'machine à sous'?

France has a deserved-or-not reputation of being a country which goes on perpetual strike, so how is it that they haven't yet developed their own strike vocabulary? One report I read reported  a strike and and its "250 salariés lockoutés" whereas another paper quoted a factory manager as saying that there would be no discussion with his striking staff until they called off the strike " le sit-in."

Not that members of the French national football team cared, because sporting paper L'Equipe informed us that they had been given a "day off." Oh, so no 'journée de repos' then. Another profession which gets lots of days off is teaching. Teachers in France sometimes feel hard done by, and they once criticised a set of reform proposals by declaring that teachers were " génération crash-test."

Maybe you were hoping that international news about serious issues may be spared, but if you were, you were unfortunately mistaken. The damage done by the devastating 2004 tsunami, we were informed at the time, meant that "..le Tohoku risque de devenir un no man's land." Meanwhile, diplomats and NGO's concerned with the Ivory Coast troubles were desperately trying to create "..corridors humanitaires" to help people caught up in the fighting. Bernard Kouchner was also busy being a "go-between" in another conflict.

I hear and read Anglicisms every day, and most of them are downright ugly. Here are a few examples, overheard in cafés and bars. A lady who had trouble at work decided that she would "faire du low profile", two men on a terrace were joined by a third who announced that he had had a "power breakfast" at work that morning, and what of the teenage girl who told a friend that she was fed up with a friend who was forever going on about "her life." Yes, you guessed right, it means the perfectly fitting French word for word equivalent of 'sa vie.'

Flea market, le rush, être busy, trôp de work, faire du shopping, faire un brushing, make-up, porter des baskets, des jeans' (yup, with an apostrophe), bad, the ever-present cool, un life-saver, the list is long and it's getting longer every day.

The Academy is quite rightly outraged at the excessive use of Anglicisms, not only because the French language contains perfectly adequate equivalents in the vast majority of cases, but also because their use is ruining the sonority of the language.

That said, some of the more vociferous opponents of Anglicisms are quite wrong to blame the phenomenon on Anglophones. After all, nobody is holding a gun to French heads to insist that they use Anglicisms. On the contrary, almost all Anglophones I know who have connections with France and its language are just as unhappy with the situation as are the French themselves.

I blame fashion. Anglicisms are seen as hip and cool here, as is Anglo-Saxon culture as a whole (see this blog), and they are to be found in TV ads and on ad hoardings everywhere because marketing specialists know that they sell product, particularly to people under 40. T-shirts are full of English would-be witticisms ("I'm available, are you?") and fashion magazines are jam-packed with them. They are everywhere to be seen, even on municipal buildings, like the one here in Lyon in the photo above.

Perhaps the most important question concerns whether or not the tide can be turned. It unfortunately seems that the globalised world has had a major impact on the French language and that is to be regretted, but, at the end of the day, the only people who can do anything about the situation are...the French themselves.

Anglicisms are the gauntlet that English has thrown down, but if the French language is to survive as the beautiful language it has always been, France, the French and their language have no choice but to pick it up.


  1. Your article about French language is really informative. French language is romance language and people can improve their language skill by taking various courses. French language guide can teach french phrase but from wicked French they can improve French language impressively with proper expressions. Thus people can improve wonderful French language.

    1. Hello Rosalyne, and thanks for stopping by.

      "Romance language." I absolutely adore that term. It says exactly what it means. The French language is beautiful when it is written and spoken with a modicum of respect for its traditions and vocabulary. It is creative (within the limits which are imposed upon it by the academy), subtle, highly expressive and extremely seductive.

      I am very proud of the expressive possibilities of my language too and I know it is the 'universal language' for business, tourism and research etc, but I see no reason why French should use Anglicisms to describe things which already have a French equivalent when French people speak French amongst themselves in France. Ugh!

      Drives me nuts!