Why I'm with the Académie Française in the Fight against Franglais
The Académie française, founded by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635, casts a sage eye over the French language, ensuring that barbarisms, infelicities and misuses do not insinuate themselves into la langue de Molière. More recently, the biggest threat for this venerable Cerberus has been English — which was for centuries a language that was more wont to be itself influenced by words originating in French. Anglophone media love to sneer at the Académie — its members known, without a hint of irony, as les immortels — seeing the existence of such an institutional watchdog as evidence of the French fondness for étatiste measures, unlike us English-speakers, who have a far more easy-going, democratic approach to our language’s capacity for mongrel absorption.
While I agree the Académie française is bestowed with some absurd trappings of pomp and self-importance, I have to admit I am coming round to its way of thinking regarding anglicisms or ‘franglais’, as they are more familiarly known. For a start, linguistic proscription is a thriving practice too in the English-speaking world, sometimes in a maddeningly priggish way, at others perfectly reasonable. There have even been attempts to set up a non-official arbitrating body, similar to the famous French institution, to oversee misuses of English. Furthermore, even if the efforts of les immortels to stem the tide of anglicisms are doomed like King Canute facing the waves, there is a good reason for them to do so, which cannot simply be boiled down to retrogressive chauvinism or residual anglophobia.
Contrary to what its detractors say, French is not a musty language that fiercely resists absorption from other tongues. It is true that with a smaller vocabulary than English, it is not quite a sponge in the same way. The main reason for this is a historical tendency among the French to ‘gallicise’ words of foreign origin. This is evident in placenames, many of which have their French versions — e.g. Perugia becomes ‘Pérouse’; Barcelona is ‘Barcelone’ and Edinburgh ‘Edimbourg’. Similarly with proper names — Plato in French is ‘Platon’; Hieronymous Bosch is ‘Jérôme Bosch’ and Caravaggio known as ‘Caravage’. Where the French saw something new in a foreign language, they would often rename it with a suitable local equivalent - hence ‘skyscraper’ became ‘gratte-ciel’, deckchairs are known as ‘transats’, an elegant abbreviation of ‘transatlantique’. That did not mean however that loan words were forever barred — they do exist: ‘bouquin’, a synonym for ‘livre’ (book) comes from the Dutch ‘boeckin’; from Spanish comes ‘corrida’, for bullfight. French also uses calques that English too has borrowed from other languages — ‘robot’ from Czech, ‘shampooing’ from Hindi.
The rate of borrowing from English has increased greatly over the past six decades, and it largely comes from American English. Some words served a necessary function, like ‘weekend’ — Quebec French uses ‘fin de semaine’ as an alternative but this would be confusing to French people, indicating as it does the end of the work week. Others were distorted slightly on their passage into French, such as ‘car park’/‘parking lot’, which became ‘un parking’ or ‘walkie-talkie’, which, quite endearingly, is ‘talkie-walkie’. These days, however, the borrowings tend to be indiscriminate and often used in a pretentious manner by media and advertising. Any English-speaker who is easily infuriated by instances of managerial-speak or journalese will surely sympathise with any French effort to protect the language from words that are plain ugly and their usages even more so. Orwell recommended that if a word exists in English for something it should be preferred to a loan-word and generations of English-language writers have been advised to prefer words with a Saxon root to those with a Latin one. Both pieces of sound advice so why would the inverse not hold for French?
Another reason I am more sympathetic now to the fight against franglais is because I am exposed to it on a daily basis and it annoys me as much as it does many French people. I can tolerate ‘le footing’, which means ‘jogging’ (‘le jogging’ is, confusingly, a pair of tracksuit bottoms) but other neologisms just grate. Among these are ‘top model’ for, well, just about any model of renown, whether they merit the prefix ‘super-‘ or not; my Petit Larousse tells me it is now often abbreviated as ‘un top’, at which point you really have to say stop. Some otherwise excellent French publications are also guilty of ugly, disorienting anglicisms — Le Fooding, which has revolutionised, and democratised, France’s gastronomic culture, has a hideous name. The brilliant football magazine So Foot too (the French have a bewildering habit for employing ‘so’ as an adjective to describe things British — ‘so British’ is a locution I encounter far too often — it would no doubt come as a surprise to its French users that it originates among teenage Valley Girls).
Some lines of Shakespeare have even found their way into French — ‘to be or not to be’, which is the only line of the Bard’s that every French person seems to know, is subject to countless lame puns, while ‘happy few’, which comes from Henry V’s battle oration, is now semi-current in French journalism to denote the comfortable upper middle-class (even giving a French film its name, which, of course, had to be renamed for an American release, the original having no resonance). There are other mistranslations that stick in the craw such as ‘middle life crisis’ and sometimes English expressions are just made up on the spot and passed off as proverbial — I recently saw ‘fishing for men’ italicised in the original, clearly a cultural phenomenon that had bypassed me.
To all this carping, you might object that franglais is not English in the same way English spoken by a non-native speaker is not English. That is true but it’s not really French either, and that is what I am really judging it by. You might also say that French ought to be a living language. I would reply to that: it is, but living can engender bad as well as good growth and there is nothing wrong with trying to check that growth. The Académie has put forward a number of alternatives to certain anglicisms, which have met with varying success — ‘Walkman’ became ‘baladeur’, from the French ‘balader’ (to stroll); ‘email’ became ‘courriel’, a conflation of ‘courrier’ (mail) and ‘électronique’ (originally coined in Quebec) while that in turn produced the wonderful ‘pourriel’ for ‘spam’, which throws ‘pourri’ (rotten) into the mix. To a large extent though it is a losing battle and franglais words seep in at a far quicker rate than replacements can be thought up.
I have no time for the Académie française’s zealous proscription of French slang that comes from the bottom up, such as verlan and javanais, which are a genuine example of a living language reinventing itself (this tension between the official and informal is brilliantly dramatised in François Bégaudeau’s novel and Palme d’Or-winning film Entre les murs). In its resistance to franglais however, I wish it bon courage; I don’t think anyone should sit idly by and let their language be distorted by the whims of advertising, marketing and other branches of big business.