French or franglais?


Living in France, it is difficult to ignore that this week (14-22 March) is ‘La semaine de la langue française et de la francophonie’. Every year the French dedicate a week to the celebration of their language. As always, there are lots of activities, including a different list of ten words each year, ‘Dis-moi dix mots’, intended to inspire artistic and educational projects.

The week never goes by, however, without multiple articles in the media about that dreaded disease, ‘le franglais’, a language that is a bewildering mixture of French and English. Everyone bemoans the fact that television programmes, including news bulletins, conversations in the workplace and in the home, not to mention advertising, are increasingly peppered with ‘le franglais’.

Is this a problem? For those who see themselves as defenders of all things French, it is a serious danger, an open door through which Anglo-Saxon culture will flood into France.

For years now the French have attempted to stem the flow and shut the door once and for all. In 1994, ‘la loi Toubon’ imposed strict guidelines. The use of French in official texts was mandatory and in advertising, any use of English had to be accompanied by a French translation. In 1996, ‘La commission générale de terminologie et de néologie’ was created to promote the use of French and in coordination with the ‘l’Académie française’, to enrich French with approved words and expressions for English terms. Disneyland would be ‘un ludopole’, a Bed and Breakfast a ‘café couette’, a weekend ‘une vacancelle’. Unsurprisingly, these terms never really caught on and the use of English in advertising now seems to be almost essential, a sort of ‘snobisme’.

French Canadians, who are old hands at inventing French words for new concepts, have been more successful, but even they slip up at times. A Montreal bakery, vaunting its cakes for special occasions put ‘les gâteaux d’occasion’ on its sign. That translates as second-hand cakes. Not really everyone’s cup of tea.

What has been effective in both countries is a subtler strategy aimed at keeping the upper hand, a sort of reverse engineering. Those borrowed English words are modified ever so slightly and suddenly they are French. Hyphens are introduced, ‘un best-seller, le hard-discount, un coming-out’. French verb endings are added: ‘crasher, uploader, forwarder, checker’. A gender is assigned, (who decided that ‘un standing ovation’ should be masculine?). Even more effectively, the words often no longer have exactly the same meaning as in the original English usage. ‘Un parking’ is the place where you park your car, not the action of doing so. You eat in ‘un snack’ rather than consuming one. You pick up your Internet-ordered groceries from ‘un Drive’ (whatever happened to the ‘-in’ part?).

Add a few throaty French ‘r’ sounds when pronouncing the words and most English speakers could be excused for not realising that the word or phrase is an English one. What better way to beat the competition than to turn the tables and prevent the enemy from recognising its own?

Having said that, when you hear a French football commentator shout ‘Il a scoré’ it does sound rather like an own goal.

You can learn more about the French language and culture in the Kolibri Languages Guides.

Pam Bourgeois


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