How France Tries to Keep English Out of Public Life

Twenty-five years after France passed a law that mandates the exclusive use of French in most public contexts, the nation’s culture minister says the language must be energetically defended from English phrases that keep slipping in to daily life.

On Twitter and in radio interviews last week, French Minister of Culture Franck Riester complained that the French language is habitually “mistreated” and that his country must fight for its preservation. “Our daily lives would be so different without this simple demand—say things in French!,” he tweeted (in French) in honor of the 1994 Toubon law, which requires French to be used in official documents, broadcasts, advertisements, and elsewhere.

Riester’s comments are part of a long tradition of fending off the influence of English, the globe’s increasingly inescapable lingua franca. Despite the pugnacious Francophone determination to keep the language as free as possible from Anglophone influences, English keeps creeping in. Many were quick to point out, as Reuters reports, that French President Emmanuel Macron commonly uses English idioms, including “start-up nation” and “bottom-up.”  

Other nations can be just as protective of their native tongues, especially as communication in English becomes the online default. Millennia-old languages like Icelandic face the risk of “digital extinction,” thanks in part to technology; one recent white paper estimated that 21 European languages with a relatively small number of speakers, including Basque and Hungarian, are similarly threatened.

But France has devoted an unusual amount of institutional might to the task of language preservation. The Académie Française is the official body that guides and rules on all matters pertaining to language. It has long attempted to resist Anglophone incursions, providing official guidance on correct use of the language. Since 1996, the Académie has been aided by another body called the Commission for the Enrichment of the French Language, a government office charged with creating new French equivalents for borrowed words.

If that’s not enough, France also has a parody accolade granted by the “English Doormat Academy” (the title makes more sense in French) that awards public figures golden raspberries for unnecessary use of English. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo was a recipient in 2017 for having projected the English phrase “Made for Sharing” on the Eiffel Tower during the city’s Olympic bid.

There’s a tendency among some Anglophones to see the official struggle to resist English as somewhat hysterical. That attitude partly reflects the smugness of a people who increasingly expect to see their language everywhere they go—and who are accustomed to English’s ability to shamelessly gobble up terms from other tongues. If you see France’s efforts as a celebration of linguistic biodiversity, however, then the ingenuity employed in French’s defense make more sense.

The institutions that oversee the addition of French terms often propose coinages that are useful and popular—see lordinateur (computer) and le logiciel (software). There’s some flexibility in the process, too. Terms that have failed to catch on—such as the struggling term le courriel (email) or 1980s effort Mur Image (“wall image” or poster)—are accepted as failures and quietly abandoned.

France’s approach is certainly less hardcore than that of Quebec’s Office of the French Language. Officials in the Canadian province are particularly aggressive about language issues, given their status as a lonely Francophone island in North America. Previously, Quebec officials have tried to insist on such mouthfuls as coup d’écrasement for the tennis term “smash” and enforced the term un parc de stationnement where the French happily say un parking. (Recently, the office is said to be adopting a more lenient approach.)

It would be wrong, moreover, to portray French as innately inflexible. The language has, like any other, accepted many words from English over the years. Autobiographie, for example, was accepted as a borrowed term so long ago that it’s hardly considered a borrowed term at all anymore. More recently, les chips, le jogging, le bifteck, la vitamine and sexy have arrived in the French dictionary, without much enduring institutional resistance.

Other common additions are false Anglicisms, in which English terms take on entirely new meanings in French. These, which often sound terrible to English-speaking ears, include le brushing (blow dry), le lifting (facelift), le smoking (tuxedo) and le feeling, which means something between inclination and vibe (a French hook-up app profile might say “Looking to meet for drinks, maybe more, according to feeling”).

The process of devising local alternatives to English terms can also be a creative one: There’s a certain genius to the recently coined term infaux, meaning fake news. Meanwhile, joining together the words mec (dude) and expliquer (explain) to create the verb mecspliquer is a clear and clever adaptation of the English portmanteau “mansplain.”

If anything, it’s German that has historically gone further to resist outside influence, insisting on der fernseher (“far-seer”) and das fahrrad (“go-wheel”) when most other Germanic languages are happy to use some version of the Latinate terms “television” and “bicycle.” The Germans also have their own spoof awards pillorying the use of Denglisch (hybridized English and German), launched in 1997 when fashion designer Jill Sander made Germanophones’ blood run cold with, among other things, the coinage “ladyisches” (“lady-like”).

But while German’s creation of compound nouns to describe new concepts continues to be highly creative, contemporary German is generally doing less than its western neighbor to fight off Anglicisms. It isn’t necessarily better for it—and on balance, Culture Minister Riester’s protestations seem fair. French doesn’t seem greatly improved by corporate coinages such as Ouigo (a pun on “we go”), the new name for one of its train services, and attempts to counter Anglophone influence seem more like evidence of a language determined to evolve than one stuck in the past.

It’s not that English is somehow a corrupting influence, it’s more that adopting its terms wholesale has a homogenizing, flattening effect. It’s only a pity that France’s institutional affection for its national language doesn’t seem to extend to its many indigenous minority languages (such as Breton and Occitan), mention of which the Académie Française has actively petitioned to keep out of the constitution.

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