Frustrated by the inadequacies and inflexibility of their mother tongue, the French increasingly turn to English to make up for its shortcomings
Whether or not George W Bush really did tell Tony Blair that the problem with the French was that they didn’t have a word for entrepreneur (and no-one is totally sure) one thing is abundantly clear: they don’t have words for a lot of things. Which is why they have been increasingly helping themselves to ours.
With the English-speaking world setting the international trends in pop culture, fashion and information technology it would seem the logical thing to do. But résistance to the spread of franglais is growing.
It’s not exactly a new trend: the French adopted ‘week-end’ ages ago simply because (despite their fondness for the institution) they had no word for it. A sliced baguette stuffed with ham, cheese or saucisson sec has always been ‘un sandwich’ – because there wasn’t one for that either. And they’ll now eat ‘un crumble’ for pudding (or maybe as part of ‘le brunch’) in a tacit admission that not all British food is inedible. Though out there in a class of its own is ‘ball-trap’, the French for clay pigeon shooting, which has absolutely no meaning in English whatever
It’s really a question of numbers. French only has about 70,000 words and the language has always been something of a straitjacket. One French word often has several meanings: pont, for instance, can be a bridge, an axle or a deck. English, far more fluid and adaptive, boasts 500,000, many of them French in origin as a result of the Norman Conquest but others, equally, acquired since as a result of our global influence.
Those of us with no upstairs, for instance, would still be living in wordy, ‘single-storey houses’ if we hadn’t half-inched the snappier ‘bungalow’ from Gujarati in the late 17th century.
‘Bungalow’, too, has long since passed into common usage across the Channel but now France is being hit by an absolute deluge of English-derived words, many given a whole new (and confusing) meaning during the 22-mile crossing from Calais.
A wife won’t, for instance, return home from the gym telling her husband that she’s been to the salle de remise en forme: she has, she will say, been to le fitness – an English abstract noun doing a completely new job.
With the French now speaking of people when they mean ‘celebrities’ and giving their kitchens a relooking when they mean ‘makeover’ it’s reaching the stage where Larousse is going to have to issue a supplement guiding the British through this bewildering lexicon.
Not all the French are content with this state of affairs: last year linguistics professor Jean Maillet was even driven to publish ‘100 Anglicismes à ne plus jamais utiliser!’, a waspish little work castigating his fellow-countrymen for using imported words and phrases when home-grown ones were available and perfectly adequate.
There is a sense of déjà vu (it can work both ways) about all this, of course: at various times the Académie Française, the body charged with maintaining the purity of the French language, has attempted to force closed the flood gates in the face of an incessant torrent of English terms.
The defences were first breached seriously during the upsurge in English-based pop culture in the sixties – around the time the French finally got round to ditching the clunking appareil de photo and poste de TSF in favour of the simpler camera and radio (or, briefly, transistor) that the rest of us were using.
But in the last two decades the anglicising of everyday French has increased at a startling pace. It’s almost as if the 300,000 French citizens now said to be living in London and the South-East have been taping new words to the undersides of Eurostar carriages for them to be removed at the Gare du Nord by special agents disguised as railway workers, and slipped surreptitiously into everyday use.
Occasionally the growing enthusiasm of the French for helping themselves randomly to any English word they fancy in order to appear trendy can have unexpected consequences – such as when that word turns out to be one of our less polite terms for cannabis.
Hence any English readers scanning the pages of a recent edition of the regional daily Ouest France would have been startled by a headline informing them that a police drugs raid on a flat in Carhaix, near Brest, had yielded a quantity of ‘shit’.
But what the French are constantly finding is that English can often provide a convenient verbal shorthand for many situations. Which is why they will now talk of burn-out: it says everything in two syllables. After all is an exhausted husband going to arrive home from work and announce to his wife: ‘Chérie, j’ai le burn-out.’ Or, as the Académie would prefer, is he going tell her: ‘Chérie, je souffre du syndrome d’épuisement professionel’? No contest.
Among the usages Professor Maillet listed as inacceptable (when there are perfectly good French alternatives) were showroom, thriller, shopping, selfie and low-cost (as in Ryanair or EasyJet), while deadline, feeling and flop (in the commercial sense) are also blacklisted.
The lexicon carries on with stand-by (as in ticket), comeback, le best of, and even the happy few of Shakespeare’s Henry V, with the prof huffily pointing out that the commonly-written phrase ‘quelques happy few’ is not merely an unacceptable Anglicism but tautology.
The denunciation of offensive imports such as open space, buzz and win-win, name-dropping, one-man show, over-booké and hashtag clearly has the support of the French establishment. In an article to mark International Francophone Day former Prime Minister Alain Juppé proudly talked up the global role of French and its 230 million speakers making it (he said) the planet’s sixth most popular language – though most listings rank it somewhere more modestly at around 18th.
But, he pontificated: ‘If the mastering of foreign languages is a necessity for younger generations, French, while continuing to enrich itself as a unifying influence, must not be seduced by the sirens of franglais.’
All well and good. But Juppé’s peroration appeared in the pages of the centre-right daily Le Figaro, under whose imprint Professor Maillet’s book was also published.
And a quick scan of a recent edition of Le Fig’ revealed its business section flecked with references to check-up, dumping, must-have, marketing and start-up and its women’s magazine’s fashion pages offering superstar, stretching, patchwork, scrapbooking and power dressing, with an article about social media talking of liké, tweeté, followé and forwardé.
All of which suggests that in its battle against English imports the French academic world really doesn’t appreciate the size of le challenge it faces; the pressure for change has become too much; and that the insidious relooking process of the French language may already be a fait accompli.
Chris Rundle is a food and travel writer