There is a war brewing in France. And I’m not only talking about the war between the police and the motley crew of Nuit Debout folk on the Place de la République (although that is still in full swing). No, I’m talking about the perceived war on the French language.
It started out innocently enough. An article here or there noting that the French increasingly use English words in their vocabulary. A little asterisk on the bottom of billboards to provide a French translation of any English words used (to comply with the Loi Toubon). Take this example from the current Galeries Lafayette advertising campaign in the metro:
But lately the anti-Anglais sentiment has escalated into an all-out war. Take, for example, this video that the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (the French media regulator) released in March to mark La journée de la langue française et de la francophonie, which mocks people who use too many English words. Or these examples from the newsstand this week:
Living and working in Paris, I have to say that I have noticed the infiltration of these anglicismes. And, somewhat ironically I’ll admit, I do find myself using them more and more. In discussions with French friends I find myself referring to a hot new restaurant being “surbooké“, or to a particular style being “has been” (with ze French accent, bien sûr). Around the office it is even worse. I will ask my boss to “checker” my draft, then I will “forwarder” it to him for his OK, before finally I will “shooter l’email” to the client. Most of the time I know that there is a French equivalent I could use perfectly easily, but for some reason I don’t.
Luckily, help is at hand. The Academie Française, founded in 1635, is tasked with the very solemn mission of protecting the French language and being the custodian of its dictionary. The threat of the English invasion is not new for the immortels, i.e. the 40 members of the Academie who are, upon their admission, decked out with a green habit and personalized sword (yes, that’s right and it’s pretty damn badass if you ask me). As globalization has taken hold, so too has the English language. But fear not – with a wave of the sword, the Academie can transform even the most unsightly English word into a pretty French one or, failing that, suggest an appropriate French substitution.
For this purpose, the Academie have a very handy “do’s and don’ts” section of their website called Dire, Ne Pas Dire (Say, Do Not Say), with a section dedicated specifically to those pesky Néologismes & anglicismes:
Here, you learn that instead of “Conf call” you should say “conférence téléphonique“, instead of “Deadline” you should say “dernier délai” and instead of “off the record” you should say “hors micro“. However, if the Academie cannot find a suitable substitution, rather than capitulate it simply banishes the word entirely. Such was the verdict for “borderline” (“Rien de ce qu’évoque le mot Borderline n’est possible à exprimer en termes simples et clairs. On se dispensera donc de l’employer.” / “It is impossible to express the word Borderline in simple and clear terms. We will thus dispense with it.“). The same fate awaited “burn-out” and “must have“.
Particularly troublesome are words associated with technology and business (or the corporate world generally), which are notoriously hard to translate. A rare success story is the transformation of “email” into “courriel” (i.e., courrier (mail) + eléctronique). Recent attempts include replacing “smiley” with “frimousse“, “spam” with “arrosage” and “hashtag” with “mot-dièse“. Sadly I just can’t see these catching on. Vocabulary moves fast – even more so in this viral age of Twitter and mot-dièses – and once a word garners enough popular usage it is very difficult to convince people to stop using it.
Certain English words, however, do pass by the gatekeepers of the Academie. However, they tend to do so in the weirdest and most wonderful ways. For example, the word “footing” has been accepted as a substitute for “running” or “jogging”. The only problem is, Anglophones don’t actually say “footing“. Other examples (very few of which have actually been approved by the Academie, mind you) include “shooting” for photo shoot (though I still don’t dare to put #shooting on my Instagram photos), “relooking” for makeover and “brushing” for blow-dry. Although this takes some getting used to, it is kind of genius as it takes an otherwise banal English word and puts a very French twist on it.
The problem is, French people actually like to pepper their dialogue with English words. Especially in Paris, in recent years there has been a growing obsession with all things New Yorkais and particularly all things Brooklyn-esque. This has been happening – at least on the Right Bank (Rive Droite) – since I arrived in Paris nearly six years ago. But I knew things had reached a whole new level when, late last year, I saw this advertisement in the metro for the grocery section of the super-posh Left Bank department store Le Bon Marché:
Ze hipsters and their Anglophone ways have hit the Rive Gauche. Nothing is sacred. This can only mean the further proliferation of cafés with English-speaking staff serving avocado toast, flat whites and cold-pressed juices. The immortels at the Academie need to catch on fast and give us some Frenchified versions of “fixie“, “aeropress” and “food truck“, before it is too late.