A few English words scattered through the French language makes it just that little bit easier for me and other non-French speakers when in France. Need somewhere to park the car? Look for le parking. Hungry? Un sandwich will fill you up. That shop is closed at le weekend. You can send me the details in un email? Great. Of course, you still wouldn’t last long without getting a grip on the language; a handful of English words will only get you so far. Still, it’s helpful to give you a bit of a boost by flashing a handful of recognisable words.
However, there are French speakers who are not quite so enamoured with what they see as the English language’s creeping invasion into their beautiful patois. The Académie française is a council of writers and artists, whose duty it is to protect French from other languages (by which I mean English). They call themselves “immortals”, possibly because once you’re a member, you’re there for life. Although, they only take in a new member when one of the current ones dies, which proves they’re certainly not immortal, so perhaps it’s more to do with their hope for the endurance of their language.
New French words are recommended as alternatives for all kinds of foreign words and French speakers are even encouraged to revive words that have fallen out of use. In recent years the Académie française has been particularly concerned with modern, technology-related vocabulary – exactly the sort of thing young folks will propagate, with no concern for establishing a new French word when there’s already a perfectly good English one in use. Wi-Fi, networking, iPod, podcasting, blog and webmaster are just a few examples of terms protectors of French don’t want to see. Even the well-established “email” should be referred to as a “courriel”.
Perhaps English words are so often preferred because their French equivalents are a bit more of a mouthful? Rather than the simple Wi-Fi (or wee-fee, as the French would say), the Académie française wants French speakers to say “accès sans fil à l’internet”, or literally, “access without wires to the internet”. Maybe they’re also not quick enough to establish French terms. This year “hashtag” appeared on their black list, with “mot-dièse” (mot = word, dièse = a musical sharp sign, which some argue isn’t the same as a hash) the recommended alternative; but with hashtag already widely in use, would anyone really change their ways? Ironically, mot-dièse can’t be hashtagged on Twitter, due to its hyphen.
To be proud of and promote a language is a wonderful thing, but does French really need defending quite so vigorously? People won’t stop speaking French because they use a few English words. English is riddled with borrowed words from French and other languages and it only makes it seem richer. If a word or term has already spread among everyday French people, then surely an elite board of linguists likely powerless to stop it?
Is the Académie française right to attempt to protect French in this way or are they fighting a losing battle? If you want to be part of the movement to protect the language, contact us for French courses in your area!