Can the Académie Française save the French language from English words? At least they can create Anglicisms and claim the words as their own.
There is a war brewing against the French language in France.
Living and working in Paris, I have noticed the infiltration of Anglicismes – and I 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’ (said with a French accent). Around the office it is even worse. I will ask my boss to checker my draft, then I will forwarder it to him before finally I shooter l’email to the client. Most of the time I know there is a French equivalent I could easily use – but for some reason I don’t.
The war started out innocently enough: an article here or there noting the French increasingly use English words in their vocabulary; a little asterisk on the bottom of billboards to provide a French translation of used English words, to comply with the Loi Toubon. Take this example from the current Galeries Lafayette advertising campaign in the metro:
*In case of doubt, Out of office = Hors du bureau
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:
100 Anglicisms to never use again! It’s so much better in French. | French Language: Stop the massacre!
The gate-keepers of French Anglicisms
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, the 40 members of the Academie who are, upon their admission, decked out with a green habit and personalised sword (yes, that’s right).
As globalisation has taken hold, so too has the English language. But 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 and don’t’ section of their website called Dire, Ne Pas Dire (Say, Do Not Say), with a section dedicated specifically to those pesky Néologismes and Anglicismes.
There 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 like borderline, burn-out and must have.
It is impossible to express the word Borderline in simple and clear terms. We will thus dispense with it. / 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. – Academie Française
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’, derived from courrier (mail) and 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.
English words the Academie accepts
Certain English words, however, do pass by the gatekeepers of the Academie. But 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 – of the very few which have been approved by the Academie – include shooting for ‘photo shoot’, 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.
Corrupted Parisian style?
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 an advertisement in the metro for the grocery section of the super-posh Left Bank department store Le Bon Marché:
So Brooklyn: Guy with beard, handlebar moustache, beanie/bonnet, sailor tattoos and band-aids eats hot dog.
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.