By Joanna Rubery
It’s official: binge drinking is passé in France. No bad thing, you may think; but while you may now be looking forward to a summer of slow afternoons marinating in traditional Parisian café culture, you won’t be able to sip any fair trade wine, download any emails, or get any cash back – not officially, anyway.
How so? Are the French cheesed off with modern life? Well, not quite: it’s the “Anglo-Saxon” terms themselves that have been given the cold shoulder by certain linguistic authorities in favour of carefully crafted French alternatives. And if you approve of this move, then here’s a toast to a very happy journée internationale de la francophonie on 20 March. But just who are these linguistic authorities, and do French speakers really listen to them?
The Académie française
You may not be aware that 2014 has been dedicated to the “reconquête de la langue française” by the Académie française, that esteemed assembly of academics who can trace their custody of the French language back almost four centuries to pre-revolutionary France. While the recommendations of the académie carry no legal weight, its learned members advise the French government on usage and terminology (advice which is, to their chagrin, not always heeded). The thirty-eight immortels, as they are known (there are currently two vacant fauteuils), maintain that la langue de Molière has been under sustained attack for several generations, from a mixture of poor teaching, poor usage, and – most notoriously – “la montée en puissance de l’anglo-saxon”. Although French can still hold its own as a world language in terms of number of speakers (220 million) and learners (it’s the second most commonly taught language after – well, no prizes for guessing), this frisson of fear is understandable if we cast our eyes back to 1635, when the Académie was formally founded.
At that time, French enjoyed considerable cachet throughout Europe as the medium of communication par excellence for the cultural elite. But in France, where regional languages such as Breton and Picard were widely spoken, the académiciens had the remarkably democratic ambition of pruning and purifying their national tongue in order that it should be clear, elegant, and accessible to all. They nobly undertook to “draw up certain rules for [the] language, and to render it pure, eloquent, and capable of dealing with arts and sciences”. In practical terms, this meant writing a dictionary.
Looking up le mot juste
Published nearly 60 years later in 1694, the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française was not the first dictionary of the French language, but it was the first of its kind: a dictionary of “words, rather than things”, which focused on spelling, syntax, register, and above all, “le respect du bon usage”. Intended to advise the honnête homme what (and what not) to say, it has survived three centuries and nine editions to finally appear online as a fascinating record of the evolution of the French language.
You may be tempted to draw parallels between the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française (DAF) and our own Oxford English Dictionary (OED), but in many ways they are fundamentally different. In the English-speaking world, there is no equivalent of the Académie française and its sweeping, egalitarian vision. The OED was conceived (centuries after the DAF) as a practical response to the realization that “existing English language dictionaries were incomplete and deficient” and is generally regarded as a descriptivist dictionary, recording the ways in which words are used, while the DAF is more of a prescriptivist dictionary, recording the ways in which words should be used. While the OED’s entries are liberally sprinkled with literary citations as examples of usage, the DAF has no need for them. And as a historical dictionary, the OED doesn’t ever delete a word from its (digital) pages, whereas the DAF will happily remove words deemed obsolete (and is quite transparent about doing so). Consequently, the OED, with roughly 600,000 headwords, is around ten times bigger than the DAF.
Faux pas in French
However, the digital revolution has allowed both dictionaries to reach out to their readers, albeit in tellingly different ways. While the OED staff appeal to the public for practical help with antedating, the académiciens, faithful to their four-hundred-year-old mission, have pledged to respond to their readers’ questions on usage and grammar in an online forum dedicated to “des esclaircissemens à leurs doutes”.The result, “Dire, Ne Pas Dire”, is a fascinating read, ranging from semantics (can a shaving mirror actually be called a shaving mirror, given that it is not used as a razor?) to politics (a debate over the validity of the trendy English phrase “save the date” on wedding invitations). And it doesn’t take long to see that the Académie’s greatest bête noire by far is the “menace” of the “péril anglais”.
Plus ça change
There may be a sense of déjà-vu here for the académiciens, because grievances over the Anglicization of the French language date back to at least 1788. Some stand firm in their belief that French, with its rich syntax, logical rules, and “impérieuse précision de la pensée”, will eventually triumph again over English, a “divided” language which, in their opinion, risks fragmenting anarchically due its very global nature: “It may well be that, a century from now, English speakers will need translators to be able to understand each other.” Touché.
But many have reached an impasse of despair: the académiciens regularly deplore the “scourges” inflicted on their native tongue by “la langue anglaise qui insidieusement la dévore de l’intérieur” (the English language which is insidiously devouring it from the inside), rendering much French discussion into a kind of “jargon pseudo-anglais” with terms like updater, customiser, and être blacklisté brashly elbowing their way past their French equivalents (mettre à jour, personnaliser, and figurer sur une liste noire respectively). One immortel fears that the increasing use of English is pushing French into a second-class language at home, urging francophones to go on strike.
The Commission générale de terminologie et de néologie
And académiciens are not alone in their attempts to halt the sabotage of the French language: other authorities, with considerably more legal power, are hard at work too. The French government has introduced various pieces of legislation over the past forty years, the most far-reaching being the 1994 Toubon Law which ruled that the French language must be used – although not necessarily exclusively – in a range of everyday contexts. Two years later, the French ministry of culture and communication established the Commission générale de terminologie et de néologie, whose members, supervised by representatives from the Académie, are tasked with creating hundreds of new French words every year to combat the insidious and irresistible onslaught of Anglo-Saxon terminology. French speakers point out that in practice, most of these creations are not well-known and, if they ever leap off the administrative pages of the Journal officiel, rarely survive in the wild. There are, however, a few notable exceptions, such as logiciel and – to an extent – courriel, which have caught on: the English takeover is not quite yet a fait accompli.
It’s worth remembering, too, that language change does not always come from a conservative – or a European – perspective. It was the Québécois who pioneered the feminization of job titles (with “new” versions such as professeure and ingénieure) in the 1970s. Two decades later, the Institut National de la Langue française in France issued a statement giving its citizens carte blanche to choose between this “Canadian” approach and the “double-gender” practice (allowing la professeur for a female teacher, for example). While the Académie française maintain that such “arbitrary feminization” is destroying the internal logic of the language, research among French speakers shows that the “double-gender” approach is gaining in popularity, but also that where there was once clarity, there is now uncertainty over usage.
Perhaps yet more controversially, France has recently outlawed that familiar and – some might argue – quintessentially French title, Mademoiselle, on official documentation: “Madame” should therefore be preferred as the equivalent of “Monsieur” for men, a title which does not make any assumptions about marital status”, states former Prime Minister François Fillon’s ostensibly egalitarian declaration from 2012.
Après moi, le déluge
Meanwhile, the English deluge continues, dragging the French media and universities in its hypnotic wake, both of which are in thrall to a language which – for younger people, at least – just seems infinitely more chic. But the académiciens need not abandon all hope just yet. The immortel Dominique Fernandez has proposed what seems at first like a completely counter-intuitive suggestion: if the French were taught better English to start with, then they could “leave [it] where it ought to be, in the English language, and not in Anglicisms, that hybrid ruse of ignoramuses,” he asserts. Perhaps compulsory English for all will actually bring about an unexpected renaissance of the French language, the language of resistance, in its own home. And if we all end up speaking English instead? Well, c’est la vie.
Joanna Rubery is an Online Editor at Oxford University Press.