Cardinal Richelieu, the 17th century power behind the French throne, must be rolling in his grave after the stunning announcement that France is giving up the fight to keep English words out of the French language.
This sudden reversal of four centuries of French linguistic policy was issued by the minister of culture, Fleur Pellerin, who declared that France’s resistance to the incursion of English words was harming — rather than preserving — the language. “French is not in danger, and my responsibility as minister is not to erect ineffective barriers against languages but to give all our citizens the means to make it live on,” Ms. Pellerin told an audience assembled for the opening of French Language and Francophonie Week in March, acknowledging in one sentence both the futility and misguidedness of the battle.
“French is not in danger” is a remarkable assertion from the chief language guardian of the country that in 2006 fined the French subsidiary of General Electric Medical Systems more than 500,000 euros for issuing software manuals in English; that has officially banned the use of anglicisms for decades; and whose official determination to “keep French French” dates to King Louis XIII, who reigned from 1610 to 1643. Back then, of course, the task wasn’t so much to keep English out but to get control of the variations of French floating around and to decide what was to be codified as official French.
Louis gave the job to his eager adviser, Cardinal Richelieu, who in 1635 founded the Académie Française to rule once and for all whether cheese would be spelled “fromage” or “formage,” formalize the diacritics — those accents that bedevil students of French to this day — and just generally, in the words of the academy’s charter, “clean the language of all the filth it has caught” and make French “pure [and] eloquent.”
Nearly 400 years later the 40 “Immortels” of the French Academy, clad in velvet robes and Napoleonic bicornes for their annual meetings, continue to strive to meet this noble if elusive goal. But in recent decades the academy has been less concerned with what to include in French than with what to exclude: namely, English.
Most of the debate today centers on dealing with English technology terms such as “hashtag” and “cloud computing.” But in fact the backlash against English encroachment into French started in the pre-computer age, when officials became alarmed over the country’s infatuation with “le jogging” and eating “les cheeseburgers” on “le week-end.” Realizing that the academy, which as an advisory body has no legal standing, wasn’t doing all that super a job with keeping out “the filth,” France formed a commission on terminology in 1970. That was followed five years later by the Maintenance of the Purity of the French Language act, which introduced fines for the use of banned anglicisms, then in 1984 by the General Commission for the French Language, which in turn was followed by the 1994 Toubon Law, mandating the use of the French language in all official government publications, commercial contracts, and in advertisements, workplaces and public schools.
Yet despite these many laws and commissions (at least 20 that govern the French language) there’s still that vexing “hashtag” (or as the Ministry of Culture would have you call it — at least up until a couple of weeks ago — mot-dièse) problem. The ministry relies on specialized terminology commissions for finding French replacements for new words of foreign influence, and in theory the task is straightforward: take a foreign term such as “Wi-Fi” and come up with a French equivalent other than “le Wi-Fi.” Unfortunately, the tendency of the French to be verbose works greatly to their disadvantage, especially in the Twitter age. The recommended replacement for “Wi-Fi” (which the French so adorably pronounce “wee-fee”) was the mouthful “accès sans fil à l’Internet,” literally “access without wire to the Internet.” Which is why you see signs for “Wi-Fi” all over France.
I suspect that the French don’t realize that “Wi-Fi” doesn’t even make sense in English. The term exists only because someone in a manufacturer’s marketing department, having been given the assignment to come up with a word or phrase short enough for a sticker on a computer to describe a wireless network connection, was old enough to remember playing his Charlie Parker albums on his spiffy “Hi-Fi.” Yet it is precisely this past history of near-obsessive adherence to doctrine that makes Ms. Pellerin’s announcement so shocking.
It’s tempting to speculate that the 41-year-old Ms. Pellerin, orphaned as an infant in South Korea and raised in France, fluent in German and English, has a broader world view than her predecessors. As she pointed out in her address, a growing majority of the world’s francophones live outside of France. Still, you have to wonder if Ms. Pellerin ran a draft of her text by government officials before pulling her finger out of the dike. For, to (apocryphally) quote another Frenchwoman, Madame Pompadour, “Après moi, le déluge.”
William Alexander is the author of Flirting With French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart.