France ready to end resistance to English

France’s Minister of Culture, Fleur Pellerin, the chief guardian of the French language, told The Local on Wednesday that she saw no point in protecting French from outside influence like English - a sign that the famous blockade against English words has been lifted.

France ready to end resistance to English
Is the French resistance to English coming to an end? Photo: FDComite/Flickr

Are the French about to end their famous resistance to the invasion of English words into the language of Molière?

France’s Minister of Culture, Fleur Pellerin, who is a fluent English-speaker, suggested a dramatic change in attitude from the government towards the endless incursion of English words into French.

Pellerin, who dubbed herself “the minister of the French language”, told The Local on Wednesday that France must realize “the world it is in” and that its language is “enriched by outside influences”.

“We need a dynamic approach towards the language. Of course I want to defend the French language but not to the point of preventing any influence from outside,” she said.

(Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Culture Minister Fleur Pellerin. Photo: FDComite/Flickr)

“We need to be able to understand the world we are in and that our language is enriched by external influences. French has always been a language that has been enriched by words from other languages,” she said.

Pellerin was speaking on the same day she appeared at an event for the annual French Language and Francophonie Week, which starts this weekend.

“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,” she told the audience.

In the past the “immortals” at the Académie Française, sometimes dubbed France's language police, have often been ridiculed both in France and abroad for their fierce resistance towards English.

Their struggle has often been seen as in vain, given that the younger generation and businesspeople sprinkle their language with English words.

'I am not a fanatic'

And the culture ministry's attempts to ward off the encroachment of English by creating new French words has also been laughed off, notably its bid to replace “email” by the word “courriel” and more recently “hashtag” by the word “mot-dièse”.

Korean-born Pellerin, who is also fluent in German, believes it is important to create “possibilities” in French but she also said she’s not a “fanatic” like the folks at the Académie Française.

“English has always fascinated me because it’s easy to create new words or join two words and make a new word,” Pellerin told The Local after a meeting of the Anglo-American Press Association in Paris, adding that her favourite word was “serendipity” which she says has officially been added to the French language.

“I want French to be a living language. Today we have around 250 million French speakers and in 30 years there will be around 700 million speakers of French, mainly in central and northern Africa.”

SEE ALSO: English reigns in French TV series 'Versailles'

Nevertheless she points out that some English words creeping into French do cause a problem for French speakers, notably any words referring to the digital economy like “e-commerce”.

The main problem being that the French pronounce “e” more like “ugh”.

“A word like e-commerce has no sense in French from a linguistic point of view, it’s a pronunciation imported from abroad and a linguist told me it’s hard to explain it to young people, why it is pronounced differently to how is written,” said Pellerin.

French linguists cheered the shift in position, saying it did away with pedantry in favour of a more open approach.

Alain Rey, author of a dictionary on the history of French and a member of a Commission on French Terminology, said attempts to stop the adoption of some commonly used words were ridiculous.

He pointed out that the word “challenge”, for instance, in fact originally came from Old French (“chalonge”) before being taken up in English.

“Passing laws (against loan words) is to tilt at windmills,” Rey told AFP.

A language 'needs to live'

A Haitian-Canadian writer, Dany Laferriere, said at the culture minister's launch event that “a language needs to live first of all, otherwise it's all just ideology”.

Another linguist and author on the French language, Henriette Walter, said that “it is annoying” when foreign words are used to substitute perfectly good and common French words.

“But when one needs a new word for a new object, say a plant that comes from another country, one is rather pleased to have a word to refer to it,” she said.

The French and Francophonie Week celebrating the French language, spoken by 274 million people in different countries around the world, begins on Saturday.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Franglais: Why do French adverts love to use English words?

More and more French adverts use English words or phrases in a blending of languages that might strike an English-speaker as strange or odd. In reality, this is part of a wider - sometimes polarising - phenomenon that has been going on for decades.

Franglais: Why do French adverts love to use English words?

While wandering around France, you might pass by a bus stop featuring an advertisement not unlike the yogurt advertisement below.

An advertisement by a French bus stop

After examining the poster for a few seconds you might find yourself scratching your head at the seemingly random addition of these non-French words to an advertisement that is intended for French-speaking people. Or – maybe you just chuckle at the play on words with ‘milk’ (lait) and the French word for English, Anglais

And this kind of thing is far from uncommon in France, seemingly random English words are often chucked into French adverts, such as the below Ricard advert with its ‘born à Marseille’ strapline.

The use of English in French advertising is by no means a new trend. It is part of the wider – occasionally controversial – phenomenon of anglicismes – the borrowing of English terms into French that goes back centuries.

But linguist Julie Neveux says that the advertisements we see today are more likely part of a newer current – one that has taken hold in the past two to three decades: les californismes.

“It is true that English has become the language of marketing,” said linguist Neveux, a professor at Sorbonne University who has written a book on the subject: Je parle comme je suis

“The use of English has been ‘cool’ since World War II. I don’t think that has changed in the last 50 years, but in the last ten to 15 we are seeing more californismes than anglicismes.”

The term ‘californisme‘ was coined by French linguist, dictionary editor, and radio personality Alain Rey. He noted that the English words appearing in the French language in recent years are more emblematic of Silicon Valley than of the English language overall.

Neveux explains that while certain terms stem from English-language internet and tech related terms – think: cliquer, scroller, and mail – in France, californismes have become “more visible in every day life and conversation” in large part due to the election of President Emmanuel Macron. 

When campaigning in 2017, Macron lauded his desire for the country to become a ‘start-up nation.’

Macron has in many ways achieved this goal – in 2021, start-ups in France earned over €11.6 billion, an increase of 115 percent in comparison to 2020 where they earned just €5.4 billion. There are currently 27,000 start-ups, compared to the 9,400 there were in 2016, prior to Macron’s election.

These companies have gone on to create a total of nearly one million jobs, and will create 250,000 more by 2025, according to forecasts. 

So what does this have to do with franglais adverts? Well linguists say that the Silicone Valley culture – and English phrases – have influenced both the French workplace and popular culture.

Though a start-upper’s request for ‘un feedback’ might seem removed from the random English words interjected in advertisements, but the two are interconnected because they involve the same population.

“Advertisements speak to a particular audience,” explained Micha Cziffra who works as a professional translator, helping his clients find the right words in several fields, including marketing and communications.

He said that French people see English as “modern” and culturally relevant. It also comes down to audience, if the target is a young, cosmopolitan person, advertisers might use English to tap into that identity.

“It gives a cool, trendy impact,” said Cziffra.

He added that using English “still depends on the client, some do not want any words in English, and others – those who accept the ‘dominance of usage’ of English – will want it for putting a post on Facebook or Twitter.”

It is worth noting that are some limitations to using the English language marketing in France – it must always be accompanied by a translation in French, as per the Loi Toubon.

READ MORE: ‘Right to French’ : When is it illegal to use English in France?

More modern, more tech

While it is widely known that the Académie Française, the principle council for all matters related to the French language, have their qualms with the use of English words in French, some communications and marketing workers also have concerns about the impacts of these ‘in-groups’ on the rest of society.

Frédéric Fougerat is the Director of Communications for Emeria, a real estate firm. He is an outspoken critic of ‘Franglais,’ having written and spoken widely on the subject.

“In the workspace, it is often managers who impose English to make themselves appear more serious and business-oriented,” said Fougerat.

“It can become a handicap for others who do not speak or understand English as well. It can exclude them.”

He adds that the use of English is often intended to “impose hierarchy” as well as to signal one’s cosmopolitanism – pointing to international degrees and experience.

“The language of Molière is marvellous. The language of Shakespeare is marvellous. They are less marvellous when we mix them.”

A long history of mixing 

Yet, according to Julie Neveux, who refers to English and French as ‘cousin languages,’ the two have been mixed for centuries. 

Franglais is a menace that is not real. We must distinguish between language and the symbol of economic dominance of English,” said Neveux.

To her, the outcry over anglicismes is more reflective of fears of American dominance in commerce, technology, and the general global economy.

“In the 17th century, there was a panic about Italianismes – a fear that the Italian language would invade and take over from French, because Italy was an economic power at the time.” 

Neveux agrees that concern around exclusion is legitimate – older generations in France are less likely to have a strong command of the English language, and socioeconomic status can also exclude working class populations from gaining English-speaking experience abroad.

But in advertising, exclusion is the name of the game. There is, according to Neveux “an economic interest in not talking to part of the population” for selling certain products.

Even governmental announcements have audiences in mind.

Neveux looks over public announcement from Paris’ 10th arrondisement above, written in a playful mix of English and French. At first she giggles, and then she explains that there is clearly an audience in mind.

“For the Mairie du 10ème, it is clearly focused on youth. It has a humorous tone, and it’s intended to appeal to a younger generation who like to play with codes.” 

The final group concerned by English words in French advertisements is of course native English speakers themselves, as these adverts appear very different for Francophones versus Anglophones. Julie Neveux explained that this is due to the fact that once an English word is appropriated into French, it often takes on a French pronunciation and a revised meaning in the French context. This makes the English word essentially French in practice. 

“Think of the word ‘week-end‘ in French. It comes from the English term ‘weekend.’ It has a different meaning from ‘fin de la semaine’ in French because it accentuates the English idea that the working week is over,” said the linguist.

Neveux explained that in French, people say ‘je vais partir en week-end’ which translates exactly to “I am going on weekend.” The syntax of the sentence is different in French than in English, as over the last century the French word ‘week-end’ has evolved to carry its own sense.

This is why if you see an advertisement like the one below, while scratching your head trying to make out the meaning, the French person beside you may be laughing, loving the joke.