Photo: JACQUES DEMARTHON / AFP
Olivier Karfis, co-founder of the language-learning website French Today and a bilingual former tech employee, says that while English words do have a certain cachet, especially with young French people, there is little point in worrying too much about the issue.
“It’s inevitable. Complaining about it is like complaining about the effect that computers have had on the typewriter industry,” he said.
“But there are other areas where the French language has the advantage. When you’re talking about cooking in English, most words come from French. You don’t hear English speakers complaining about it.”
He was speaking after French language guardians Langue française published an open letter calling on Emmanuel Macron to protect French from the “invasion” of the English language.
The letter notably demands that the President (a fluent English speaker) stop using English in public appearances at home and abroad, to reinforce legal measures requiring the use of French, and to put an end to a “sacrilegious” project to offer some general education courses in English.
And it's certainly true that that if you hang around the Paris café terraces long enough you will hear young people throw the occasional 'cool' or 'has been' into conversation (as they check their 'smartphones').
Olivier thinks that the influence of English on French culture is growing, visible in the way English words tend to crop up more and more in French sentences.
He said: “I have a 14 year-old daughter, and everything she watches – whether it’s YouTube or television series – is from the US and in English.
“She and her friends watch them on the internet, long before they get translated or dubbed into French.”
Emmanuel Macron gives a speech to unveil his strategy to promote French. Photo: Ludovic MARIN / AFP
The French media collaborate in this process, he points out, by picking up terms from the anglophone media and diffusing them among the francophone population.
Secondly, Karfis believes that many French speakers use English words because they believe it gives them a certain cachet.
“It’s kind of hip, kind of fashionable to throw an English word into a sentence,” he explains.
While he acknowledges the influence of English, the former tech firm employee is skeptical about attempts by linguistic actors to redirect people towards French, especially when it comes to technology-related terms, like le smartphone.
“It’s a lost combat”, he says.
This is largely due to the fact that the language police simply can’t keep up with the rate at which language is changing.
Olivier Karfis cites the telling example of a document published by the Ministry of Culture, with the collaboration of, among others, the Académie française.
Initially published in 2009 – not exactly the beginning of the information age – this Vocabulaire des techniques de l’information et de la communication (Vocabulary of communication and information technology) was not again updated until 2017.
“In the tech world, new terms are introduced every day. They’re working on something that’s eight years old!”
“By the time they find a French term, the English term has already been in use for years. If they were more responsive – if they updated it every six months – maybe it would be possible, but once a word is in everybody’s mouth, you can’t take it away.”
Olivier Karfis is the co-founder of French learning website FrenchToday.com.