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?
The French drinks brand Ricard uses a mixture of English and French in its 'born à Marseille' slogan. Photo: The Local

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. 

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Five sexy-sounding French words that are actually totally innocent

French is the language of love isn't it? Perhaps that's why so many perfectly innocuous French words sound steamy or downright explicit to English ears.

Five sexy-sounding French words that are actually totally innocent

As an anglophone, there are several times that the French language might make you blush, but you might be surprised that these five words’ true definitions are actually not too steamy after all. 

Concubinage – This might sound like a 17th century mistress in English, so you’ll be surprised to see it on several formal documents in France. You might even be a concubine without knowing it!

In French, though concubinage is the legal designation for a couple that lives together, but is not married or PACsed (civil partnership). You can even get a certificate from the mairie declaring that you’re a concubine. 

Les concubins ne peuvent se céder des droits à prêt d’épargne logement – Those are living together but married or in a civil partnership may not transfer home savings loan rights to each other

READ MORE: Are you a concubine in French law? (It doesn’t mean what you think it does)

Célibataire – To anglophones, this word might conjure up ideas of pious religious figures who abstain from sexual intercourse, but in France about 18 million people reported themselves as célibataire last year and that certainly does not mean they were staying pure.

In reality, the word in French does not translate to the English word ‘celibate,’ instead its more accurate equivalent is ‘unmarried’ or ‘single person.’ If you do not have a partner or spouse, then in France you are by definition célibataire and you will probably find yourself ticking that box on a lot of forms.

Il est célibataire depuis cinq ans et il en est heureux – He has been single for the last five years and he is happy about it.

Promiscuité – In France, it is not uncommon to see newspaper headlines warning people to avoid promiscuité.

Government officials are not actually concerned about your sexual morality, that’s your private life and entirely up to you.

In fact, although the term in French can have a more explicit meaning of a person who has multiple partners, its more common usage is ‘overcrowded,. So really these government announcements about promiscuité are trying to help you avoid being stuck in large throngs of people, most recently for public health reasons in the pandemic years.

La Première ministre recommande de porter le masque dans les lieux de promiscuité – The prime minister recommends wearing a mask in crowded areas.

Une affaire – If your French friend tells you that everyone in the office is involved in the affaire, they are not informing you that the entire company is cheating on their partners with one another.

The confusion goes both ways, because in English if you tell a French friend you’re excited to come to Paris to have ‘les aventures‘ you might get a confused expression in response. That is because une affaire in French refers to a business dealing or matter, and les aventures is the actual way to refer to a love affair.

Tout le monde est très engagé dans cette affaire. Les risques sont élevés pour l’entreprise – Everyone is very engaged in this business matter. The stakes are high for the company.

Affaire is also used in a political context in a similar way to the English -gate suffix for a scandal. So McKinseygate in English would be L’affaire McKinsey in French.

Une douche – Telling someone you are going to go prendre une douche might feel a bit weird to say, as the English word ‘douche’ either refers to a cleansing solution to be used under the belt or is used as an insult for a particularly obnoxious person.

In French, the term is simply the equivalent of ‘shower’ in English, so even though it might take some getting used to, it is a word you’ll hear quite often in France.

J’ai pris une douche à côté de la plage après avoir nagé dans l’océan. C’était très rafraîchissant. – I took a shower next to the beach after swimming in the ocean. It was very refreshing.

The faux-amis go both ways though, and we anglophones can make our French counterparts blush by accidentally saying some phrases that are less than innocent in Molière’s language.

It is easy to mistake preservatif for the English word preservative, even though it means condom in French, just as it can be hard to remember that exhibition is definitely not the word for an art show in French. Well, maybe a very particular type of art show, if that’s your preference.