Once again, France is attempting to draw a line in the sand against the encroaching tide of English. This time, reportedly, the language police are focusing on business and computer-related vocabulary. Marketplace and cyberspace must now be conceived of en francais, thank you, even if that means talking about a jeune pousse (a young sprout) instead of a startup, or an ordinateur rather than a computer, as the French have unpatriotically been doing. The French Finance Ministry’s “economic terminology commission” has drawn up a list of acceptable French alternatives for common English terms in both fields, to be imposed forthwith on government employees and strongly recommended to the public. Aux armes, citoyens! The tyranny of English must be resisted.
One can sympathize with the French. At one time, theirs was the first language of diplomacy, culture and cuisine — an indispensable part of a well-rounded education. “Speak in French when you can’t think of the English for a thing,” the Red Queen advised Alice in “Through the Looking Glass” (1872). Seventy-five years later, responding to a proposal to simplify English spelling, George Orwell mused that were it not for its difficulty English would be well fitted to become “the universal second language, if there ever is such a thing.” The language standing in its way, of course, was French, which even as late as Orwell’s time really was near-universal among the people who ran things, as we are reminded in small ways every day. French is still there in our passports, telling the world our nom and our place de naissance. It clutters up our post-office forms, asking us if our package is a cadeau and if so, what is its valeur? It makes us say “cuisine” when we actually mean plain old cooking. And, as France likes to point out, French is still an official language in 50 countries.
But these are remnants of past glory. Since the end of World War II, which sealed the political and economic ascendancy of the United States, English — or, more accurately, Anglo-American — has surged past French as the global lingua franca. Orwell’s prophecy has been fulfilled with a vengeance, even without simplified spelling. Further, as the French government’s latest salvo attests, the dominance of English has only been magnified by more recent developments. The rise of the Internet, an American invention, has taken English out of the geographic realm and made it the language of that ethereal wraparound we call cyberspace. To the extent that the globalization of commerce is a computer-based phenomenon, it, too, depends on English. For entirely practical reasons, the global village cannot also be the tower of Babel.
The French, having lost more, are perhaps more miffed about this than others, which might explain their policy of resistance (in place since at least the 16th century, but given the granite status of law in the Toubon Act of 1994). Yet the tsunami of English is breaking upon the shores of other countries, too; the French are not the only ones feeling the need to defend and celebrate their language. What is interesting, however, is the variety of responses. In Japan, for example, a government advisory panel recently recommended making English the country’s second official language. Not only has there been barely a ripple of protest, politicians and public alike appear much more concerned about how to improve English teaching than about any potential threat to Japanese.
What this suggests is both an unsentimental recognition of the inevitable and a confidence, born of common sense, that the kind of English the French are worrying about is simply not capable of displacing a native language. Japanese is bursting at the seams with borrowed Anglicisms — “konpyuta” and “furopi disuku” and all the rest of it — but it is still Japanese: Using these words is not remotely the same as speaking English. What has been called the “hard core” of language, i.e., syntax and phonetics, is not affected by the importation of loanwords, no matter how wholesale. Students of English — or any language — only wish it were that easy. The converse of this is that the bulwark France is trying to legislate into existence against Anglicisms is not only doomed to fail, it is unnecessary. The French will end up saying “software” and “hardware” rather than “logiciel” and “materiel,” at least if they want to talk to anybody else on the planet; but they will still be speaking French, just as Japan is going to continue speaking Japanese.
That line in the sand will be washed away, whatever France proscribes, but then, it probably wasn’t worth drawing in the first place. That is why it didn’t even occur to that realist Orwell, way back in 1947, to envisage English as a universal first language.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.