France And The Battle Of Mots De Prêt (Loanwords)

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Why does France hate English loanwords?

France has a très rich literary and linguistic culture. So, it’s not surprising that their government takes a dim view to any intrusions made to it by, er, outside influences.

As an article in The Guardian notes, “France’s identity has long been bound up with its language, more so possibly than anywhere else.” They also add that “France is haunted by its lost American future. Had the US fallen under Gallic domination, French would probably be the world’s lingua franca today. Think of that. French as the dominant global language. Ma bonté!

So, because of this disappointment, France has traditionally banned English loanwords from the language. (A loanword is “a word in one language that has been borrowed from another language and usually naturalized as macho, taken into Modern English from Spanish.”) In fact, in 1966, then-president de Gaulle even started a committee to protect the French language from the threat of English intrusion.

How does France replace English loanwords?

Well, the committee created by President de Gaulle still exists. And, they are called the Commission d’enrichissement de la langue française. That’s a mouthful.

They come together every time a new English word tries to push its way into the French language. And, in that get-together, they brainstorm new French words to use in place of the burgeoning English one. Some of the words they’ve come up with are:

“‘joueur’ instead of gamer

“courriel” instead of email

“internet clandestin” instead of dark web

“infox” to replace fake news

“mot-dièse” to replace hashtag

And, probably the biggest French-replacement success was “baladeur” for Walkman. The story of “baladeur” gives an accurate picture of why it’s so hard for the committee to ban English loanwords from use:

“Sony Walkmans flooded the French market in 1979, with the brand name readily adopted as a preferred term for cassette-players of all brands. But by 1982, the French government had rubber-stamped its own term “baladeur,” a play on “balader” (to stroll) and “ballade” (the poem or song). At the time, retailers expressed skepticism that it would catch on, but agreed to substitute it in for “walkman” in their promotional material. Within five years, “baladeur” was the preferred term in journalism, advertisements, and virtually all written French. The Commission might not have been able to keep “walkman” out of the spoken word, but they did all they could to make sure that “baladeur” was the written go-to.” (atlasobscura.com)

Got that?

So, what’s the newest English word the French are trying to replace?

The latest attempted incursion into the language of The Republic is courtesy of the world of technology, again. Smartphone is a no-no for the French. They’re moving forward with “un mobile multifonction” instead.

This isn’t the first phrase they’ve proposed to replace smartphone either. They’ve tried “ordiphone,” “terminal de poche,” and some others, but none stuck. So, it seems smartphone has been terrorizing the French for some time.

Does anyone use English loanwords in France?

While the French government may seem (to some) to be a bit over-the-top in issuing “word bans,” (people will still say whatever they like, after all) others take a more flexible approach. Fleur Pellerin (a former French Minister of Culture) is one of these people. She said on the blog TheLocal.fr that a “dynamic approach” to language was needed.

“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. ‘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.”

And, it seems a lot of people in the younger generations agree. They also use English loanwords in dialogue all of the time. Some say it makes them feel trendy and cool.

So, all in all, French people have every right to be proud and protective of their linguistic heritage. But, trying to keep words out of the French lexicon is perhaps “une bataille perdue” (a losing battle).

Want to learn some other words you should avoid abroad? Check out these words that might embarrass you in other countries.

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