Friday, March 14, 2008

To the barricades!

The French have long complained about the encroachment of English words into their language, and have had a running battle with terms like le weekend and le parking. Now they're using technology to fight the spread of English. Oh they're so cunning, these Johnny Foreigners.

According to an article in The Daily Telegraph, also covered here in The Mirror, a new French-friendly spell-checker has been devised to replace English words such as email and carjack with their proper French equivalents: courriel and piraterie routiere respectively. Even last year's big word, subprime (the apparent cause of our current world credit crunch and *apparently* the reason why some scrote at Abbey National won't let us get some extra money to double glaze our Dickensian windows) has a French equivalent, the catchy prix hypotecairé à risque. Mmmm, that'll catch on... like the colds my unfortunate offspring now have thanks to the *sniff* windows.

But while the French alternatives may seem a bit clunky and awkward, many French people see them as a necessary evil in the long war to defend their language, culture and identity from the spreading, globalising power of English, as the article reports:

"I think that the defence of a language is the sum of a multitude of small battles, and it's worth the fight", culture minister Christine Albanel told the Telegraph. Even if only two out of ten words stick, the language has moved and breathed and we have marked our territory", she said at a ceremony to launch the "week of French language". Each French ministry has its own commission of terminology and neologisms, whose job is to track down English terms and offer French alternatives. They send their proposals to the Académie Française, a council of guardians of the French language, who debate the new terms and rubber stamp them. Once published in the statutes book, French civil servants are obliged to use them. About 300 such official French terms appear each year.

But what of the significance of this to English Language students? After all, this is English Language at SFX, not Francais Parole à Sexytime (or whatever). Jonathan Swift tried to introduce an English Academy centuries ago, in an attempt to regulate the English language. As you know, it didn't happen, and the debates about our changing language have raged ever since. But would an Academy, along the lines of the French system, have any real impact on our language? Would it be a good idea for a government body to regulate our language, deciding on what's acceptable usage and which new words would be invented?

I don't think so. So much of our language change is actually very democratic: it's a bottom-up spread rather than a top-down imposition of government diktats. Just take a look at how slang evolves: the language of the streets gets picked up by older and more middle class users and then filters through the media into general usage.

But this article also flags up another issue around language change, that of technology and language. Many of us have as our default spell-checker US English - it looks like The Telegraph's sub-editor has it too, given their use of program (the American spelling) as opposed to programme (the English spelling) - and this is having some kind of impact on the way our language is evolving, as this link explains.

And it's not only American spellings - humor, color, recognize - but American lexis. I become a raging prescriptivist when I hear young people talking about the police as the Feds. The Feds?! We don't have a Federal Bureau of Investigation in this country dammit. We have cops. We have rozzers. We have the old bill.Get with the program already, or something...

But is American English really a threat to English as much as English is seen as a threat to French? We've been using American terms for a much longer time than many of us realise as this 1995 article by Henry Porter points out (and this worksheet goes with it if you're looking for a way to use it in a lesson or for revision) and our language has expanded to accommodate it. We may have our own personal prejudices about words that sound American, but that's probably a generational thing. In a sense, because we have no Academy to tell us what is right or wrong, we all have the choice for ourselves, to express ourselves in ways that we want and with whatever mixture of English English, American English or even Franglais (ooh la la) that we want.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENA6 - Language Debates

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