No Admittance! Authorized French Words Only


The French consider their language as a national heritage to be guarded and protected like a treasure. For several centuries, French was the lingua franca used by the international community for all cultural and commercial exchanges. The Russian nobility in particular spoke it in preference to their own language.

The zenith of French cultural dominance was during the 17th and 18th centuries. After the Revolution it started to decline. Nowadays, English is the universal language fueled by American innovations and the number of former British colonies who speak it. After World War II in the 1950’s American culture and words like fast food, take-away, low cost and jeans spread everywhere to the chagrin of the French people who felt threatened by this new invasion.

France now has a concept called francophony. It is a union of all French-speaking countries and includes Quebec and French-speaking former colonies (mostly African). They have meetings and congresses of French language, literature, cinema and other cultural events. There is no equivalent “Anglophony” as far as I know.

To counter the proliferation of “alien” words in its language France has entrusted the French Academy with uprooting and discarding Anglicisms and replacing them with French equivalents. It is not unlike getting rid of non-native species of plants which have started to grow on your soil and are endangering native plants. They also created a Terminology Commission whose job it is to approve terminology and publish its recommendations in the “Journal Officiel”. This publication lists equivalent French terms in preference to the English version. Still, some Anglicisms escape the Commission’s vigilance and sneak into use… (coach, challenger, week-end). In 1994, the law “Toubon” was passed, a sort of linguistic protectionism. The barbarians at the gates must not be allowed in. No odious American neologisms!

Most of this hostility is reserved for computer lingo. And so the word computer itself becomes “ordinateur.” Software is “logiciel.” La Toile is used for The Web. Couriel (Courier electronique) replaces email. A browser becomes “navigateur.” The list goes on and on.

The English language is much more hospitable. Some of the French words have lived here so long that they are indistinguishable from native words. Think of automobile, coupe, limousine, garage, parachute, camouflage, regime, détente and Art Nouveau. We are happy to welcome even hard to pronounce or to spell words like rendezvous, charge d’affaires, rapprochement, communique and so on. It even gives the user a certain “cachet”.

Vive la diversite!

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  1. I, also, enjoy these posts. Primarily because, Simone’s posts always teach me something.
    As for the French protecting their beautiful language, I agree with them!! Perhaps they are a bit precious with their language, but, honestly, in the long run perhaps this will preserve it.

  2. The willingness of English to accept other words and other languages and happily meld them into our greater whole really impresses me. I think it’s a lot like our country itself, and our pride in taking in immigrants (not a promise always fulfilled of course, but it’s an idea we aim for occasionally).

    Although apparently that same willingness makes our language extremely difficult to penetrate for non-English speakers, so how odd that it has become the global lingua franca!

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