English Creeps Into French
By Marilyn August, Associated Press Writer
PARIS (AP Online; 09/07/98)
When a French teen-ager talks about getting drunk, he might well use the verb "se destroyer." Publicists with no time for lunch are "overbooké." Whether in the street or on the Internet, English continues to invade the language of Molière, despite valiant attempts by France's official language mavens to keep it pure.
The French government has passed a slew of laws since 1975 banning foreign words from advertising, official documents, scientific meetings and publications, radio and television. But they're powerless to stem the flow of English into the vernacular, diluting what the French call "La Belle Langue", the beautiful language.
Enforcement of the language pollution laws is lax, fines are minimal, and English is undeniably in. Rappers weave exhortations like "Burn the place" into their songs. Fast-food joints on the Champs-Elysées serve up sandwiches with names like "le Big Western." The C&A department store chain is pitching back-to-school clothes emblazoned with "Once upon a snowy afternoon."
The Académie Française, the elite body established more than three centuries ago to maintain French language supremacy, has lobbied for years to keep linguistic imports out of common usage. But even while "le cash-flow," "le deal" and "le marketing" were banned from the latest edition of the Academie's official dictionary, "le dead-heat" and "le boom" slipped in. Often, it's because there's an English word where there's no French one.
Cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIII's influential finance minister, founded the Académie in 1635 not only to "clean out the garbage from the mouths of common folk" but also to rein in the nation's elite thinkers. Time has shown that the fluid nature of language defies regulation. As the 19th century novelist Victor Hugo put it: "The word is a living thing."
France's current Socialist government says its language laws aren't designed to keep French pure, but rather to "make sure it does not disappear from the international world of business, economics and science." Language cops say the laws also protect consumers, forcing manufacturers to provide health and safety information and instruction manuals in French.
According to the General Delegation on the French Language, more than 15,000 companies have been spot-checked for compliance since 1994. The biggest offenders in packaged foods, cosmetics, stereos and computers received fines ranging from $150 to $1,000.
While a 1994 Culture Ministry poll found the vast majority of French favored linguistic protectionism, the public demand for English has never been greater. Last year, three times as many public school kids learned English as studied the language of Europe's economic powerhouse next door German.
Parents gathered recently at a Paris child care center bemoaned the absence of English in the pre-school curriculum. One disgruntled father said he'd even gone to the mayor and school board to no avail. That may soon change. Education Minister Claude Allègre recently called English "a communications tool as indispensable as the telephone and the computer," and he hired 800 additional English speakers to teach fifth-graders this fall.
Elisabeth Zeboulon, director of the Bilingual School in Paris, says applications to her elite establishment have skyrocketed, especially from French families. "This year beat all the records," she said. "Parents are realizing that good English is essential as a work tool and for accessing information via the Internet." She said the Bilingual School's primary classes, which once catered to the children of foreign businessmen, diplomats and visiting scholars, are now three- quarters French. "Being bilingual gives children a leg up in life, regardless of what career they choose," said Patrick Gurfinkiel, a French accountant whose three daughters attend the school.
On the Internet, French-language Web sites pale in comparison to what's available in English. And while a government Web site invites users to join France-Langue-Digest, an on-line chat group aimed at protecting the French language, it apologizes for the group's name: There's no French equivalent for "digest."