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The English Invasion

Stop or Arrêt?

Stop or Arrêt?

One thing I’ve noticed after living here so long is how many English words have slipped into the French language.  Despite the title as the original source of French in the world, France does a poor job compared to its Canadian cousin at forcing its citizens to only use French.  As an example, take a look at a common road sign. In Quebec you’ll always see the word “Arrêt” on a stop sign. In France, it’s just a good old “Stop” sign (at least the tourists will know what to do). Or just take a trip to the local cinema.  In France you can order “le pop-corn” whereas in Quebec you’ll have to say “le maïs soufflé” (5 syllables) - let’s hope you don’t have to ask for butter and salt too!

Perhaps France was aware of globalization ahead of everyone else because in 1635 they created the very prestigious, elite institution called “L’Academie Française” as the official steward of the French language.  Whenever a new word appears on the international scene, the 40 current ”immortels”1 (seriously, that’s what they call themselves) are required to provide an official French equivalent.  A few modern examples are below2:

 

English Word French Equivalent
E-mail Le Courrier Electronique (you can also use ”Le Courriel” which is the shortened, 4 syllable version)
Startup Company Une Jeune Pousse
Podcast La Baladodiffusion (7 syllables!)
Spam Le Pourriel (literally “rotten” courriel)

Keep in mind that the average age of Academie members is 78, so just explaining the concept of a “podcast” might be difficult enough, not to mention creating a modern sounding equivalent word in French!  Concerning enforcing the use of the language, the government requires all official documents, advertisement and legal contracts to be written in French (La Loi Toubon - n°94-665 du 4 août 1994) but makes no real stipulation for the spoken language unless it originates from an official source such as state sponsored TV or radio.

This way to the exit...

This way to the exit...

My favorite English words used in French are the ones ending in “ing”.  For some reason, the French frequently transform this verb form of English into a noun. For example, if you’re on vacation, you may need to find le camping so you can pitch your tent.  Or, more commonly, where the heck is le parking in this %!@# city? Compare le parking to the official word l’aire de stationnement (6 syllables) and you’ll understand why, just for the sake of pure efficiency, the French sometimes prefer English equivalents.  There is also the word le meeting used frequently in the business office.  The French sometimes pronounce it “meet-tiiinge” (dragging out the second syllable with the nose).

And finally there are some English words where the meaning has just been completely mangled. For example, French mothers need to remind their children to put on their thongs3 before going to the beach (meaning flip-flop sandales).  When I worked for a startup company, I played babyfoot (foosball) for 8 hours a day waiting for the company to go bankrupt.  And when you go to the pool don’t forget your slip (meaning the skin-tight, Speedo swimsuit that all Frenchmen seem to wear).

Well, I’m now off to faire du jogging.  As the French would say - On y go…4

Interesting Links:

Official Legal Text of La Loi Toubon - n°94-665 du 4 août 19945 - Some boring legal reading for those who love all the details!

Le haricot or l’haricot? - Surrealistic FAQ of ”L’Academie Française” - Important questions for our times…


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  1. The official name for past and present members of the Academie Française []
  2. Some of these words were first introduced by the Office Québécois de la Langue Française and then accepted by the Academie Française []
  3. The original word is “les tongs”, but it’s now frequently interchanged with the word “les thongs” because the French don’t pronounce the “h” []
  4. Seriously! - as opposed to “On y va”. []
  5. The main French law governing mandatory use of the language []

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