Languages: Parlez-Vous Franglais?
Languages are the pedigree of nations.
« The French language is a treasure, » cries René Etiemble, professor of
comparative languages at the Sorbonne. « To violate it is a crime.
Persons were shot during the war for treason. They should be punished
for degrading the language. »
As purist and patriot, Linguist Etiemble has declared war against
Franglais, the pidgin French-English that has flooded la belle langue
with U.S. neologisms. French newspapers speak of call-girls,
cliff-dwellers, containment, fairways, missile-gaps, uppercuts. French
sociologists analyze le melting-pot, out-groups, ego-involvement.
French business roils with words like boom, le boss, fifty-fifty,
soft-approach and supermarket.
Calling for drastic fines against Américanolatres (America worshipers),
Etiemble estimates that Frenchmen soft on English have allowed 5,000
common Anglicisms (and 30,000 technical ones) to divide Gaul. The
august French Academy is so alarmed that it has decided to « unleash an
offensive in favor of the defense of the French language. » Mounting the
barricades, the academy’s dictionary commission will prepare a
blacklist of « foreign » words that are impropres à la langue.
Planetary Phenomenon. All this may be the most quixotic war in French
history, for English is currently the world’s most irresistible
language. In two world wars, British and American troops spread it to
common people everywhere. The dynamism of U.S. culture and technology
has sped the process. Flexible, expressive and relatively simple,
English is circling the planet at a phenomenal rate.
Spoken as first language by 250 million people and as a second language
by hundreds of millions more, widely dispersed English is becoming the
universal tongue of trade, diplomacy, science and scholarship. Pilots
of all nations use it for airways communication. Jazz teaches it to
youth the world over. In emerging Asia and Africa, polyglot people take
up English as the only way to comprehend their neighbors. The Chinese
Communists speak English in propaganda broadcasts to East Africa. The
Russians use it in broadcasts to the Far East, and stamp their Near
East exports with the English legend, « Made in U.S.S.R. »
Aber No Sweat. As a result, Anglicisms are now weirdly lodged in most
major languages. Russian futbol fans cheer a fourvard’s goal, jeer an
offside penalty. Western-vowed stilyagi (Teddy boys) call themselves
Tom, Dick or Harry, and breakfast on corn flakes.
In Japan, the mysterious East went West as soon as the G.I.s arrived
with jiipu (Jeeps) and gamu (chewing gum). Every modan garu (modern
girl) is now avid for nairon sutokkingu (nylon stockings), the hittu
parado (hit parade) and the popular magazines sekkuso sutori (sex
stories). In showbiz, which is naturally fantazikku, starlets grapple
with ojishon, kamera tesuto and doresu rihaasaru (audition, camera
test, dress rehearsal). « Aimu sori, » says the Japanese businessman as
he breaks a kakuteiru (cocktail) date with his garufurendo (girl
friend). He has time only for hassaru (hustle) and greater
West Germans have literally translated American expressions, such as
Imgleichen Boot sitzen (to be in the same boat), and Germanized others,
such as Beiproduct, brandneu, Eierkopf, Herzattacke, kalter Krieg,
(byproduct, brand-new, egghead, heart attack, cold war). They
assimilate the unassimilable by total adoption—beatnik, baby sitter,
bootlegger, bulldozer, king-size, scooter and stripper. Hundreds of
American words have become German Verbs—parken, twisten, hitchhiken.
The Luftwaffe fills the air with bilingual babble: « Aber no sweat, boy,
no sweat. Ich habe normal letdown procedure gemacht. »
Linguistic Sin. French zeal to avoid all this is rooted in feelings of
national identity. French until recently was the world’s diplomatic
language. Only 65 million people now speak it as a first language; less
than one-fourth of the U.N.’s 111 member nations still use it in
debates. Franglais is spreading so fast, argues Parisian Linguist Alain
Guillermou, that U.S. French teachers may soon have nothing to teach.
Guillermou calls for a national commission to police Américanolatres on
the ground that Franglais is not only a linguistic sin but is also « bad
for morals. »
Guillermou has a certain point: words are themselves ideas that shape a
people’s self-image. French purists are thus aghast at the eat-and-run
tone of le snack-bar as opposed to the civilized Gallic pace of le
cafe. The Franglais word teen-ager is rebellious worlds apart from the
dutiful jeune fille. The traitorous notion that « American is the only
living language, » cries Linguist Etiemble, will lead straight to what
he calls, in ironic Franglais, « I’ American way of life. »
Linguistic Ellis Island. In the 17th century, France « purified » its
language, striving for utmost clarity and « incorruptible » syntax. « What
is not clear is not French, » boasted an 18th century linguist. Etiemble
thus argues that Franglais may cause disastrous misunderstandings.
To avoid the worst, Etiemble is preparing a dictionary (Parlez-Vous
Franglais?) of French equivalents for Anglicisms. Even where there is
none whatever (for Jeep, say), he will insist on French spelling
(Jipe). Guillermou is devising a linguistic decompression chamber: a
new French glossary with three sections—white pages for acceptable
words, red for inadmissible ones, and green pages that « will be a sort
of Ellis Island of the French vocabulary. After suitable
nationalization, the words may move into the white pages. »
Even this seems futile. Language is the greatest smuggling operation in
the world. When the French blast juke-box as an American atrocity, for
example, they might better blame West Africans for the original Bambara
word, dzugu (wicked), which evolved into joog (disorderly) in the
Gullah language of sea-island Negroes living off Georgia and South
Carolina. It is virtually impossible to keep a language « pure. » Mustafa
Kemal tried it in Turkey, failed for the simple reason that half the
Turkish language is borrowed from Arabic and Persian. Mussolini purged
Italian of such « foreign » French (but Latin-derived) words as hotel,
menu and chauffeur. His so-called « Italian » substitutes —albergo,
lista, autista—come from old German and Greek.
And what is French, anyway? A rich ragout of corrupted Latin spiced with
Arabic, English, German, Spanish and Greek. Pure French is so scarce
that scholars in search of it must look to men like Nicholas Chauvin, a
legendary soldier noted for his blind devotion to Napoleon. He at least
gave the world a truly French word—chauvinism.