L’anglais, c’est super cool!
English has, for several decades now, been an important language in the world of international business, trade, politics, and law, and consequently, is the most taught language in European schools. Unsurprisingly, English words and phrases have started to see use in other languages, and France is one country that has experienced first-hand the rise of Anglicisms in its national language, primarily by young people through use of technology and exposure to the pop cultures of English-speaking countries.
Le Dark Knight and Les Avengers
We can start by looking at the influence of English-language film and television in France. If you go to the cinema in Paris, you might even see some familiar titles, since two of this year’s highest grossing films worldwide, The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers, did not translate their titles for the French market. (Interestingly, though, The Dark Knight Rises was translated as L’Ascension du Chevalier Noir for the Quebecois market – perhaps a sign of their fierce desire to maintain a Francophone identity in English-speaking Canada.) But if one looks at each of these titles individually, the vocabulary is relatively complicated for the average French young person. So why not translate the title to make it understandable for everyone? The answer: English sells. Living in a world where you can carry the Internet around in your pocket, there is little worry that French teenagers won’t figure out that The Dark Knight Rises is the next installment of the Batman series, nor is there any real need to understand what an ‘avenger’ is.
That said, it is not uncommon to change the title of English-language films to simpler English. Interesting examples are The Hangover and No Strings Attached, released in France as Very Bad Trip and Sex Friends respectively. We see the same phenomenon here, but because these film titles use idioms and do not already belong to an easily identifiable series, the titles are changed to more aptly describe the film, but maintain the cool-factor of English.
English represents something young, modern, and fun, and would you really want to see a film called La Gueule de Bois anyway?
English: reinterpreted and redefined
There are several well-known English words that have been used in French for some time. Le week-end has long been used in place of la fin de la semaine, and le sandwich has always been known by its English eponym, but it is interesting to also see how certain brand names have influenced the French language too. The American Scotch tape, synonymous to Sellotape in the UK, has also made its way into the French lexicon. Shortened to le scotch (not to be confused with le Scotch), French has taken this word one step further to create a verb, scotcher, the French for ‘to tape’. Likewise, the French term klaxon derived from the Klaxon brand of horns used in cars, and the verb ‘to honk one’s horn’ is klaxonner.
However, French has also taken English phrases and given entirely new meanings to them. One such phrase is ‘fashion victim’, which, in English, is a derogatory phrase used to describe one who has fallen victim to the fashion industry. Cross the Channel, and you’ll find the term is used positively to describe someone who dresses well and has great style. Though the English word ‘victim’ is virtually identical to the French victime, there is nothing in the meaning of the French fashion-victim to imply victimization at all, rather, it is an English phrase that has found new meaning.
There are other English words that have lost their original meanings in French. Le brushing, coming from the English ‘to brush one’s hair’, means ‘blow dry’ when translated back into English, and le living was shortened from the English ‘living-room’ to mean just that in French. The verbs ‘to brush’ and ‘to live’ are translated as brosser and vivre in French, so the concepts of ‘brushing’ and ‘living’ being used in these contexts does not seem strange for a French speaker. They are, quite simply, words of English origin that have migrated and developed new meanings in a new language.
As well as giving new meanings to English words, there are also instances where English words have been entirely invented for the French lexicon. Le fooding, a term coined in 1999 by two French journalists as a portmanteau of ‘food’ and ‘feeling’, is the name of the current food movement happening in France. One of the journalists behind the movement described it as ‘a new element of design, a new element of casual yet serious food. The old choice between la cuisine de bistrot and la grande cuisine française was ending.’ They wanted a word to give the movement a more modern, contemporary voice, to show how the landscape of French haute-cuisine is keeping up with the rest of the culinary world, and le fooding did what no French word could.
L’Académie française and the fight against Franglais
Unlike for many languages, French has an official authority to monitor and regulate its language. L’Académie française was established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, and re-established in 1803 by Napoleon Bonaparte. It is one of the longest standing authorities in the world that deals with matters pertaining exclusively to the use of language. Over the course of its existence, members have included Victor Hugo, Voltaire, and Louis Pasteur.
Unsurprisingly, the Académie does not promote the use of Anglicisms, which it sees as a threat to the purity of the French language. In response to the rising use of Franglais, the Académie has devised a list entitled dire, ne pas dire, literally, ‘to say, not to say’, in which it offers acceptable, and in some cases, official, French alternatives to Franglais words and phrases. The word ‘email’ is a classic example. Although the English word is used across the world, including in France, the Académie has decided courriel should be used in its place (a mélange of courrier and électronique). To take the place of ‘prime time’ in France, the Académie suggests les heures de grande écoute. One should use l’entraîneur instead of the English ‘coach’, and the list goes on.
It is unlikely that the Académie’s French alternatives will gain much traction. Even to say something is great, commonly used phrases among French young people are c’est top and c’est classe. English prefixes ‘super-’ and ‘hyper-’ frequently preface adjectives to add emphasis. English is ubiquitous in France, and is too prevalent in popular culture not to have any influence over language.
At this point, I recall my time in Paris, teaching English at a lycée in the 16th arrondissement. In my last lesson with a sixième class, I asked what they liked about studying English. Without hesitation, and without a hint of irony, one boy yelled out:
L’anglais, c’est super cool!