Warning: This is not your parents’ French!
No, what we’re dealing with today is an altogether different, highly-evolved, complex creature.
Maybe your teachers haven’t told you, but recent French borrows lots of English words.
And this notable phenomenon isn’t just limited to tech words or online pop culture.
Hundreds, maybe thousands of English words and expressions, or anglicismes, have recently crept into the vast French lexicon.
Love it or hate it, learning modern French as it’s spoken involves appropriate use of the Frankenstein-esque hybrid derided as franglais.
So unless you want to sound like a 19th-century professor, get comfortable and get ready to learn about the borrowed English words that power modern French speech.
English and French: A History of Exchange
If contemporary discussions on franglais generally refer to the introduction of English words in the 20th century, French and English have a significant history of interaction before that to consider, too.
English and French have been swapping words for a long time
When William the Conqueror invaded England, he installed his cronies as England’s new nobility. For centuries, you had a French-speaking elite being served by the indigenous English-speaking population. Hence, English items like “cow,” “sheep” and “pig” became “beef,” “mutton” and “pork” when served to their French overlords. Many such examples of two words meaning the same thing can be found in English. In fact, something like 45% of English words are borrowed from French. Talk about franglais!
French has experienced an “English onslaught” starting in the 20th century
There are several theories as to why anglicismes are entering French. In offices or other professional settings, for example, many such words are new concepts in French, like brainstorming or burn-out. They may be left as is since there’s no alternative. Plus, these words are often less cumbersome than proposed alternatives.
Similarly, in the tech field, or l’informatique, English words abound. In an Anglo-Saxon dominated industry, words like email, cloud computing and open-source are adopted so quickly that language authorities barely have time to react.
Perhaps the legacy of the British Empire or current American cultural dominance has also given prestige to English among some French people, but that’s only speculation.
French Resistance to Anglicismes
A language that doesn’t evolve is a dead language, so adopting foreign words should be a sign of the French language’s vitality.
Given how much French has influenced English, you wouldn’t think that some words going the other way would be newsworthy. And it might be easier to accept if French were adopting an equal amount of words from several languages. What rubs some people the wrong way is that most new foreign words are of English origin, and this transfer is one-sided. Indeed, French language purists have not taken this sitting down.
Let’s take a look at some key issues, institutions and events in this debate.
Loi Toubon (Toubon Law)
Adopted in 1994, the Toubon Law assures the primacy of French in French society. In addition to assuring the citizenry’s right to be served in French, the law also mandates the use of French in the workplace, makes sure advertising occurs in French and obliges public media to use official French alternatives to anglicismes.
Dubbing vs. subtitles
In contrast to many European countries that only provide subtitles to Anglophone television, France has a flourishing practice of dubbing English content. The advantage of this for French learners is that dubbed content is easy to understand, often with each well-known actor being assigned a dubber, no matter what the film. Some people point to dubbing as the reason why the French are not as strong in English as northern Europeans, who may benefit from using subtitles more frequently for English content.
French in Quebec has been called the most regulated language in the world. The Quebecois have resisted assimilation in a sea of Anglophones for centuries. That they still exist as a viable Francophone community is amazing.
Bill 101, or the Charter of the French Language, makes French the official language in Quebec. It guarantees every Quebec citizen the right to receive government services in French, mandates business communication to the public in French and establishes the Quebec Office of the French Language and the Superior Council of the French Language, among other things.
By most metrics, the law has been successful. Francophones represent the vast majority of the population, and Quebec is one of the few places in the world where English is declining.
More controversially, Law 101 requires all immigrants, even Anglophones, to send their children to French-speaking schools, promotes francisation (think “Stop” signs becoming Arrêt, a step not taken in France) in the public sphere and imposes stiff penalties on businesses that don’t communicate adequately in French.
To understand the problem with anglicisms, it’s important to understand that French is much more regimented than English in general. Since the founding of the Académie française, authoritative bodies have tried to instill “right” and “wrong” ways to communicate in French. The Académie française is composed of illustrious personalities, mainly famous Francophone authors and academics, who guide the development of French and advise the French government on proper use.
Examples of Anglicisms and Proposed Alternatives
I could compose a dictionary of anglicismes, but certain words are used more commonly than others. Many are so widespread that they’ve entered into “correct” usage.
Anglicismes that have the same meaning in English
You won’t be misunderstood using certain common English words in French, such as:
- chatter (to chat)
- checker (to check)
As would be expected, many of these words deal with modern (Americanized) lifestyles. These words have not been adopted without confrontation, and if you feel uncomfortable using them, nobody will be offended if you use these alternatives:
- week-end → fin de semaine (especially in Quebec)
- marketing → mercatique
- jogging → la course
- camping → campisme
- networking → réseautage
- business → entreprise
- digital → numérique
- global → mondial
- smartphone → téléphone intelligent
- leader → dirigeant
- chatter → parler
- checker → consulter
- email → courrier électronique (courriel)
- manager → gérant
- brainstorming → remue-méninges
Although some alternatives, like remue-méninges, are unwieldy, others have been adopted into common usage. If you’re learning Quebec French, for example, take note that email and week-end have been replaced with courriel and fin de semaine.
This page provides an exhaustive list of anglicismes with proposed alternatives.
Anglicisms that have different meanings in English or don’t even exist in English
The French use certain anglicisms that either mean something totally different in English, or aren’t even actually words in English.
Some of my favorites are:
- footing (jogging)
- after-work (after-hours partying)
- zapping (channel surfing)
- flipper (pinball)
- planning (schedule)
Others to look out for include:
- parking (parking lot)
- basket (basketball or sneaker)
- relooking (makeover)
- break (break in relationship)
- baby-foot (foosball)
- brushing (brushing hair while blow drying)
- scotcher (to tape, to immobilize)
- pull (sweater)
- lifting (facelift)
- slip (underwear)
Here is a very good list of “false” anglicisms to look out for.
How Should You Approach Anglicisms in Your Own French Speaking?
This is a touchy subject. Language teachers tend to avoid anglicisms, but in practice, that’s how French is spoken by many people, especially the young. Knowing the most popular anglicisms and when it’s appropriate to use them will make you a more nuanced French speaker.
Learn the “proper” language first
Teachers have a point. You’ll always have time to learn not only anglicisms, but how French is spoken colloquially. Start out with what you know is correct, and when you’re confident in this, you can move on to “street” French.
Know that in informal settings, English words are acceptable and common
Among friends, you’ll often hear very creative use of anglicismes and other forms of slang.
I have personally heard phrases like:
Je vais checker mon e-mail. (I’m going to check my email.)
Je l’ai liké sur Facebook. (I “liked” it on Facebook.)
Check out French Internet forums (and brush up your French on Facebook while you’re at it) for more. Many examples of franglais are pure works of art!
Avoid anglicisms in business settings, except for “common” English words
Obviously, you wouldn’t speak in formal or professional settings like you would to your friends. Especially in written correspondence, it’s best to avoid franglais, too. Certain words, however, like week-end and marketing, are accepted by the business community either because they don’t have equivalents in French or because they’ve entered into “adult” usage.
Languages evolve, and English has influenced French in a large way.
There are many sides to the issue, but franglais is real.
If you want to understand modern French, you’ll have to know how English words are used in the language.
Whether you’re a language purist or an SMS fanatic, it’s up to you to form your own opinion on and manner of dealing with English use in the French language.
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