The UK media loves a good story about Paris bureaucrats creating new French words to replace perfectly good Anglo-American invaders. The latest is renaming what everyone refers to as ‘le smartphone’ with ‘le mobile multifonction’, swapping two syllables for a six-syllable mouthful. The also-rans, incidentally, were ‘terminal de poche’ and ‘ordiphone’.
Called ‘Vous pouvez le dire en français…’ meaning, ‘You can say the same thing in French, you know’, the Culture Ministry offers justifications for each choice that are sometimes lighthearted – but always have serious intent.
Just as ‘email’ and ‘mail’ are discouraged in favour of the more French-sounding ‘courriel’, technology and the internet are seen as the prime threats to linguistic purity and much brainpower is spent frenchifying online buzzwords.
It is a losing battle, of course, unless the new words are as concise and catchy as the original. The young, especially, say and write what they want and will naturally ignore an official word for a memorable word with fewer syllables.
Only civil servants must abide by the rules and use ‘dialogue en ligne’ not ‘chat’ or ‘mot-dièse’ for ‘hashtag’.
Many people, however, believe it is worth making an effort to use the new, naturalised words: they are right to do so.
Some foreign words are inevitable as the best expression of the meaning but France has two separate tongues: one rigid and correct, the other loose and well-understood. Too loose and you can lose ownership of your own language.
Hearing ‘weekends’ and ‘foodtrucks’ is fine but French needs to remain sounding French. Long live ‘arrosage’ for ‘spam’ and the cuddly ‘frimousse’ for the harsher ‘emoji’.