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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Tough Future For France's Language Police

LONDON -- A few weeks ago I needed to find out the French word for bulldozer. The dictionary I consulted, published in Paris, had the answer: "un bulldozer." It remains a mystery how this English term, so thoroughly odd and unmusical to the Gallic ear, could have barged its way into the French language. Be that as it may, France's Senate has just passed a bill that may have the effect of bulldozing "les bulldozers" out of French.


The law bans the use of foreign words on radio and television -- except for foreign-language programs -- and in advertising, public announcements and work contracts. Henceforth, a bulldozer is to be know as "un bouteur" and nothing else. Any Frenchman who dares to defy the law is going to be fined or suffer the withdrawal of public subsidies. These are pretty draconian measures, but will they work and are they right?


The first point to make is that it is inappropriate for a person whose native language is English to start advising the French, or anyone else, on whether to regulate their language. Ultimately, it is impossible for Americans, Britons, Australians and other native English-speakers to judge the sensitivity of the question of the penetration of other people's languages by English words


One can make the observation that the French seem more defensive than most other Europeans about their language. Modern German has been heavily influenced by American English since World War II, but the Germans seem relatively unfazed about it. Polish has also been subjected to English incursions, but it is hard to imagine the parliament in Warsaw adopting a law to protect the language. Meanwhile, purists in Britain would argue that British English is awash with trendy Americanisms, but any official attempt to suppress American words would be laughed out of court.


Some Frenchmen snort at the idea that language is a suitable matter for legislation. Fran?oise Seligmann, a Socialist politician, compares the Senate's bill with the Maginot Line, a series of fortifications built after World War I that were designed, but failed miserably, to protect France against German invasion.


But that is not how things are seen by members of the Academie Fran?aise, the high priests and guardians of French culture. Like determined medieval monks, the academicians are laboriously compiling an official dictionary that will tell the world what is a French word and, by implication, what is not. So far, they have reached "enzyme", which in French, believe it or not, is "une enzyme."


The problem with this approach is that by the time they get to "zymotique," or "zymotic" in English, the French language will have already been freshened up with new words, and some will certainly be of English derivation. Language moves faster than a bureaucracy of intellectuals.


In any case, if a woman in Toulouse wants to go shopping, or "faire du shopping," or if a man in Lyons wants to spend "le week-end" at his club, or "son club," then it is difficult to see how they can be stopped from using the first words that come into their minds to describe their intentions.


Policing the human tongue is an endeavor doomed to failure. Or, as some might say, it only leads up a cul de sac, and anyone with a bit of savoir faire would recognize force majeure when he saw it.