Wednesday, 31 August 2005

Parlez-vous English?

I hear or read something that annoys me and I think, “Here’s my next slap!”, but more often than not something else even more aggravating gets in the way. It happened again today: I knew what I was going to write about and then I looked in my Inbox and found a weekly newsletter I subscribe to. It was from the French magazine ELLE. I like it: every week, it alerts me to interesting online articles and news.

I used to buy ELLE, when I lived in France (I don't now: it’s imported and costs too much). I used it as a study aid when I worked as a French Assistante, back in 1969-70 – well, that’s how I justified charging the schools employing me for the price of the subscription, anyway. No, no, it was useful. I was supposed to teach French civilization and there’s nothing better than newspapers and magazines for that purpose.

So this is what I read:

Une jupe pour jeune lady
Ambiance rétro british chez Didier Parakian

L'éternelle wrap dress
On ne se lasse pas des robes de Diane von Furstenberg.

Collectionnez les galets
India Mahdavi relooke les cendriers

Un club sucré?
Fauchon réinvente le sandwich

See a pattern here?

Only the last item is ok-ish. The word “sandwich” has been part of the French vocabulary for a very long time; so has “club sandwich”, but it looks like the French are now calling it “club”. They do that all the time, the French – dropping words here and there, like life is too short or something... As for the rest of the English interlopers... preposterous!

As Dickens writes in Nicholas Nickleby, French is a “good” language that can stand on its own two feet, as it were. LOL!

'What sort of language do you consider French, sir?'

'How do you mean?' asked Nicholas.

'Do you consider it a good language, sir?' said the collector; 'a pretty language, a sensible language?'

'A pretty language, certainly,' replied Nicholas; 'and as it has a
name for everything, and admits of elegant conversation about
everything, I presume it is a sensible one.'

I'm not an intransigent purist: I don’t mind a few foreign (for “foreign”, read “English” these days) words here and there, but this is nonsense.

I'm slapping pretentious French people who pepper their speech with pseudo English words. Who do they think they're fooling? Most of them are not even able to order a cup of tea when they travel over here.

C'est un peu too much! (as I heard someone say on the French radio once)


  1. ROTFL, what fun! I guess we should take it as a compliment?!

  2. What I meant to say, of course, was how shocking tht a nation that used to be so proud of their language that they created a whole academy to protect its integrity should now be so lax.

    I blame the Internet.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. That was me above, not some sinister, repentant visitor. I was answering your first post and slapping you for not bemoaning with me the imminent demise of my beautiful mother tongue. I'm glad you've now found some compassion in your heart. ;-)

    Yes, I need to slap the Internet soon.

  5. *sits quietly, listening to lulu and bela discussing the demise of something* *perhaps the French language* *perhaps Western civilization* *heh* xoxoxo

  6. Heh. This is quite funny to me as a speaker of American English. What you bemoan about French is the delight of this language - it is an utter bastard. It assimilates all sorts of random words and phrases from other languanges into its own, and they become carriers of communication just as potent as those from the "tradition" of the English language. As Wittgenstein said, "language is use." If we use it, it's a part of the language - American English. I find it invigorating and fun, and reflects quite well upon us that we are not really so isolated culturally. Honestly English itself is a mutt. And nothing terrible has come of that fact.

    French is beautiful to my ears, but I could never be precious about any language, perhaps as a consequence of my own mother tongue. What is fun is listening to Spanish nowadays to compare. "Okay," "TV," "el car," are all parts of the language now. I have never known anyone, even recent immigrants, who don't say "okay." And you never describe a regular car as " el coche." That's a fancy car. Everyone else says "el car."

    My own family spoke Volga Deutsch, which is mostly a strange mix of Middle High German and Russian - it too is a bit of a bastardization. My family used it - and there was nothing wrong with it all. It served their purposes. Communication with other human beings. What more could be important than that, really?

  7. the english could never take their language as seriously as the french

    but generally speaking, i do admire the efforts of the french state to define (not that i'm sure it's possible) what it is to be french - to make it meaningful

    we're too busy talking ourselves down and joking to bother

    hmmmm, not sure if i'm slapping or not...just think it sounds kinda silly to lob in all those english words

  8. It's considered pretty pretentious in English to pepper your sentences with all kinds of French for which there is perfectly good English, too. But weirdly, not so Spanish. (We probably still have lingering anger over the Norman invasion via the Brits.)

    For fun, when you have a chance, peek at these "essentialist" explanations of languages.

  9. Actually, M, it looked like World War Three was going to start last night.

    K, you got me wrong: I am not against those foreign words that have been used in French for a long time, nor am I against the introduction of new ones if they help with communication, but we’re not talking about communication here; we’re talking about showing off. As Tania pointed out, it is the same in your country. People want to show how educated and hip they are. Unfortunately, they’re usually the ones who didn’t listen during English lessons at school and have no idea how the English language works. They create stupid words like “relooker”, which are not understood by everyone and create in fact a barrier instead of helping communication.

    What I bemoan is not “the delight” of your language. I’ve lived in the UK for 26 years; I don’t hear people plonking French words (or any other foreign words) willy-nilly in the middle of sentences, for no good reason whatsoever. All the sentences I quoted in my post came from one short email. I’ve never received any email from any UK or US company containing so many foreign words. The English/Americans only keep words and expressions that they don’t have in their vocabulary; only the ones that are useful in expressing concepts that may have been alien to them before a certain point in history. In the case of your language we’re talking about a slow evolution over years or even centuries – through the arrival of immigrants from different parts of the world. In the case of French, it’s a very recent phenomenon and it goes against all we know about the way language usually evolves. If it carries on it will destroy it, instead of enriching it.

    T, what you say about Spanish is very interesting. I wonder whether you’re right about the cause. Thanks for the link.

  10. Oops, UC, sorry I forgot to answer you: it's true the French have always taken their language seriously, but that’s because French is not spoken as widely as English is, so it’s more vulnerable to “attacks” and “invasion”. The English don’t care so much (and yet don’t succumb to the lure of foreign words) because English is the language of the Internet, etc. and therefore is not likely to disappear in the near future. Perhaps it's just arrogance on their part. LOL!

    The Académie Française doesn’t really have much clout. It certainly hasn’t managed to curb this new phenomenon. It’s not bad, on the whole: over the years, it has approved lots of foreign words. The French Canadians are worse: they forbid the use of “weekend”, for instance, and insist on “fin de semaine” being used. I don’t know whether people actually comply. It's all very silly.

  11. I agree with everything Bela says.

    The main difference between this situation and the USA, etc., is definitely that the French haven't adopted all these English words because of the Brits who moved to the Dordogne (who are all older anyway and don't do trendy-speak); they've done it as a kind of Hollywood-envy, looking out plaintively across the Atlantic and wanting to sound like natural-born Valley Girls. It's fake and journalist-led, and that's probably why it sounds silly. And I bet those words are here today, gone tomorrow.

  12. J, i lament the degradation of intelligent discourse, whatever its cause. But i do believe the French have a peculiarly rigid view of their language - L'Académie Française was created to "fixer la langue française," to *regulate* the language. In contrast, English dictionaries serve more to *report* current usage. What a vast gulf lies between those two approaches!

    As others have commented, language that is used, alive, must constantly be in flux. If French is a great language (as i believe it is), it will be able to incorporate and transcend the vagaries of popular usage - no matter how irritating!

  13. What an interesting discussion! Bela, I don't doubt you for a second. No one who loved Shakespeare as much as you would seriously question the fertility of expression that results when languages interbreed.

    Yes, there are certainly some French phrases that have crept into English intact. Femme fatale, je ne sais quoi, even RSVP (répondez s'il vous plaît). But there *is* something gratuitious and grating when some twit (who usually can't pronounce French even approximately) starts throwing French in willy nilly for no reason except to show off. "Lisa and I went en vacances to Toronto, and then her sister showed up. Really de trop, you know, and then we went for le déjeuner..." Etc. It's always done in just the worst accent, too. Makes you want to scream.

    As for the Spanish being OK to pepper in as you like, I suspect it's a class issue. In the US mind, French is the unpronounceable language on the menu at the fancy restaurant, and Spanish is the language spoken by the busboy who clears away the remains of your truite au bleue.

  14. D, I don't see how French can remain a "great" language or even a language at all if every single sentence (I'm not kidding) includes one or more English word (or distorted English word) in it. English wouldn't survive either if it was the other way, which it isn't, as I've already pointed out.

    Forget the stereotype of the French killjoy; that's not what I am. You'll have to take my word for it, as a native French speaker, that I am not being "rigid" here: what I am witnessing has nothing to do with a language being "alive" or "in flux". I don't know how to explain it better than I have already in my answers to some of the comments. I have also mentioned how little influence the Académie Française has on everyday speech.

    The kind of French people are speaking and writing now is a bastard mixture that is losing its power as a communication tool, since a certain percentage of the population is not in on it. The rest of the population are snobs (you must know the type; I certainly do) who think that littering their speech with American/English words and phrases makes them sound more intelligent and trendy, when in fact they sound ridiculous and pretentious.

    You have no idea how preposterous "L'éternelle wrap dress" (the eternal... wrap dress) or "India Mahadavi relooke les cendriers" (IM redesigns ashtrays!) sounds.

  15. Oh, T, you slipped in when I was answering D. LOL!

    Yes, as I said before, French words and phrases that have remained in the English language are those that express concepts that used to be alien to the Brits/Americans and therefore had no place in the vocabulary before someone went, "Aha! This word is really useful; let's use it!". Indeed like "femme fatale". Such a typical French thing, isn't it? I wish we'd had a recent-ish wave of Jewish immigration here too, so we could "kvetch" like you in the US.

    The bit of conversation you quoted is exactly what I'm talking about!

    And I expect you're right about the reason why Spanish is ok.

  16. I suspect Spanish also gets a pass since in many areas in the US it's totally common to hear. Heck, some places you'll hear more Spanish than English. Honestly, so many Spanish speakers, especially those from Central America, take on English words that there really are exact equivalents for in Spanish. You hear it even on some of the telenovelas (short serialized soap operas.) And you hear it quite frequently on the game shows - maybe that has something to with class issues, too? One is scripted with professional actors, and one is just regular folks trying to win prizes.

    We order things ala mode and ala carte all the time off restaurant menus here. You can say that sort of thing using words in English, but the peculiar use (I'm guessing it's not quite correct how we implement it) of the French terms seems to have gone on long enough that we just don't. Dunno why. I *think* it got started because way back when, some businesses got the idea that their place would look fancier if they were using French words? Perhaps this goes to class or socioeconomic issues, too. The adoption of random foreign phrases is an attempt to be seen as "moving up" in the world, possibly.

    Eh, but I'm so laid back. I'm only ever annoyed when folks deliberty obscure their meaning to unkindly manipulate, and use language only as a tool of sophistry. The rest is just interesting to observe sometimes.

    This is fascinating to me to hear all these different ways of looking at it. Thanks for bringing it up in your post, Bela.

  17. Dagnabit, I should edit before hitting the enter button. I meant to say that you can hear English words MORE frequently on the game shows than on the telenovelas. Bleh. Who am I to comment on language? I can't even get my own language right.

  18. Spanglish is all the rage out here which makes me stand out even more. Spanglish speakers are usually those who grew up speaking both English and Spanish so if they don't know the word in one language they substitute for the word in the other language.

    It really cuts between classes however especially more now than ever. You see in Texas kids were punished for speakin Spanish in schools so you were taught that Spanish was negative and English was positive.

    Both my parents are bilingual English/Spanish and were raised to speak Spanish in only at home and English at all other times.

    Because so many from my parents generation were punished for being able to speak Spanish a lot of them chose not to teach their kids Spanish.

    Which made sense at the time but now with the huge influx of Spanish Speakers who aren't wanting or willing to assimilate in speaking English it puts a lot of people at a disadvantage.

    I am constantly criticized for having a Spanish surname but not being able to speak Spanish - the funny thing is that I have very little Spanish blood!

  19. Atreau, that's so interesting! I was thinking along the lines of English speakers who throw in Spanish words for fun—hipsters who talk about mi casa and that kind of thing. I too have a Spanish surname but can only speak the most rudimentary tourist Spanish (please, thank you, where's the bathroom) and get scolded for it by strangers sometimes. (I'm Filipino, so the surname is a colonial effect, but tell that to the guy at the bodega.) I do know that my father was very against us speaking anything other than English in the house, and so my sister and I never learned his native tongue (Ilokano) or my mother's (Cantonese). Which I resent but understand.

    As for restaurants, restauranting as we know it is an 18th Century French invention (as far as I know). So it makes sense that arty food is haute cuisine.

    They say we call a cow a cow when it's in the field and beef when it's on the plate because of the French, too. In other words, when the Normans invaded, the English servants who presented a juicy steak to their masters learned to call it boeuf.

  20. It's fascinating for me to read more of your comments, K, S and T. Thank you very much.

    I'm more or less in the same position as you, S and T, although my surname doesn't instantly indicate my family's origins. My father was Russian and my mother Polish, so I don't have a drop of French blood in my veins. My father spoke three languages fluently; my mother four. They had emigrated to France (separately) when they were young and had tried their utmost to assimilate, as far as language was concerned anyway. As well as French, they spoke Yiddish at home, so I understand that language too, although I can't speak it. They always argued in Russian, so I know a lot of swear words. LOL! I was expected to be top of my class in French - no excuses. You had to speak the language of the country that had given your parents asylum (even though it had betrayed them during the war, but that's another story).

    Because there was no "lycée" teaching Russian within a reasonable distance from my home, when the time came for me to choose a second foreign language to learn (apart from English), I studied German. Otherwise, I would be fluent in Russian today.

  21. Atreau, I think the elimination of a perfectly good second language in a region where lots of immigrants come from a place where it was their first language is a shame and a waste of an opportunity for people to be bilingual, with all the richness of thought that that implies (and is precisely the opposite, of course, of what Bela is complaining about). Tania, you're so right - both Bela's slap and Atreau's experience, while completely different, are probably based in class issues. Either trying to show off 'upwards', with the French in restaurants, or middle-class suburban kids trying to be 'street', as we call it in the UK, with the Spanish. Spanish to us in the UK sounds lovely and glamorous, on a par with Italian and French really, and it's just because the Spainsh are not among Britain's poorer people. Our 'street' language ridiculously adopted in show-off chunks by the middle classes aspiring to be hip is that of black American rappers! Although Guy Ritchie's put-on cockney, which Madonna has ridiculously started to adopt too, while going hunting in tweeds at his family's country estate, springs to mind as well, LOL.

  22. PS About culinary terms, T: it's not just cow vs beef; it's also pig vs pork (porc) and calf vs veal (veau), isn't it? LOL!

  23. Hi Bela...

    Dead is dead and we're all going to be there someday. I've known a few people who died of cancer and they went through some really awful treatments (chemo, etc) before they went.

    Chemo is prescribed for many forms of cancer that multiple scientific studies have shown it does not help. There is a quality of life issue when you only have a short time left, I think. On the other hand, it has been proven very effective for other forms.

    Sometimes a person needs western medicine, like an antibiotic. Sometimes you don't.

    I think everyone has to decide for themselves how to deal with such a situation, and hopefully, each will make an educated choice.

    I personally use herbs all the time for many minor illnesses and there are lots of scientific studies that show they work for chemical reasons. However, I think there is a synthesis factor that science doesn't always take into account. I also firmly belive that there is a spiritual component.

    I agree with Katiedid about massage too.

    As for homeopathy, it's never worked for me so I don't use it.

    Let the buyer do his or her own research! :-)

  24. The idea that anyone would use 'American' to sound or look trendy is stunning when you consider that this country is backtracking as quickly as it can to the Dark Ages. 'Intelligent design' is probably not a phrase you'd see in Elle.

  25. Hi, Kate,

    I gather you were commenting on my other post.

    I’m aware that chemotherapy and other radical treatments do not always work and quality of life has to be taken into account. I could well envisage refusing treatment myself if (G-d forbid!) I thought it wouldn’t do any good. I wasn’t talking about people in the very last stages of their illness (although, I suspect, quite a few patients are not told that medicine can’t do anything for them and if they were they would probably make different choices), but about people who, presumably, can be helped and want to live. I’m also aware that Cancer is not "one" disease, but hundreds and that they are all different and require different kinds of management.

    I use herbs too. I was brought up with them: the French drink “tisanes” (herb teas) all the time. The Brits have only recently started to use them – at about the same time as they started buying bottled water and using olive oil in cooking. I strongly believe that mint is good for the digestion; that chamomile and linden are calming, etc. They have chemical components that have been recognized by conventional medicine. I’m not so sure about the spiritual component, but, you know, if it works….

    I guess I was railing about “buyers” who don’t do their own research.

    I know you must find me dogmatic. This blog is my soapbox. LOL!

  26. Laura, America has always been glamorous. The French have a real love affair with it (in spite of political disagreement).

    Let's hope this is just a blip.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.