I don’t know what’s more annoying: the pedantry of French bureaucrats, or the pedantry of American conservatives who like to pick on them. And no one brings those two together quite like the Wall Street Journal op-ed page. Thus this article on a (heretofore unknown to me) French bureaucratic commission tasked with inventing French equivalents of foreign (in practice, American-originated English) words or phrases that make their way in the French vernacular.
In linguistics as in many other cases, I am somewhat of an outlier for a French guy. Whenever the subject comes up (rarely), it is usually split between curmudgeons who think it is an outrage to use any foreign (read: American) words in French prose, and dilettantes who just don’t give a damn about proper language. I love the French language, but also love new technologies (and to do so, in France, is to use English in every sentence). I reject cultural protectionism, and yet believe in the uniqueness of French culture and language.
What to say? That the efforts of this commission and others like it are doomed? Of course. That it is sadly risible that the people staffing it are so out of touch that they did not understand the term “cloud computing” or think it was a trend important enough to deserve their attention? Sure.
French was once the lingua franca (heh) of the world, and it looks like it won’t be for the foreseeable future. The people with the tailored suits and the smattering of degrees who are doing this are really troglodytes, wasting their time (and my money, as a French taxpayer) on a quixotic rearguard fight.
A cursory look at any French daily newspaper will tell the educated reader that what French writers need is not an education in English-to-French translation but, tragically, a course of basic grammar and spelling. (In the interest of full disclosure I should point out that I have a vested interest in this, since the company I’m starting deals with precisely this issue.)
The French government, meanwhile, far from protecting the French language, actually attacks it on all fronts. Misguided government directives in the late nineties pushed for the feminization of the names of professions, in contempt of the actual rule of French grammar, which is that the masculine gender is also the neutral gender. (A note to all the chairwomen and chairpersons out there: this is also true for English. But at least chez les Anglo-Saxons grammatical vandalism has been privatized.)
The WSJ article correctly points out that the French Constitution holds French to be the national language, drawing on legal precedent dating back to the 16th century (or even the 9th, but postulating this leads to hair-splitting), but the government has been not only tolerating but encouraging the proliferation of regional languages and other patois, a slap in the face of centuries of tradition and policy.
And of course the French government leaves school teaching methods and programs up to the radical left-wing unions since May 68, which has resulted in an appalling drop in education standards. My future father in law, who doesn’t have a high school diploma, has impeccable spelling, unlike many of my classmates at my top-ranked school.
Like an economy, I believe culture thrives best when open. The historical evidence that languages in general, and French in particular, are enriched by additions from other languages, is overwhelming, as any reader of Rabelais can see. The common sense proposition that the proper use of language cannot be mandated beyond the classroom, but evolves organically, seems self-evident to me.
A government which claims to protect French culture but undermines it on one side, backward-looking troglodytes on the other, and me, stuck in the middle with them.