03 February 2011

From the Ministry of Countering English (France)

There isn't really a ministry set up to counter English in France. But there is the Académie Française, the keepers of French language purity.  It was founded in 1653 by Louis XIII (not the cognac) and Cardinal Richelieu, whom many might remember as the mean guy with the pointy beard in the movie The Three Musketeers. The Académie's 40 members ("Immortals") are charged with "guarding the French language" (more info here in English).

I had a run-in with the Académie in 1990 when my wife and I were living in France, around the time our first daughter was born. It turns out they're also the equivalent of a Supreme Court for Naming Children, although the Académie's recommendations aren't binding, and I might be mixing some other memory into this story. It's probably more relaxed now, but back then the government had at least some say in what you could name your child -- on the principle that you really didn't want to handicap an innocent babe with a name like "Fingernail", so you got to choose from a list of acceptable names. My pioneering American frontier spirit bridled at the implications. Did that mean I couldn't name our baby "Dweezil" (apart from the fact that it had been taken) or "Popcorn"!? Exactly. Well, that and the fact that my wife also got a vote. 

Whether the Immortals themselves or some other regulation was the source of this invasion of my naming rights, it was around the same time that I learned about the Académie, in the context of its futile attempts to keep English loan words out of  French. Official France, and that included broadcasters and advertisers, had to use good old French words, or good new French words to cover for the lack of a good old French word (ordinateur instead of computer). No more could you use the obviously Anglo interloper hamburger (pardon us, all you residents of Hamburg, Germany). The meat and bun combo now had to be called something ridiculously forced, but French. I wish I could remember where I wrote it down.

Anyway, since the end of WWII they've been having a tough time of it, what with English exploding all over the world and that internet thing. It's probably a rear-guard action. But the other day, I came across a curious word in an official French document: courriel. This "portmanteau" combines two decent French words, courrier (which means "mail") and électronique (which means "I guess it's too late to keep out the Greek"). According to this article in 2003, the French government's national register, the Journal officiel, published an edict whereby the English e-mail was banned from official communications, to be replaced by courriel.

This effort is a bit like that Vuitton model Gorbachev thinking he could stop repressing people's freedom of expression (glasnost) and reform communism in a nice way, while still keeping control (perestroika). In the French case, it's a case of creatively adapting in order not to have to adapt to the onslaught of les anglos and their corrupting language.

Despite my thinking the Immortals have met their match in English, and they just don't know it, I've nothing against courriel, since I'm a big fan of portmanteaux. I also like Dweezil.


  1. HA love it! I stumbled on 'courriel' the other day while filling out the docs for my passport renewal and was jolted like I always am by how useless of a word it is... However I'm trying now to imagine how different my life would be if I were named Fingernail and am nevertheless exceedingly grateful for the French purity police's existence...

  2. Do the French know that the rest of the world thinks they are insufferable snobs? Do they care?

    Actually, the last time I was there, about 4 years ago, the people were lovely, and very patient with my horrible French. Much nicer than the Germans we had to deal with on the other leg of our trip. Maybe it's just French institutions that are snobby.

  3. Delightful reading from an obviously enthusiastic and erudite polyglot/linguist!

  4. Dear Fingernail: If you were born today, it might be different.

    Beta Dad: I think they know, and it might be a point of pride. But you're right. In my experience, it's more the institutions and the people's unexamined deference to the "professional" class -- something Germany shares with France, by the way.