The raison d’être of the Commission for the Enrichment of the French Language is to stave off the onslaught of English. It meets monthly at the culture ministry, under the authority of the prime minister and is headed by a member of the Académie française.
Frédéric Vitoux, a novelist and the author of dozens of books about literature, history and art, has presided over the language commission for the past five years.
“A language lives only if it is capable of describing today’s world,” Vitoux says. “There are new discoveries every day in science, technology, ecology, nuclear engineering, sports... We need new words to convey these new concepts, inventions and practices, otherwise our language will become impoverished and sclerotic.”
Where other countries simply import English words, France is determined to invent substitutes. For example, Vitoux knows of no other country that found its own word for “computer”. Inspired by Saint Augustine’s statement that God was the “grand ordinateur” of the universe, a French scientist coined the Gallic word for computer.
The language commission comprises 30 experts, including scientists, writers, retired high level civil servants, members of the council of state and representatives of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, which Ireland joined in 2018. They consider lists of new English words that are making inroads into French at every meeting.
The French word “logiciel” has triumphed over “software”. The commission initially proposed “information fallacieuse” as a substitute for “fake news”. Vitoux knew it would not pass muster. “It was too learned. I could not imagine the average Frenchman saying, ‘That is fallacious information’. I chose a contraction of ‘information’ and ‘intoxication’ – ‘infox’ – and it worked. It’s quick and people understand immediately.”
“Millennials”, referring to young people born in the 1980s and 1990s, was a tricky one for the commission, which chose “les enfants du numérique” or children of the digital age. That too caught on. “Courriel” instead of “email” has been a partial success, though many French rewrite the English world as “mél”. An attempted substitute for SUV (sports utility vehicle) was such a flop that Vitoux cannot remember what the commission proposed. “Sometimes we’re too late,” he explains.
The commission has invented “planche à roulettes” for skateboard, “trottinette” for scooter, “vélo-cargo” for cargo bike and “gyropode” for the Segway.
To succeed in imposing a French term, “We have to react and find a new word very quickly, to prevent the English word taking root,” Vitoux says. “Then we have to make it known as quickly as possible. It’s a race against time.”
Once a new term is approved by the language commission and the dictionary committee of the Académie française, it is published in the journal officiel – which in theory makes its use by officials compulsory. Up to 200 new words are posted on the FranceTerme website of the ministry of culture annually.
Vitoux deplores what he calls “English in a French sauce”, such as the French habit of adding “er” to an English verb to Frenchify it. If you try on clothing in a Paris boutique, the saleswoman is likely to propose accessories to “matcher” your dress. The commission found a substitute to “spoiler”, the franglais verb for revealing the outcome of a film or novel, in “divulgâcher”, a combination of the French verbs for divulging and spoiling.
Worst of all, Vitoux says, English is eroding the grammatical structure of his beloved language. He is scandalised by the official, English-language name of “Lorraine Airport” in Metz, and that the Sorbonne now calls itself “Sorbonne Université” rather than “Université de la Sorbonne”. It pains him that the president, Emmanuel Macron, calls France “la start-up nation” and named his campaign to attract foreign direct investment “choose France” rather than “choisissez France”.
At fault, Vitoux believes, are the “communicants” or communicators – the public relations men and women who populate government ministries and the Élysée. “The dictatorship of the communicators means they often choose English terms for snappy slogans that supposedly speak to the young. These people are dangerous. Often the ministers are not directly implicated, but they let it happen.”
With 300 million French speakers worldwide, of whom 85 per cent are in Africa, the survival of the French language is not in question. Vitoux is heartened by what he sees as the linguistic patriotism of la France profonde ; for example the 20-year run of Bernard Pivot’s spelling championship, and the “thousands and thousands” of letters received by the Académie française, “because people want to be certain they say it correctly”.