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Banning ‘foreign’ words: a linguistic or political exercise in language preservation?

Oh, how I was amused when I stumbled across this post on social media:

“Marine Le Pen”, announces the headline, “wants to ban foreign languages in advertising”. French news channel BFMTV’s Twitter post elicited much tittering from readers, including this fitting suggestion from Tweeter Sam Morgan: “Guess she’ll have to change her name to Marine Le Stylo”. Stylo is French for pen.

Further Tweeters retorted that right-wing présidentielle (French presidential election) hopeful Le Pen’s (or Le Stylo’s) bold aim was nothing short of hypocritical, posting an image from her party’s election campaign, inviting electors to a “meeting”. Doesn’t sound very French to me.

Did heads roll for this at party headquarters? Or did Le Pen not think twice about the use of a resolutely English word in the midst of her resolutely French-in-France campaign? After all, le meeting is today common parlance (which, incidentally, we acquired from Old French) across the land.

The problem with franglais

The global popularity and predominance of English is evident in languages around the world. And French is no exception. French and English have a long and complicated linguistic history. The over-borrowing, overuse, and even misuse of English words in French is a relatively more recent phenomenon. Franglais, as the ensuing hybrid of French (français) and English (anglais) is termed, is defined as: “informal French containing a high proportion of words of English origin”.

And, indeed, it is the type of language typically spoken among younger generations and favoured by domains like advertising, technology and the media, as well as by companies keen to project a more youthful, dynamic or global image.

But the problem with franglais is that sometimes this mash-up of French and English gets lost in translation. While some English words and phrases are correctly adopted, others take on new or even contrary meanings. And for those who don’t speak much, or any English, well, sometimes it’s ‘all Dutch’ (or ‘Chinese’ in France) to them.

A further issue with franglais for some is their firm belief that it encourages overuse of English, and thereby poses a threat to la langue française – the nation’s linguistic pride and joy. Francophones will be familiar with the Académie française, the official custodian of the French language. One of the missions of this traditional establishment of traditionalists is to weed out linguistic imports where these replace existing French words or expressions or result in the creation of hybrid forms, like certain franglais terms.

Franglais is therefore much like marmite: The French either love it or hate it.

So, does Le Pen have un point?

Not everyone in France speaks English, and why should they? Perhaps companies and brands are even shooting themselves in the foot by turning to other languages like English, if their target audience, i.e., the French population, doesn’t always fully understand or ‘get’ their slogan or message.

Moreover, Le Pen’s présidentielle pledge to banish foreign words from advertising (and public communications) in fact targets areas that are already subject to a law implemented back in 1994, which mandates the use of French in a variety of domains and contexts, including advertising: the loi Toubon, or Toubon Law.

However, it is broadly known that this law contains a number of loopholes, which companies and brands are all too-eager to take advantage of when it comes to promoting themselves and their products or services.

Out of love for the national language or purely politics

While the Loi Toubon and Académie française seek to preserve the French language by, among other things, protecting it from anglicisms, Madame Le Pen’s battle may strike some as more of a political than linguistic assault on English & co. A political campaign from a right-wing candidate that talks the lingo of those voters with a distrust of ‘all things foreign’, which by extension encompasses foreign tongues, but first and foremost those who speak them.

Taking the political battle to the linguistic field is never going to be an easy feat. Advertising may seem like the obvious enemy target, but whatever the opinion on the use of English in French advertising, if a company or brand judges that it can better achieve its objectives by drawing on English, then it will.

As we’ve talked about before in our Launch in Translation blog, languages are constantly evolving and move with the times. In France, too, the creative domain of advertising, which loves nothing more than to play on and with words to attract and entice customers, has embraced the global trend for English.

“Banning foreign words from advertising” is therefore not that simple. Knowing how languages work, it’s debatable how popular or successful such a move would be. And leaves us questioning the real motives behind Le Pen’s election promise.

Officially problematic

The following two examples highlight the difficulty – and sometimes absurdity – of prohibiting foreign words. Both concern official documents in their respective countries, both with a political slant.

The first is the case of the new French biometric identity card that the Académie française is up in arms about over the fact that it features English translations, clearly okayed by the French government, despite being “unconstitutional”.

How can French companies, and the French people at large be expected to accept bans on the use of foreign words if their own government is now including English translations on what was previously an official document available only in French?

This is a dispute sure to delight Le Pen, highlighting her point and appealing to staunch and potential Rassemblement National voters alike. For others, however, it is more likely that common sense and an openness to other peoples and languages will prevail: In our global world, you could argue that it’s not only unsurprising, but also a mark of consideration and solidarity to see lingua franca English on a national ID card that will also be used by non-French speakers in France and, potentially, by French citizens abroad.

The second example draws on a petition submitted to the UK government following the vote to leave the EU. The petition is entitled ‘Remove all French words from the cover of new British passports’ and claims that: “French is an EU language and has no place on a UK passport.”

This petition met with much the same bemusement and amusement as Marine Le Pen’s election promise to save the French language, with one Twitter user quick to point out that “The petition to remove French Words from British passports consists almost entirely of words of French or Norman origin”.

This response (and the extremely low number of signatures gained) shows just how problematic and comical such calls to ban foreign words can be.

Here, too, we may well be right to question the real motives of a petitioner who is clearly pro-Brexit: Is their call to arms purely linguistic in nature, or does it have political undertones?

The extreme sport of foreign language culling

Just imagine, for a bit of fun, if our petitioner had applied the ‘logic’ of their claim to their entire petition text.

If we remove all the words in this text highlighted in red as being of French/Norman origin, it now reads:

All French words from the of new British.

The vote to leave the EU means voted to Take Back.

Of their their and their.

Whether ‘Dieu et mon droit’ and ‘Honi qui mal y pense’ have as mottos in England for is.

French is an EU and has no on a UK.

And that’s before we’ve even deleted the word mottos, highlighted in the Tweet in blue as being of Italian origin, and cut all the words of Nordic or Germanic origin, like England, their and whether.

An extreme form of language culling, and perhaps not quite what either Le Pen or the UK petition creator had in mind, but a great way to highlight how languages adopt and assimilate foreign words and expressions and change over time, and how it’s not always quite so straightforward, or desirable to simply “ban” them.

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