La language guerre

Published March 19, 1994|Updated Oct. 6, 2005

Americans traveling in Europe have suspected for years that the French feign incomprehension in the presence of English-speaking tourists who don't command the native tongue. The suspicion is strongest in Paris, where Americans attribute the refusal by locals to converse in English to the snobbish pretention that the French language is better than any other.

The French Culture Ministry has given the suspicion new currency, demanding foreign words and phrases be banished from all use within the country if suitable French alternatives exist. The National Assembly will vote on the proposal this spring. A favorable vote could mean, for example, the end of the use of the term "airbag" in favor of coussin gonflable de protection, and the demise of linguistic compromise, as in "le cash flow" and "disque-jockey."

This isn't the first time the French have sought to purge their language of foreign idiom, or, argot, if you will. Nevertheless, the proposal has generated a panicky reaction in the worlds of music, science, commerce, advertising and sports, where English has penetrated deeply into the fabric of communications. Yet the prospect of hefty fines or the loss of state financing for violators is daunting.

There is something slightly xenophobic about the notion that the term "fast food" must become restauration rapide, that "jumbo jet" will become gros-porteur, that "popcorn" will be mais souffle, and "prime time" will be heures de grande ecoute. Easy for you to say.

Is the next step to order that all dogs in France be renamed, Phideaux?

If the measure passes, Americans might consider banishing French words and phrases. Quiche, for example, could be replaced by a new, rhyming, English phrase: "egg pie with meat and cheese, certain to clog the arteries."

Good grief! (Sacre bleu!)