Culture & ideas Ideas

Languages: French resistance, German collaboration

22 March 2010
Rzeczpospolita Warsaw

A BBC teach yourself English course from the 1950's. Image : banlon1964/Flickr

A BBC teach yourself English course from the 1950's. Image : banlon1964/Flickr

As English continues to encroach upon the rest of the world, Paris cranks out laws and invents new French words to protect the language of Molière. In Berlin, the battle has only just begun, and it looks to be a tough fight because Germany long ago laid down its arms.

French linguist Michel Arrivé once observed that the average Frenchman speaks English like a Spanish cow. But since the allied invasion of Normandy in World War II, the French language has become increasingly "Americanized", prompting French writer René Etiemble to ask, "Parlez-vous franglais?" While the cultural patrimony of France may feel besieged by the language of "les rosbifs", the French haven't exactly rolled over. In 1975, the French government approved the Bas-Lauriol law, which forbids the use of English terms in official documentation, advertising and within the public administration.

Terminology commissions were set up in French ministries to come up with French terms for all things and ideas bearing only English names. Thus "logiciel" replaced "software", "le baladeur" supplanted "the Walkman", "computer" became "ordinateur", and the "weekend" was jettisoned for "fin de semaine". Over the past ten years, the list has grown longer. "Brainstorming" is now "remue-méninges", while "chat" has become "dialogue en ligne" and "email" has morphed into "courriel".

Hard to find job in France without English

Despite such efforts, in the 1980's, English continued to permeate scientific conferences and the worlds of culture and technology. So, in 1996, a new law was passed. Known as the loi Toubon in linguistically correct terminology, it mandated the use of the French language and enshrined the primacy of French in France. But even then the battle was not won. In October 2009, a group of associations to defend the French language once again sounded the alarm."Today, there are more English words on the walls of Paris than German words during the occupation. The time for resistance has come!"

It must be said that they do have a point. Despite all the legislative measures, English still dominates the world of science, advertising and business. In fact, it's hard to find a job in France without speaking English. Globalisation demands that French companies accept the international rules of the game, which notably make English the lingua franca. And yet, in 2005, the French Senate adopted a bill designed to strengthen the loi Toubon. It required company executives to use French, notably during negotiations with employees, to avoid misunderstandings.

Germans have an inferiority complex

While the French continue their mission to preserve the primacy of French, the Germans gave up the battle long ago. A sentence recently appearing in The Times says it all, "Submission to the German language is pitiful, devoid of all dignity and, in short, pathetic." German linguists say that some 8,000 English words are used in everyday in spoken German. "Handy" is used to describe a mobile phone. "Check-up", "net", and "charts" are but a few English words among many that can be looked up in a modern German-language dictionary.

"We Germans have an inferiority complex", says Dr. Holger Klatt in an interview with Rzeczpospolita. "We consider our language to be a necessary annoyance and we prefer to speak English." Dr. Klatt is a member of VDS, a 32,000-strong association of German language purists. Large multinational companies bear the most blame for diminishing German. Radio and TV commercials bombard consumers with English words and expressions. But it took a few square metres of asphalt in a Bavarian province to awaken Germans to just how bad things had become and to ignite a fire. In the dock stood the accused – Germany's national railway, which after having horrified riders for years with toilets called "McClean", recently decided to build a parking lot dubbed "Kiss & Ride" in the city of Straubing.

The name went down like a lead balloon with a local retiree, who fired off a letter to Ernst Hinsken, a conservative Bavarian deputy. The retiree asked Mr. Hinsken if the parking lot was reserved for kisses or horseback riding. The stunned deputy promised to rein in the German railway's use of Anglicisms. Rüdiger Gruber , who heads the railway, even committed to putting German back into German railway stations. One day soon, "Service points" will become "Servicepunkte and "flyer" will go back to being just plain old "Handzettel". Will that be enough to seal the victory of German over English? "Probably not," Dr. Klatt says. "You can't prevent people from speaking English and you can't stop globalisation, but there are some things you can do. Don't ape the British and Americans because they die laughing when we lick their boots."