Franglais; idiosyncratic or reductive?

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Whilst working in Paris, as part of my year abroad, I was surprised when one of my French colleagues asked me what RSVP meant. It’s a Frenchism which stands for ‘répondez s’il vous plaît’, meaning ‘please respond’, that is widely recognised in the English language but which doesn’t appear to be the case in French. So why is it that aspects of the French language have made their way into the English language, seemingly without the French even knowing?

Bilingualism’s role as a sociocultural phenomenon can sometimes be overlooked.

Bilingualism seems to be something that has always fascinated those who have not grown up speaking 2+ languages, but its importance as a sociocultural phenomenon can sometimes be overlooked. At times bilingualism can manifest itself into a mixture of 2+ languages within the same sentence. Two examples of this are Franglais (French and English) and Spanglish (Spanish and English). These examples blend elements of both languages in an unidiomatic way, to such an extent that it’s become a diglossia, meaning that both languages are used within a single community. Therefore, an understanding of both languages, and therefore cultures, is essential. 

The constant linguistic interchanging is something that’ll only really be understood by someone who’s confident in both languages. It is worth considering whether incorporating elements of both languages into everyday speech is a way of paying homage to both cultures or, rather a display of disregard for the syntactical, lexical and cultural fields that are ultimately unique to any one language.

Franglais (the term for the practice I will be focusing on), is typically employed when the speaker has been heavily exposed to both the English and French language and culture from an early age. As a result, sometimes they find that one of the languages inadequately expresses what they want to say. 

For example, a speaker of both French and English, might translate the word ‘brunch’ simply as le brunch in French. This is primarily because brunch is a traditionally British concept, and therefore would have to be defined in its French translation as something along the lines of ‘a meal that one has at lunchtime, but that constitutes both breakfast and lunch’. This is a wordy and frankly quite confusing way of expressing something that isn’t really possible to accurately translate because it constitutes a cultural practice. 

Similarly, the French tend to use much of the English (and originally American) Internet jargon, such as tweeter, Skyper, liker and follower. This is not only because the words are originally English and therefore their translation seems futile, but also because English has historically dominated Europe’s linguistic sphere as the lingua franca and is therefore universally understood.

It’s important to acknowledge that this is not a linguistic one-way street. Frenchisms have also been adopted into the English language for centuries. Words such as déjà vu, cul-de-sac, matinée, encore, RSVP, souvenir, avant-garde and fiancé are all inherited from the French, but are arguably so entrenched in the English language that their linguistic roots are often forgotten about. 

The adoption of English words into the French language can be seen to undermine the language’s very existence.

In Paris I noticed that the French take the notion of Franglais a step further than we do. Not only do they use the English words when they’re unable to find an adequate French translation, they also pepper English words here and there; it seems this is considered cool. Words that the French tend to use, that have a perfectly adequate and widely-used French translation, such as hello, yes, please, thanks, sorry and why not demonstrate a desire not only to reproduce the English, but also to reflect the status of the English language.  Needless to say, if Anglophones randomly added French words into their vocabulary, it wouldn’t be considered cool, since the vast majority of people wouldn’t understand what you were saying. I, therefore, believe that French speakers who incorporate Anglicisms into their speech show a much larger cultural statement than vice versa. I think this shows a much larger French propensity to learn the English language in today’s society in comparison to the English learning of French.

This then becomes a wider cultural issue, frequently addressed by the Académie française, whereby the adoption of English words into the French language can be seen to undermine the language’s very existence. Linguistic scholarship insists that a language represents a flag of allegiance and without it a country’s raison d’être, to employ another frequently used French phrase, is significantly reduced. It seems that there’s a fine line between using an English word when there doesn’t appear to be an adequate French equivalent and actually diluting the purity of the French language, which can alight a sense of animosity among linguistic Puritans. 

Languages are embracing this notion of hybridity that is making the world more cosmopolitan and less linguistically isolated.

This linguistic vexation could be a result of a pure love for the French language, suggesting that an incorporation of Anglicisms undermines French patriotism. Or, perhaps on a deeper level, there may be a certain sense of a power struggle. This suggests that through linguistic imperialism the British have been able to impose their language on their former colonies, and in fact the world, to a much larger extent than the French have. 

Nonetheless, the emergence of these variants of bilingualism shows that languages are embracing this notion of hybridity that is making the world more cosmopolitan and less linguistically isolated. The trouble comes when one’s country feels as though their language is not being used alongside the other language, but rather becoming inferior to it. 

The blending of multiple languages appears to be an unavoidable by-product of a burgeoning sense of globalisation and pluralism. Should we consider this to be a linguistic and cultural broadening of horizons? Or is it merely a way that English, as the hegemonic language, is diluting any language that chooses to incorporate it into its vernacular?

Image: Unsplash by John Towner

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