The Observer

Le Pouvoir Discret or Le Soft Power? How French Is Fighting Back Against Globish

It should have been a celebration of French language and literature; instead it kindled a controversy. Last month’s national book fair, Livre Paris, was rocked by the organizers’ decision to highlight la littérature “Young Adult” (rather than jeune adulte) through a series of equally ill-named events.

Say hello to la Bookroom, le Photobooth, le Bookquizz, and even un Brainsto (presumably “a brainstorming session” but possibly a brand of metal polish). This misjudged initiative triggered a widely commented opinion-piece-cum-petition condemning the use of “globish” instead of French at such a prestigious event. Published in Le Monde and signed by over a hundred prominent writers, artists, teachers, and journalists, the article decried an act of “cultural delinquency.” The signatories were shocked and saddened that ugly pseudo-English was being used to encourage French youngsters to read books written in their own language. And in the French capital, to boot! The fair’s organizers added insult to injury by claiming that coinages like Bookquizz were “more dynamic” than any French equivalents.

We talked with the French poet and critic Alain Borer, who instigated the op-ed and said that the French language has become like French industry, importing everything and exporting nothing.

France-Amérique: A visiting scholar at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, how has your career in an English-speaking environment influenced the way you view the respective roles of English and French?

Alain Borer: My California experience has shown me the analytical qualities of French with regard to abstract concepts. Just listen to the gorgeous word une nuance. Subtle and untranslatable, it has been adopted in every language; and it says everything about the language from which it comes. What’s more, my American colleagues have been asking me for the past fifteen years whether French has any words for things like “action,” “beauty,” “creation,” “decision,” “emotion,” or “future.” Oddly, they seem unaware that around 63% of English – some 37,000 words – originates from French. Whence the complaint by then-President George W. Bush: “The problem with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur”!

How are the two languages evolving? You say that French is “de-evolving.”

In this virtual age, young Americans have lost a great many precise, refined English words – “adventitious,” “meretricious,” “phlegmatic,” and “laconic,” for instance – or fine old-English expressions like “as is his/her wont.” There is an overall trend towards words being trimmed to one or two syllables and towards a shrinking of the vocabulary. We get what I call “silurids” – words which stifle lexical variety, just like the parasite fauna of a predatory silurid fish. It should be noted that, in French, most of these silurids are American: Booster has replaced both propulser and dynamiser. And this affects the way that we hear words (a shift from Latin-Greek to what I call “anglobal”). It’s a fatal form of dis-invention.

Isn’t there a back-and-forth between the two languages, as you’ve just said?

The back-and-forth between the two civilizations (whereby humeur became “humor” and was reimported as l’humour) is a thing if the past, because English words now stand in for existing French words. That’s what I mean by anglobal.

Do you make a distinction between what you call anglobal and globish?

Yes. Globish is a simplified version of English which allows people to travel, say, around India, and consists of a basic vocabulary, indefinite articles, neutral words, and no conjugations. By contrast, anglobal is a phenomenon in which existing words are replaced, leading to a substitute representation of the world. That’s why the process is doubly hegemonic. On the one hand, Britons and Americans no longer learn foreign languages and impose their own language across the board. On the other hand, the French behave as if they have been colonized. Chateaubriand wrote, at the end of Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe, of a nightmare in which he saw French become a purely commercial transaction.

De quel amour blessée : Réflexions sur la langue française by Alain Borer, Gallimard, 2014.