Franglais is here to stay

France’s word police need to accept that languages are never ‘pure’.

Patrick West


You’d have thought they would have given up by now, but no, l’Académie française, the body designated with keeping the French language uncontaminated – especially by English – is at it again. ‘The Academy’, ran a headline in Le Figaro last Friday, ‘is said to be gravely concerned by the development of “franglais”’. The article continues: ‘Its leaders have asked the public authorities to better respect the Toubon Law on the defence of French. This law, which provides that any document intended for the public must be written in the language of Molière, recently celebrated its 25th anniversary.’

Citing such words as ‘pub’, ‘enterprise’ and ‘politics’, the Academy protests that it is not being xenophobic, but merely upholding the purity of the language. ‘The French Academy has never been hostile to the introduction and use of foreign terms. But today it is seriously concerned about the development of franglais’, reads the statement. ‘The repeated violations of the Toubon Law… distort our language, as much by the invasion of the Anglo-Saxon terms as by the deterioration they entail in its syntax.’

French hostility to the English language began in earnest with the postwar, worldwide cultural triumph of the United States. French rancour has been acute because, ever since the Enlightenment, French had established itself as the world’s lingua franca (the clue’s in the name). The neutral tongue was that of philosophy, diplomacy, aviation, communication and civilisation itself. It was the language for gentlemen.

Those days are long gone. Today, when two strangers from different linguistic blocs meet, they speak English. The language is the medium in which many if not most university courses around the world are taught, even in France. In the Netherlands and Sweden every young person speaks English. The language is triumphant and unstoppable. The French Academy is fighting a hopeless war. The technology revolution of the past 25 years has only hastened this process.

It’s not just the futility of it all, either. The French Academy’s relentless and fruitless attempts to halt the penetration of English into the French tongue is also hypocritical. The above two paragraphs contain words that were originally French, and which wormed their way into English from 1066 to about 1400 (and in many cases, later): hostilité, culture, triomphe, rancune, neutre, gentilhomme, étranger.

There are an estimated 10,000 words of Old French in the English language. By contrast, 85 percent of Old English vocabulary was lost in the centuries following the Norman conquest. English as it was in Anglo-Saxon times exists only skeletal form, with basic Germanic words surviving in man, brother, sister, land, shoe, house, water, make, book, etc. As Melvyn Bragg notes in The Adventure of English (2003): ‘England, and English, were overwhelmed, suppressed and beaten out of the controlling conversations of the time. The savagery and completeness of the defeat at Hastings, we are told, amazed all Europe.’ The truth is that ‘franglais’ doesn’t just threaten French today; it devastated English almost a thousand years ago.

The English have mostly forgotten about this. We accept ours is a mongrel language. This is something l’Académie française has to come to terms with: languages are never pure, and are always subject to evolution and appropriation, just as French itself was, a language that is a distant descendant of Vulgar Latin.

The well-educated are often the most stupid

It’s been noted that many people who heralded the victory of democracy in Hong Kong are often the same people who dispute and denigrate the majority Leave vote of the British people three years ago. This verifies a long-standing truism: intelligent and well-educated people can often be stupid.

Remainers argue that they are better educated and therefore their arguments carry more weight than those of ‘low-Information’ voters. But being a rich and well-qualified lawyer, or someone with a degree that has nothing to do with history or politics, doesn’t make you an expert on the European Union or the history of Europe. As David Robson argues in his recent book, The Intelligence Trap, educated and intelligent people can often display rank ignorance and stupidity. Arthur Conan Doyle, who should have been logic and deduction epitomised, believed in fairies. Hugh Trevor-Roper fell for the ludicrous 1983 ‘Hitler Diaries’. And Steve Jobs fatally placed his life in the hands of alternative medicine.

The reason for the stupidity of intelligent people, writes Robson, is their arrogance and sense of superiority. ‘Intelligent and educated people are less likely to learn from their mistakes, for instance, or take advice from others.’

Remainers resort to the economic argument to make their point because they’re ignorant on history. (And even then, their predictions of economic collapse after the 2016 vote have proven to be wrong.) Many Brexiteers have long been Eurosceptics because we have read European history and know the terrible consequences that ensue when power-hungry men seek to forge a united, undemocratic European empire. The problem with so many Remainers is that they are ‘low-history’ voters. For them it’s all about money.

We need more Laurence Foxes

Most intelligent grownups don’t pay attention to the political opinions of actors. The film Team America summed it up. Their opinions are usually shallow and conformist. Not so the actor Laurence Fox.

He is decidedly un-luvvie in his opinions and pastimes. The Lewis actor told The Sunday Times the other week that he recently walked around south London in a MAGA hat. He’s fine about multiracialism, but hates multiculturalism: ‘You have to be a Somewhere person. If you’re in England, be English.’

He openly doesn’t hate Donald Trump. He doesn’t think there should be 50-50 gender quotas for scriptwriters at RADA. He calls his fellow thesps ‘hypocrites’ for supporting Extinction Rebellion while leading ‘high-carbon lives’. He is irked most by today’s culture of conformity. ‘Our parents taught us to think for ourselves and then stayed out of the way. Now our kids turn up with a preconceived idea which they’re getting from school.’

Research by King’s College London’s privacy institute published last month showed that young people today had much more liberal views on soft drugs, homosexuality and abortion than they did 20 years ago. The only growing illiberalism is towards those who don’t share the majority opinion on these subjects. A Policy Exchange survey earlier this month showed that fewer than half of students consistently support freedom of speech, and two-fifths support No Platforming.

This is the great paradox of our day: young people are more tolerant than they used to be, except towards those who question the consensus.

Patrick West is a spiked columnist. His latest book, Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times, is published by Societas.

Picture by: Getty

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


T Zazoo

4th December 2019 at 9:36 pm

Ben Carson thinks the universe is only 6500 years old. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to figure out that there is something wrong with that !

Garreth Byrne

30th November 2019 at 10:59 pm

There was the au pair girl who answered a conversation starter with the upfront words: Je fais le babysitting pendant le weekend. But the conversation stopped dead when the guy followed up with: Et ta Mère s’occupe-elle de ton bébé pendant la semaine?

Gareth Edward KING

29th November 2019 at 7:57 pm

The Spanish might be keen to learn English but their attitude to their own (fabulous, amusing and idiosyncratic) language often does not seem to be one of great respect. They read little in either language which tends to mean that their vocabulary (in either) is extremely limited. Their English pronunciation is poor which can only be due the fact that teachers do not use phonemes, ever. This knowledge is essential as the nuance of the target language (English) tends to be completely lost on the Spanish due to their poor pronunciation. Also, it has to be said that being in command of a Romance language like Spanish, either as a native speaker or as a bi-lingual, makes using English in a place like Italy, redundant. For sure, it’s more instructive to use Spanish and follow Spanish syntax whilst inserting Italian into your sentences. I don’t always have patience with poor speakers of English (in the case of Hispanic or Italian native speakers), and in any case, communication becomes a two-way thing-you’re trying as hard as they are.

M Clifford

29th November 2019 at 5:36 pm

Great stuff as always. However, “lingua franca” does not mean language of the French. The original lingua franca was mainly Italian (clue’s in the language, which is Italian) with bits of several other languages, including Frankish.

Liz Davison

29th November 2019 at 12:52 pm

I teach two English classes to retired people in the south of France. The first is for beginners and the second for more conversational tuition. I am shocked at how badly they pronounce everything. They’re unaware of how idiosyncratically their own language is pronounced too. One spoke about the “franglais” issue and yet they are surprised how often I tell them that a word is spelt the same in both languages but pronounced differently. The problem is they were taught to read English, not to write it and certainly not to speak it. When I mentioned the Norman conquest and the resulting infiltration of French into English, they look mystified. It seems they”ve never considered it before. I also remind them that Germanic influences are rife. They’re dead keen to learn though. When the French take up an interest, they really go for it. I don’t mind volunteering as it’s fun.

Jenny Clarke

29th November 2019 at 9:17 am

I feel deeply sorry for Steve Jobs. The people peddling alternative cures to cancers such as his – which he might have survived had he used alopathic treatments from the beginning – ought to be charged with gross negligence, at the very least.

Eric Praline

29th November 2019 at 1:44 pm

Yes, never understand how those people can get away with that stuff. You’d probably get in more trouble for selling a faulty toaster.

Jim Lawrie

29th November 2019 at 9:16 am

The formal acceptance of English as the world language is attestified in the demand for education in that medium. Courses are being set up all over to fill the gap between provision in the English speaking world itself and unmet demand.

In Sweden the competition for places in State Schools that deliver the curriculum in English is ferocious, with priority given to those already competent in English. Children as young as seven commute miles across town to these schools on a daily basis.

English speakers have no need to learn another language. Those who do so have few opportunities to use it. They face a challenge that foreigners generally do not, in that they must reach a level that is better than the local command of English. In a country like Sweden, that is a tall order, added to by the lack of inhibition of the locals to practise their English.

Eric Praline

29th November 2019 at 1:45 pm

I think it’s a courtesy to learn at least a few words, even if everyone is willing to speak English.

Jim Lawrie

30th November 2019 at 12:13 am

I agree.

Jenny Clarke

29th November 2019 at 9:12 am

Remainers are indeed ignorant. They do tend to have little knowledge of history or the constitutional arrangements of the UK – a seventeenth century settlement later augmented – compared to many countries in Europe (not only in the EU) which have Enlightenement style constitution interested in rights, not liberties. Nor do they understand the problems of a Common Law legal system being part of a Civil Law administration. They are also ignorant of the previous attempts to unite Europe under Charlemagne (you’d think a prize named after this emperor would give the game away about the EU), Frederick Barbarossa, Napoleon, and Hitler. Nor do they understand the Holy Roman Empire. If they knew even a smidgin more they would understand the alarm of people in the UK who voted Leave at the direction the EU is taking.

Janet Mozelewski

29th November 2019 at 2:47 pm

I quite agree. When we return to the UK to visit our son people I meet (it is a Remainer area) often presume I am a Remainer also. Yet when i speak to them about France….her social, economic and political challenges….I find their ignorance overwhelming. They have a set of stereotypes and presumptions in their heads instead of facts. So they will say daft things like: The French health service is better than the NHS…without the remotest clue about the high levels of social charges that have to be paid to fund it, or that it isn’t free at the point of delivery (our doctor has a card machine on his desk) or that many treatments need top-up insurance.
Likewise they have no idea of the scale or depth of the protests last year. They have little notion of how the French state is organised politically and zero knowledge of the frequent scandals regarding Macron and others in power and the corruption that is common-place.
It isn’t entirely their fault to be fair. The main broadcasters, while clearly favouring Remainer-centric views, give the lie to idea that the UK is part of Europe every day. Because the news always has 10 times as much about the USA than it does about the near neighbours over the channel.

Darter Noster

2nd December 2019 at 11:27 am

When Remainers realise I voted Leave despite having a French wife and a dual-national son, they always say that it must have made things very awkward with my in-laws. It never seems to occur to them that my French in-laws are no fonder of the EU than I am. Macron himself said he’d never call a referendum on France leaving the EU because if he did Leave would probably win.

Ven Oods

29th November 2019 at 8:53 am

“The French Academy is fighting a hopeless war.”
The French do, of course, have form in that regard.
I’ve always found the ‘Arc de Triomphe’ superbly ironic.

Jonathan Andrews

29th November 2019 at 8:42 am

Never going to be bad having a dig at the French, always fun

Tony Reardon

29th November 2019 at 6:37 am

I first visited Paris in 1971 and virtually nobody spoke English, or if they did, they didn’t admit to it. Indeed, they seemed to make zero attempt to make allowances for our poor French and to delight in making English folks feel inadequate.
Back in France last summer, it was completely different. There was no situation that I can remember where people were the slightest bit uncomfortable with English. As we traveled to Brittany and, when we visited Nice and the Riviera, we found pretty much same level of English understanding and acceptance.

Jim Lawrie

29th November 2019 at 9:29 am

In the early 80’s I found them reluctant to speak English in front of others, but in private very keen to practise it, and asking to be corrected.
In the same period, while traveling in Morocco, I was made and accepted an offer of bed and board in exchange for schooling children in English for a couple of hours a day. The hospitality was impeccable, and the children’s behaviour the same. They spoke French, but their parents could see the writing on the wall for that one.

Lord Anubis

29th November 2019 at 5:26 pm

In the Mid 70’s we, as a family, holidayed in the Dordogne. By contrast to Paris, the locals were not only very welcoming towards the English second homers and ex-pats. They also worked quite hard to master English as a language, and indeed, we eventually realised (To our initial surprise) that the older Locals at least, actually thought of themselves as being more English than French.

Of course, this all made rather more sense once we read up on the history of the region…

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