This month the Metro published an article about the French backlash against English words which now permeate the French language, particularly in the domain of digital technology. As, at the beginning at least, the internet was a domain dominated by English, words such as ‘email’, ‘download’ and more recently ‘tweet’ and ‘hashtag’ were commonly used in everyday French. Now, however, led by the Office Québécois de la Langue Française (OQLF), the use of French equivalents for these 21st century concepts is being promoted. One of the biggest challenges faced by the French language is the variants of the language spoken around the world – with 220 million speakers globally, French is the third most used language on the internet, social media sites and in international trade and, in addition, by 2050 it is estimated that countries in Africa alone will make up 80% of French speakers. This is borne out by the fact that French – speaking Canada already has a variety of French words for some of these concepts which are not recognised in France. These include ‘pourriel’ (spam), ‘baladodiffusion’ (podcast) and ‘clavardage’ (chat). France is now attempting to follow suit; this began in 2003 when the word ‘email’ was replaced with ‘courriel’ and is continuing today with examples such as ‘mot-clic’ for ‘hashtag’. (Incidentally, it isn’t just the French who are staging this fight back, for example the verbs ‘Googeln,’ ‘downloaden’ and ‘twittern’ have worked their way into German with the latter now being replaced by the perfectly adequate German equivalent of ‘herunterladen’.)
This replacement of English loan words with appropriate French words and phrases has been instigated out of concern that borrowing too many words from other languages leads to a mishmash of the two, or in other words a propagation of ‘franglais’. In order to promote the use of French words over their English loan equivalents, the French are adding them to the online word bank FranceTerme, encouraging the media to adopt them, and there have also been suggestions that a French language web could help. An OQLF spokesperson insisted that the intention was to ensure that borrowed words, which they concede are a natural part of any language’s evolution, add to the language rather than replace it. Whatever the intention, one thing is certain: with the continuous emergence of new technologies, all languages will have to learn to adapt and accommodate both neologisms and foreign – language loan words for expressing new concepts…after all, what did ‘hashtag’ mean to an English speaker 5 years ago?