Franglais, loan words and a grumpy Frenchman……

It was, I believe, a certain M. Étiemble who devoted a whole book to the condemnation of what he called Franglais – the long-term debauching of French by commercial English (strictly speaking, commercial American). However such a liaison may be refused benefit of academy, nothing can prevent its becoming a common law marriage: languages only give house-room to foreign words when they can’t get on without them. Nobody told the French to adopt nouveau look (new look), rocanrole (rock ‘n’ roll), bestseller, kidnappé and so on: they had to go into the language because their referents couldn’t be named more succinctly out of the native word-stock. I can understand M. Étiemble’s being annoyed that brassière – which has a basic denotation of ‘shoulder-strap’ – should threaten to take over the function of soutien-gorge (which does its job well enough), but generally speaking he has no right to denounce a linguistic process which is as old as speech itself. Languages in contact, as Mario Pei reminds us, are bound to mix.
English has become a great exporter of words, but this represents a kind of historical justice. After all, we’ve had – in the formative years of the language – a great mass of French and Italian dumped upon us. Grateful for loanwords which became an indispensable part of our lexicon, we’ve expected gratitude from Italy for futbol and colcrem and from Russia for khuligan (hooligan) and loder. This last word, which means ‘lazybones,’ comes from ‘loaded’: visiting Russians were greatly struck by the slowness of the stevedores on British docks. We’re not sympathetic to ‘pure language’ slogans. But, if any foreign nation thinks we’ve foisted too many words on it, the time has come to show that English can still absorb an alien lexis with a good grace.

But, before we think about words, let’s think about the setting-down of words on paper. If the Arabs were to join the European Union, I’d suggest that we follow them in doing without upper-case letters, thus saving much typing and printing time, as well as the expense of two different kinds of typeface. As it is, we can at least follow Romance usage by employing lower-case initials in proper-name adjectives – british, french, german and so on. German, which – consulting majority usage in the European Union – will have to throw away all its noun-capitals, nevertheless sets an example to English in its willingness to eschew hyphens and to make word-compounds into real words. If it can use Grundbuchamt, we ought to have ‘landregistry,’ and ‘insurancebroker’ need be no more eccentric than Versicherungsmakler.

Of course, it would help our german market-partners if we dug up germane wordroots, turning ‘menstruation’ into ‘monthflow’ on the analogy of Monatsfluss, and making a nipple a breastwart (Brustwarze). But the french spent centuries knocking latin into us, and ‘education’ is éducation to them, just as it is educazione to the Italians. ‘Updragging’ is altogether Nordic and has a coarse unupdragged quality about it. Besides, languages don’t make that sort of deliberate adjustment. We take in loanwords because we need them. We need ombudsman and sputnik and Autobahn and, presumably, discothèque, boutique and espresso. ‘The sweet life’ means little, but la dolce vita means a lot. I, personally, should be happy to see terms like bistro and Bierstube absorbed into english, if the referents too could be absorbed with them. For neither bistro nor Bierstube is subject to british licensing laws. And though minijupe derives from ‘miniskirt,’ the french term implies elegance, while the quantian original suggests big knobbly clumsy british teenagers. A brassière could have been a ‘bustholder’ (german Büstenhalter), but it was right to regard bosoms as a french delicacy. Yet everything finds its own level: the vulgar ‘bra’ is a typically british compound of prudery and immodesty.

I could go on ……but I won’t.

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