Made for Sharing? Paris’ 2024 Olympic bid en anglais

Everything seemed pretty quiet in France over recent months regarding the position and status of the French language. It has been a good few months since the most recent hullabaloo over the insidious role that the English language had been assuming in France, courtesy of wily Anglo-Saxons or short-sighted, unpatriotic French men and women. And so the first controversy of 2017 breaks as Paris’ bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games chooses an English-language slogan ‘Made for Sharing’. paris-2024

Seemingly determined to cement its reputation in the Anglophone world as opposed to the English language in all aspects of French life, the Académie française has issued a statement noting the use of ‘Made for Sharing’ by such un-French giants as Burger King, Cadbury’s, and Quality Street chocolates, and unanimously expressing their disapproval of the language chosen. The Académie also notes that the official languages of the Olympic Games are French and English – in that order in Article 23 of the Olympic Charter.

The launch of #madeforsharing took place on 3 February, and since that time, over on the webpages of Le Monde, readers have been making full use of the comments sections of newspaper articles to rage against the choice of language for the slogan. ‘Shame’ is a popular theme of the responses, with individuals lamenting in strong terms the national disgrace and the financial cost of France’s capital city bid team using first and foremost an English-language slogan. The concession of second, French-language slogan – Venez partager – is little consolation to those who are frustrated by the use of English in something that is supposed to exemplify Paris in particular and France more generally.

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@Paris2024 uses the #MadeForSharing hashtag in its regular English-language tweets

Bound up in this linguistic storm (in a tasse de thé?) is the co-option of the Eiffel Tower into the Paris bid and its use as the screen onto which the English-language slogan was projected for the formal launch of the bid. The Paris 2024 campaign crafts the ’24’ into a representation of the Eiffel Tower, and supporters of the bid – from schoolchildren through to politicians – are called upon to replicate the image using their fingers as a sign of support. We have seen elsewhere how the use of the Eiffel Tower has been emblematic in France’s understanding of itself and its on-going creation of an identity.

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@Paris2024 uses the French-language slogan as its header image

So what is going on here? It almost goes without saying, but the Paris 2024 bid team are speaking to multiple audiences simultaneously. Given the diffusion of English across the globe, the choice to deploy it is clearly pragmatic. On Twitter, @Paris2024 deploys a range of English- and French-language hashtags, addressing those who might not speak English, and given that Los Angeles has been the bookmakers’ favourite amongst the bidding host cities, Paris 2024 needs to do all it can to win over members of International Olympic Committee, who will vote in Lima in the autumn to award the Games.

At the same time, Paris 2024 could have predicted (and in all likelihood did predict) the backlash that has been initiated in France. There is nowhere in the world that language is nothing more than a medium of communication. Language is never neutral, and in France, the values attributed to English, especially in domains of life which represent, exemplify, and embody the country, are invariably contested. The tension lies on the one hand in the understandable desire to speak to the widest possible audience and to demonstrate a global (as opposed to local or parochial) outlook, and, on the other hand, to convey all the intangible but fundamentally important French things that the French language clearly does for some – if not all – Frenchmen and women.

The sociolinguistics of Brexit: passport covers and colours

There is enormous potential to discuss the sociolinguistics of Brexit, from the campaign and its slogans, to the language attitudes uttered by voters, and even to the claims made about language policies ‘imposed’ by Brussels. Much of this I have found far too depressing to consider, and I’ll declare my interest at the very outset, namely that I did not want the UK to leave the EU, I voted to remain, and I still hope that there’s a chance that the country won’t actually quit. However, the recent discussions about the possibility of Brexit to change the British passport have prompted me to consider this unexpected consequence of the EU referendum outcome.

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Burgundy/pink passport cover vs. the ‘true blue’

August is occasionally referred to as the silly season in journalism, and the start of the month heralded two initiatives relating to the design and nature of a British passport. Let’s consider first the campaign by the newspaper The Sun to have British passports ‘returned’ to their ‘true blue’ colour. The Sun called on the UK government to reintroduce blue passport covers, ditching the ‘EU-approved burgundy passport’. From the outset of these discussions, a thread of anti-French sentiment can be detected – although less explicit in this campaign than the second one. The so-called EU-approved burgundy passport is dark red, in a colour identified with the wine of the French region of Burgundy. Not all EU countries have the exact same colour of burgundy for their passports, and Croatian passports are black, but the passports of EU candidate countries such as Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Turkey are already burgundy, almost as if the colour of one’s passport demonstrates enthusiasm to be a member of the EU. Non-EU states Norway and Switzerland have red (rather than burgundy) passport covers, and Iceland has blue.

Some noise has been generated by the blue-passport campaign, with The Sun selecting some supportive statements to back their campaign. Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell is reported to have told the newspaper that ‘having the pink European passports has been a humiliation’. Regardless of whether individuals might identify the deep red as pink, the intention to hint at effeminacy (and thereby the emasculation of the virulent British passport and, by extension, people) is not difficult to discern. Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan is also reported to have supported The Sun’s campaign that a blue passport country ‘would be a visible sign that we are an individual country’, suggesting that burgundy, or the pan-EU choice of burgundy, limits the extent to which the UK can be seen as individual. Given that most of the world’s passports are blue, from Afghanistan to Yemen, and including Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Iraq, the USA, and the world’s newest country South Sudan, it would seem that yellow might be a more ‘individual’ choice. Clearly, though, colour is important to identity; Kieran Braim, 26, of Croydon told The Sun that blue passport covers would ‘help bring the nation together as well as show the world that we’re patriotic’. At 26, Mr Braim is too young to have had a blue British passport, given that they were not issued after 1988, but his perspective points to myth-making on the basis of the symbols of shared identity. Although he never crossed an international border using a blue passport, Mr Braim engages with the idea of a ‘lost’ marker of British – rather than European – identity.

The other campaign is the one that seeks to use the mechanisms of direct democracy, namely the UK Government and Parliament’s Petitions website, to remove ‘French words’ from the cover of the passports. Initiated by Richard Bernden, this petition – which would require 10,000 to prompt a response from the UK government – makes no mention of burgundy/pink/blue covers but instead targets two mottos on the cover of UK passports. On social media, @RadarNvrSleeps grappled with the etymology of the petition to demonstrate the extent to which the English language has borrowed extensively from French and Norman. Passport 2 The Huffington Post did its own research and highlighted not only the French origin of the word ‘passport’ but also the usage of the two offending terms, namely ‘Dieu et mon droit’ (the motto of the British monarchy), and ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ (used by the Order of the Garter, which is Britain’s highest order of chivalry). Much of the noise on Twitter centred on the extent to which the English language has absorbed French (and other) words into common usage, with the implicit challenge to the petition’s creator to communicate using words that were not of French origin. In one sense, this rather misses the point, since the petition sought to remove what its creator deemed to be French words on the passport cover, as if the EU had imposed these upon a submissive British government. In fact, the two mottos long predate the European Union, and are British expressions par excellence given their identification with the British monarchy and the honours system.

In other words, the real significance of the two French-language expressions has been lost and their meaning ignored or overlooked. To those seeking to take back control of the UK (whatever on earth that means), the idea that something ‘in French’ should stain a British passport is just the kind of reason why so many people voted to leave the EU. Over 400 people have signed this petition which is argued on the basis – as stated in the wording of the petition – that an EU language (such as French) has no place on a UK passport. This is not, therefore, about removing words of French (or, more accurately Middle French, Gallo-Romance, Late Latin…) origin from usage – although that is a quick way to deride the petition’s creator and signatories. More profoundly, there is a perspective that wishes to remove perceived ‘EU languages’ from British daily life. It’s easy to ridicule this position; Costa will need to rename its panini, Sainsbury’s will have to return to calling baguettes ‘French sticks’, and we can only imagine what Pizza Express will have to do about its business name, let alone what it serves. More seriously, this seems to amplify a strand of insularity within Britain, which plays on attitudes to languages other than English and, to my mind, diminishes the UK. So I take comfor from the fact that only 419 people wish to remove the French-language mottos from the British passport. Honi soit qui mal y pense – indeed!

Sieu Nissa/Je suis Nice – a sociolinguistic response to violence

Thinking about the responses to violence from a sociolinguistic perspective is a sensitive matter; it has only been a week since a man drove a lorry into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day on the seafront at Nice, killing 84 people and injuring over 300. The magnitude of the shock, grief, and loss is still being felt in the city, across France, and beyond. Part of the role of the researcher is to use their skills and knowledge, to take a step back, and to try and understand human phenomena. I am not an expert in terrorism, or psychology, and the only analysis I feel vaguely qualified to offer is on the sociolinguistic response to what happened on the Promenade des Anglais. Nice is a city I know relatively well, not only as a gateway to Corsica where I have spent a lot of time, but also because I considered the role that Nissart, the city’s regional language, has played in the life of Nice. Some of these findings have been discussed already, and in this post, I would like to reflect on the ways in which people have used language, symbols, and signs to answer the horror of mass murder.

Already, we know that the contexts for this violent act are deeply symbolic. The people on the Promenade des Anglais were commemorating France’s Bastille Day, the national holiday that marks the start of the French Revolution. Those gathered together were enjoying the traditional fireworks display, as many thousands of people were doing across France that evening, but it is worth recalling that Nice has not always been the emblematic French city that some consider it to be. Although Nice is the fifth largest city in France, it has only been part of the country for just over 150 years. Until then, if the city was identified with any nationality, it would have been what we now understand to be Italian. Nice, therefore, has become an emblematic French city over a relatively short period of time, and its French-ness has been heavily emphasized since the Bastille Day attack.

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‘I am Nice’, first in Nissart, and then in French

The sociolinguistic response to the violence has been particularly rich, and draws on a range of linguistic and semiotic resources that merit closer examination. The act of extreme violence in Nice has, in public discourse, been entered into a litany of outrages that France has endured since January 2015 when the office of the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo was attacked; this list includes the killings at the Porte de Vincennes on 9 January 2015, and the attacks across Paris on 13 November 2015. The response to the Nice killings echoes the swift public reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attack, as attested by the flyers circulating around Nice this week. White text, produced in the font used for Charlie Hebdo’s masthead, is set against a black background, replicating the placards used in early 2015 to proclaim ‘Je suis Charlie’. Local colour is injected into the signs distributed by the image of a broken palm tree, appropriating an informal index of the city and its Mediterranean waterfront, but acknowledging the pain of the violence. Most striking is the use of the regional language, Nissart, to name the city – Nissa, rather than the French version of the toponym, Nice – and to conjugate the verb in the visually dominant expression ‘Sieu Nissa’ (‘I am Nice’).

Nissart is not usually considered as one of France’s ‘main’ regional languages, and is often described as merely a variety of Occitan, a prestigious language with a long literary tradition. Its use is limited, in particular in its written form, although it can be heard whenever the city’s unofficial anthem – Nissa la Bella – is sung. Where is can be found is in the material culture associated with ultras, the particularly dedicated subset of football fans, identified with Nice’s football team OGC. Their use of Nissart, including the expression ‘Pilhas garda, sieu nissart’ (‘Watch out, I’m from Nice’) is appropriated for the Charlie-Hebdo style flyer and recontextualized not as a warning to rival football fans but as a statement of solidarity with the suffering of Niçois. A translation is provided in French, but it is emplaced below the French, and in a smaller font, creating an unquestionable visual hierarchy.

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Images from Instagram using the red, white, and blue of the French tricolour

So this use of regional identity, based on the regional language, meets the more national and/or republican icons drawn upon to grieve and to respond to this violent attack. The colours of France’s tricolour, deployed already in earlier outrages, are reimagined as blood on the Promenade des Anglais; red, white, and blue lights have been projected onto the façade of the Negresco, Nice’s most famous hotel. These gestures coalesce as a projection of a shared identity that transcends the limits of the city and encompasses all of France, highlighting a perceived sense of unity across the country. This meshing of ‘national’ colours, a regional language, and a visual trope – ‘Je suis Charlie’ – adapted to a local setting are clearly ways in which individuals and groups try to make sense of and respond to what happened at the end of a fireworks display on a warm July evening in Nice.

 

Vive le footé!

Football

If you are in the UK, there are two things that you are undoubtedly aware of at the moment: the forthcoming EU referendum and the 2016 UEFA European Championship, referred to in popular shorthand as the Euros 2016. Both events are underpinned by the relationship between the UK and its European neighbours, and both have prompted the rehearsal of well-worn stereotypes. From the perspective of this blog, the football tournament is closer to my own research interests, but explicitly not because of my (lack of) interest in the game, but because the championship takes place in France. This has provided advertisers, broadcasters, and journalists with ample scope to dust down their French-language clichés and stereotypes, and it is what these ideologies say about us, the British, that interests me most.

One particular ‘campaign’ leaps to mind, broadcast by the BBC, in the run up to the tournament. Witty, glossy, and playing directly into widely-held British tropes and imagery about France, the French, and the French language, the BBC clip has already been deemed the best ad of the week by media magazine Campaign. The BBC’s clip was devised by advertising agency Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, entitled ‘Liberté, Egalité, Footé’. We’ll come to the title in a minute, but the 90-second video is set, seemingly, in Ancien Régime France, under some kind of football monarchy, with the BBC’s pundits dressed like members of the Bourbon court. The exception is French former footballer Thierry Henry, whose tricolour sash makes him look more like a post-Revolution functionary than a loyal courtier. But I am no expert in dress, and will leave commentaries on the attire to those more qualified than me.

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A screen shot of the Henri Delaunay trophy revered as it passes by in procession

I’d like to focus on the language and the other semiotic resources used by the ad agency to convey French-ness and football. The theme of the clip is the importance of the football championship whose significance is such that it should be venerated – as represented by the ranks of courtiers bowing deeply as the Henri Delaunay trophy, or more accurately a representation of it, is born majestically through the rooms of this mythical palace. Other icons of football include the klaxon and football rattle – both ornamentalized for the purposes of this clip – and the golden football atop the sceptre carried by Gary Lineker. So far, so straightforward: the beautiful game is so important that it is worthy of reverence. If we turn our attention to language, there is no speech in the clip, and the only text (in its traditional sense) visible comes at the end of the video, where the motto of the French republic appears; liberté is followed by égalité but the normal trio of concepts is disrupted with the final term: footé. We won’t dwell here on the clash between royal and republican France, with the setting and dress connoting the former and the motto the latter.

Footé is fun and memorable because it fits in with what some (but not necessarily all) know about the republican architecture of the French State. It sounds like footy in English, and alliterates with fraternité from the original French motto. Here we tap into what my colleagues Philip Seargeant and Barbara Mayor from the Open University refer to as ‘writing with a foreign accent’. Nobody thinks that footé  is French – or if they do, they need to revisit their French GCSE notes. The idea is that footé conveys a sense of French-ness, through its acute accent on the final -e, and makes the viewer – in this case – think of France. This writing with a foreign accent is something we are all used to: think of Häagen-Dazs ice cream that was an American company but whose brand name was conceived to convey the idea of Danish-ness. Places such as restaurants often draw on collective knowledge of languages and fonts to reinforce through imagery the sense and authenticity of the food they serve. We all know of a Greek restaurant that uses Greek-style lettering whilst writing in English, or an Indian restaurant that deploys a style of Brahmic scripts to underscore how Indian the food really is.

Back at the BBC, married to the images of the Court of Gary Lineker, with Gabby Logan as a twenty-first century Madame de Pompadour – Louis XV’s favourite mistress – the term footé, alongside the repeated images of tricolours, palaces akin to popular imaginings of Versailles, and powdered wigs, play with our understanding of French-ness. We remember this campaign in part because of Rio Ferdinand wearing a cream frock coat, and in part because it makes us think of football – or footé – in France, or in what our collective imagination depicts as a mash-up between football, republicanism, and France’s former royal court.

Singing in English? Nul points

Vallini

“Is this old news?” was the question I asked myself when the BBC first reported that France’s minister for Development and the French-speaking organisation, la Francophonie, had tweeted his disapproval about France’s official song for the Euros 2016 football competition and the country’s Eurovision entry. The calibre of the songs was not the source of M. Andre Vallini’s disquiet, but rather the fact that they are, in his words, in English. Haven’t we been here before? Or is just the impression we in the Anglo-Saxon world get, whereby it seems that the French go through a relatively frequent crise about the use of English in places where clearly some think that French should be used?

In the name of this blog, I endured both the Eurovision entry and the official Euro 2016 anthem for France, and what is striking in the first instance is the fact that there’s probably as many lines in French as there are in English in the Eurovision entry by Amir. This oversight by M. le Ministre has been seized on by those who have seen his tweet; his argument is clearly undermined once it transpires that he patently hasn’t heard the song himself, and not even wondered whether – given that its title is in French – it might include some lyrics in French. In response to this criticism, Vallini has issued a statement, qualifying the proportion of the Eurovision entry that is in English. Amir himself is presented by Eurovision as ‘multicultural’, which we might redefine as transnational – his father is Tunisian, his mother Moroccan-Spanish, and he’s lived in Israel, having been born in France. Apparently, he has a ‘warm and generous Mediterranean voice’, whatever that means.

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A screen shot from Amir’s French- and English-language video clip

 

The debate centres on why someone, in this case the Minister for Development and Francophonie, thinks that these songs should be in French. Why is the fact that they are (in part) in English ‘alarming and unaccceptable’, as per M. Vallini’s tweet? Perhaps some of the explanation lies in the fact that both these songs are part of a competition between nation States, where France is up against its anglophone neighbours such as the UK and Ireland, and its anglophile allies in Scandinavia and northern Europe. Under these circumstances, we see how the connection between the French language and France becomes particularly significant. Since the Revolution, the French language has been a defining characteristic of being French; before royal heads rolled, the French language was ‘owned’ by the King and the aristocracy, and they had no desire to see the wider population speak French. Republican values in particular prize the French language as a marker of the French people and part of the democracy that is France.

M. Vallini’s subsequent statement clarifies some of the ideologies at play in this debate, where he writes about how these two competitions should be used to showcase France and, by extension, the French language. In this narrative, French and France are effectively one and the same. Another theme of M. Vallini’s communiqué is the popular nature of the two events, tapping back into the rhetoric of the French language as owned by the people. The Minister’s concern, where he fears the French language is waving the white flag of surrender in the face of its (English-language?) opposition, is that these two events see a fracture between the people and French.

One of the exciting dimensions of Twitter is that it allows ‘the people’ to engage directly with this stance, and to engage with the language ideology under discussion. One of the first responses to M. Vallini’s original tweet suggested that Eurovision viewers could not be expected to vote for a song whose lyrics they do not understand, and so the part-French, part-English entry is a ‘wise’ choice. Here, @safai8787 argues that comprehension is the governing principle in enjoying and/or appreciating music, a position adopted by others, such as @SayYouOuOu. Others argue that the minister surely has other fish to fry (or, to use the French idiom, other cats to whip), such as unemployment.

By the end of the day after the infamous tweet, nothing seemed to be quite as it was originally presented: Amir sings only the chorus in English, and the ‘official’ Euro 2016 anthem is actually one of the French football team’s main sponsor’s anthem, so not technically the song that carries the weight and significance of the team representing France. Nevertheless, let’s not allow the accuracy of the facts get in the way of a sociolinguistic debate: France’s élite still argue publicly that France – from its Eurovision entry to its football anthem – should be presented to a wider world in French, rather than in English.

This tweet is also available in French

Much is made of the Canadian Prime Minister: he’s a repeatedly-avowed feminist; he’s appointed a gender-balanced cabinet with experts occupying each role; he’s able to explain quantam computing at the drop of a hat (although the reality of this last skill has been queried). Justin Trudeau is also a fluent French speaker who was educated in a French-medium school in Montreal. In officially bilingual Canada, this is more than merely a useful skill; almost one third of Canadians (almost 10 million people) self-identify as French speakers, of whom 7.3 million state that French is their first language.

Not for the first time, Twitter becomes a site of contestation within language politics, although – of course – Prime Minister Trudeau’s behaviour is impeccable; that is, if you think that an official Twitter account should adhere scrupulously to the law of the land. The extent to which one’s public and private lives intertwine on Twitter is something that has posed some challenges for some in the limelight. This is in addition to those who tweet messages to the entire Internet, but then rapidly seek to delete their mistake.

During the final years of the Harper administration, a language scuffle broke out between two former ministers from Canada’s Conservative government and the country’s Commissioner of Official Languages, Graham Fraser. In early 2015, Fraser found that the two ministers violated the law on official languages, with Foreign Affairs minister John Baird tweeting 181 times in English alone (out of a total of 202 tweets). The ministers and their officials rejected the Commissioner’s findings, but Trudeau’s Liberal Party responded by issuing a code of conduct, including advice on social media usage. The inevitable next question is to ask what Canada’s golden boy and his cabinet are doing in practice.

The starting point for any discussion of politician’s tweets is an acknowledgement that they might not be the authors of their own 140-character message; Donald Trump, for example, is not always the author of his own messages to the world. In some cases, an appointed official, therefore, might be writing the tweets. Nevertheless, there is some level of ownership of the tweets by the person named on the account. A cursory glance at the Twitter feed of Prime Minister Trudeau shows his even-handed approach to official bilingualism, with tweets scrupulously written in French and English – occasionally in the same tweet, but more usually in two subsequent tweets. However, Trudeau does tweet only in English in replies to a tweet in English – as evidenced by his diplomatic politeness towards the New Zealand High Commissioner to Canada. Trudeau also retweets English-language messages without providing a translation.

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Diplomatic tweets between Canada and New Zealand

Stéphane Dion, who prompted the investigation into the use of French on social media by Conservative ministers, is now in government himself, and opts for separate Twitter accounts (one in English, one in French) for his role as Minister of Foreign Affairs, as well as an account for his role as an MP, which is – naturally – in two languages. By comparison, Scott Brison – President of the Treasury Board (and whose predecessor was challenged by Dion over inconsistent language use on Twitter) – blurs the boundary in his account by tweeting in two languages for official business but tweeting in English or in French alone in a personal capacity.

So we return to a familiar question: does this really matter? Well, in terms of communication, not much is going to be lost by a politician who tweets in English but not in French. The significance is in the symbolism. As is so often the case, the message is not quite as important as the medium, and the absence of French-language tweets in a Canadian minister’s Twitter feed says more – some argue – about a politician’s attitude towards bilingualism in Canada, towards the reach of Federal law, towards Francophone citizens. Comments posted news stories about this on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation‘s website highlight how for some, this is a non-issue, a waste of time and of money. For others, this is very important indeed, and is about respect for a numerical minority whose language rights should be respected. As is often the case, social media is the forum in which lively language debates play out.

 

A new front in the battle for the French language

It’s now a well known narrative that the supporters of the French language, usually identifed with France, are both proud of their language and anxious that it is somehow under attack from outside enemies. This tension is particularly well rehearsed in Anglo-Saxon circles, where the press relish yet another story where the French spend considerable amounts of money, in various ways, to protect ‘their’ language.

In terms of the aggressors in this language war, English remains a key enemy, with one report claiming that up to ‘90% of French people’ using Anglicisms in their French. However, the threat from the English language is not the only challenge, and French is now facing an attack from a new flank, namely textspeak, sometimes known playfully as cyberl@ngue.

For the annual week of the French language, in mid-March, France’s Ministry of Culture and Communication commissioned three short video clips, urging Francophones to speak French. Of the three gently comic clips, one is devoted to the old foe. The particular focus is on the insidious use of English-language expressions; a 20-something man, seemingly on a first date in a bar, peppers his conversations with Anglicisms. The punchline is that his date reveals that, despite his fondness for turns of phrase in English, he can’t speak English, whereas she can – flawlessly – thereby precipitating the early end of their apéritif.

More noteworthy to my mind is the fact that the other two clips focus on textspeak and the use of this non-standard variety of French instead of the prestigious standard language. In one video clip, a teenage boy is left waiting in the cold because his running class was cancelled and his mother – in her role as taxi driver – could not understand his text message as it is written in textspeak.

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A new French-language pastime: helping your mum understand textspeak (from the videos made by France Télévision)

In response to the son’s lament that his text was clear enough, albeit in textspeak, his mother replies that the resolution to their impasse is that either he gets her a textspeak dictionary or, “better still”, he learns to write. In the final clip, the same mother and son are watching a Japanese subtitled film when suddenly the subtitles switch from standard French to textspeak. The mother is baffled by the new subtitles, but the son reasons that more can be said in less time using textspeak. In response, the mother pauses the film – much to her son’s annoyance – to “decrypt” the new subtitles.

There are a couple of interesting conclusions to draw from this trio of clips, not least the fact that the guardians of the French language, who still seem to include the French State in the guise of the Ministry of Culture and Communication, not only feel that French needs to be defended but also, more strikingly, that emphasis must be placed as least as much on the use of textspeak as to borrowings from English. Whilst the fear of ‘barbarisms’ has haunted French grammarians since the time of Vaugelas at the turn of the seventeenth century, this orchestrated defence against SMS-isms is relatively new.

The Ministry’s videos outline some of the arguments in this debate, not least in the tagline for the week of the French language: “Our language is beautiful; use it”. Interestingly, the choice of imperative mood – the second person rather than the first person plural (“let’s use it”) – reinforces the long held notion that the French language is owned and protected by an elite who command the wider public to follow their advice on language use. The popular use of non-standard French (from abbreviations and verlan – the playful reversal of syllables – to Anglicisms and borrowings from cyber@ngue) is not to be tolerated – the French public is instructed to use “their” language. More precisely, “their” language is the formal, standard French that has long been cherished by this language elite. In particular, so runs the logic of this tagline, this language is “beautiful” and so should be used for this reason. As we all know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and for the teenager in the clips, the speed and practicability of textspeak outweighs this intangible notion of beauty.

Here, we return to the question about the purpose of language. Language is about so much more than communication but, at its heart, it is about communication. The teenager in the videos sees textspeak as communication; he fired off a quick text message to his mum, and later had no problem with the cyberl@ngue subtitles. For his mother, communication wasn’t happening; she didn’t understand the text message and works slowly letter by letter through the subtitles to decipher them. It has probably ever been thus: for a younger generation, the “beauty” of language plays second fiddle to speedy communication.