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.