France’s language watchdog fears English words will degrade culture. India can offer a lesson

Being a conservative, even the most benign, can’t be easy in the digital age. History, culture, religion and language cross borders at the speed of thought, and even the proudest societies are subject to outside influences that force them to change and evolve. The French Academy has a particularly difficult task in this respect. Created in 1635 under King Louis XIII, its mission is to keep “pure French” as a language. In a report released earlier this month, the organization flagged threats to “social cohesion” and “degradation of language”.

The Academy is particularly infuriated by the increasing use of English words in entertainment, fashion and even on announcements on government-run trains. “Californisms,” the result of most tech companies originating from the west coast of the United States, has also drawn his ire. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the pandemic, thanks to which terms like “cluster” and “tests” entered everyday usage. Since these words are “often distorted” to fit French grammar, the report states, they have led to “the creation of hybrid forms that are neither English nor French.”

The insecurity of French-language policing seems to stem from the statement of English theorist Terry Eagleton: “Language is the root of all identity. Trafficking it is either poetry or treason. The good people of the French Academy seem to have forgotten that at the time the organization was created, there was no such thing as “pure French”. It was only after decades of state-enforced uniformity that a singular French language emerged throughout France. Perhaps the new hybrids are just history’s revenge for all the “French” cultures that have been lost. Or, perhaps, there is a lesson the French can learn about the inclusion of “distorted sentences” – as a sign of the adaptability of their language and culture – from the Indians. Take the phrase “Train late hai” – a majority of English words, completely Hindi in syntax. Since hybrids are not betrayals, consider them poetry.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition of February 23, 2022 under the title “Treason or poetry”.