The French are on the warpath against English invaders, in this instance words rather than muscular chaps bandying longbows and flipping two fingers at French knights.
Predictably the counterattack is spearheaded by L’Académie française, a body established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, first minister to Louis XIII and the villain in Three Musketeers.
The statesman, snappily named Armand Jean du Plessis, cardinal-duc de Richelieu et de Fronsac, was concerned about the purity of the French language.
Said purity was at the time threatened not so much by les anglais as by those technically French people who shunned the French language. The English chose less subtle ways of undermining France, mostly relying on military rather than linguistic aggression.
Yet the Bretons, Normans, Picardians, Catalans, Basques, chaps from Languedoc and the Provence, Alsatians and so forth stubbornly insisted on clinging on to their own languages – and many of them did so well into the twentieth century.
Whenever they grudgingly agreed to speak French, they did so with less purity than one would have encountered in the Loire Valley, and Richelieu would have none of that.
The body he established, L’Académie française, was supposed to police the language of Rabelais, making sure that those hiring French for part-time use returned it in mint condition.
It’s hard for me to judge the extent to which the Academy succeeded in this undertaking, though on general principle attempts to interfere with the organic development of any tongue tend to fail miserably.
Les anglais no longer threaten to occupy the western reaches of France, although any visitor to the Dordogne may get a different impression. But the French are getting their culottes in a twist about the preponderance of English words in advertising, media and everyday speech.
“There are more English words on the walls of Toulouse than there were German words during the Occupation,” said philosopher Michel Serres, a member of L’Académie.
He was referring specifically to advertising hoardings, though any visitor to France will testify that many French walls also feature a profusion of handwritten English words, mostly those that until recently only ever appeared in unabridged dictionaries.
Mr Serres called for a boycott of any product advertised with the use of English words and of any film whose title hasn’t been translated into French. Considering the all-encompassing scale of the linguistic invasion, I’d say he’s on a losing wicket there.
To reverse the trend he’d have to resort to much more drastic measures, such as for example shutting down every tennis club. When I first joined one of those 13 years ago, I feverishly ransacked my rather limited French vocabulary in search of French tennis terms.
It turned out I needn’t have bothered. In French, ‘slice’ is slice (as in service bien slicé), ‘kick’ is kick (as in service bien kické), ‘lob’ is lob (the native French chandelle is regarded as uncool) and ‘walkover’ is walkover. However, ‘topspin’ is lift, which is also an English word, but a wrong one.
Something excellent is top in colloquial French and it’s possible to talk about une supermodel having a quiet weekend at home with a takeaway, although ce n’est pas cool. In fact, one could compile une checklist of such offensive vocabules, but don’t ask me to do so: I’m fully booké.
But I’ve got les news for you: any effort to stop the influx of English words into French or any other language will fail. English has become the world’s lingua franca, and I lament this development as much as Mr Serres does.
I hope my French friends won’t mind this admission, but I’m less concerned with the attrition suffered by their language than with the damage done to English itself by its global status.
A lingua franca may be useful to others as a way of cutting through language barriers. But when a language functions in this capacity it first gets maimed and then killed – Latin is a prime, though far from the only, example of such a demise.
We’re going through the maiming stage now, as any reader of EU directives can testify. A survey of 6,000 Commission employees found that 95 percent wrote in English, but only 13 percent of those were native speakers. Over half said that they rarely or never ran their documents by someone whose mother tongue was English.
The resulting semi-literate bureaucratese then reinfects the English spoken in its natural habitat. The natives are doing their destructive bit too: NHS leaflets and other government circulars are translated into 17 different languages as a sop to multiculturalism.
Thus we witness an odd process: English is ceding its dominant position at home while making huge advances abroad. The two developments may look opposite, but their eventual outcome will be the same: our great language will be universally reduced to a pidgin patois, badly mangled by ‘enemies foreign and domestic’, to borrow a phrase from the American Oath of Allegiance.
Perish the thought and punish the perpetrators. Don’t ask me how: I don’t know. And neither, unfortunately, does L’Académie française.