There was an article in the Guardian recently about the use of Denglish aka Germlish or Angleutsch. A fascinating linguistic phenomenon where one language, in this case German, takes and often invents new words from another language; English in this instance. Examples include ‘handy’ for mobile phone and ‘sprayer’, for a graffiti artist.
The French have tried unsuccessfully to stem this influx of foreign words. A few years ago, the government passed a bill sponsored by a philologically-challenged man called Toubon, trying to prevent words from other languages entering their own. Kamikase, manga, sombrero, shampoo(ing) (Indian) and many others are used as a matter of course in French. What this law really set out to prevent was the dreaded English contaminating the language of Molière and Montaigne. French has the smallest vocabulary of any major European language, but the most verbs. There are several words, for example, for the verb ‘to bring.’ You can do a lot more things in French than most other languages, however, you can’t do them to many things. You would think that, like devoted parents, they would be a little more ambitious for their language, rather than trying to preserve it, like an insect in amber.
What M. Toubon clearly doesn’t realise is that English, which has the largest vocabulary of any language, stole most of it from French and German. There are 25,000 or so French words in English, but only 5,000 English words in French. With words at least, we welcome newcomers with open arms. There is even a story, almost certainly apocryphal, that ‘hello’ is of French origin. In mediaeval times when people emptied their chamber pots into the street they would cry: ‘à l’eau’ as a warning to passers by below. What wonderful nonsense.
The Loi Toubon has been a failure. Broadcasters were instructed to use a French word, where available; if it wasn’t, then it was a job for the Académie française, who had to invent an equivalent. By the time ‘Les immortels’ had come up with the word, after years of deliberation, the English version was already in common usage. E-mail is the best example. Hardly anyone uses ‘courriel.’
Dr. Johnson famously wrote his dictionary years ahead of this pedantic and pompous body, probably because there was no-one to argue or split hairs* with him. Not that anyone would have dared.
Worse still for this mindset is the improvised anglicisation in the media. I was reading a copy of ‘Midi-Libre,’ the other day, which is the regional daily newspaper. The main headline read: ‘A9: il meurt percuté par un go fast,’ a tragic story of someone in a four wheel drive who was killed on the motorway by someone in a Mercedes travelling at 240kph. The driver of the Mercedes was probably fleeing someone as it was also carrying 140kg of cannabis. Leafing through the paper, there was also the story of an association which had been refused funding for something called: ‘horse-ball.’ Whether this is a sport or a delicacy, they didn’t say. As for the ‘shoe-tossing,’ I’ll leave you to figure it out.
I’m all for it in any language. ‘Glove’ in English somehow lacks the sensual charm of the German ‘Handschuh,‘ which I prefer. Watching some Swedes on TV recently, I suddenly heard the expression ‘not rocket science’ buried in a language which seems to have given up on consonants.
Even within languages, words start to corrupt by incorrect usage. ‘Literally’ is my present bugbear, as in ‘he was literally dead,’ (but then he came round). Due to recent events, ‘emeritus’ seems to be getting a bit of a makeover too. I’ve always thought that it is a title conferred on people who have worked in academia, except that we now have an Emeritus Pope. According to an online dictionary, the word has the meaning of someone who has served their time on a project. Surely then, we should have emeritus convicts. Can you be an Emeritus Plumber? Clearly, it’s becoming a synonym for retired. If you read this Mike, let me know how you feel about becoming an emeritus librarian.
We laugh at the French inventing nouns using recycled English present participles: le footing, (jogging) le stretching (in the gym), le parking etc, but we do exactly the same type of thing in English. Imagine being French and having an anglophone tell you that his feather name is in the arse of the bag, and you’ll get the idea. Actually, cul-de-sac does exist in French, but is an anachronism, which most people have never heard of, impasse being the normal word.
I have to stop here as I need to drive my café-crème coloured car to the garage where I have a rendezvous.
*Enculer les mouches in French, (buggering flies).