“I don’t like that French takes so many words from English,” said my friend Dominique the other night. She believes such borrowings dilute the purity of the language.
It’s not the fault of English, I told her. It’s French that’s borrowing them and regretting what it’s just done. English just does what English does: soak up and rework and go on and remain recognizably English despite the words from other languages that could weaken but actually enrich it. And besides, I added, English has taken in quite a few French words over the centuries. That doesn’t matter, Dominique said. Such a use of English words is not good for French. She could have been complaining about how immigration was preventing the French economy from flourishing and was weakening the spirit of the true France.
But Dominique’s point was one I’d heard often in France regarding the French language. France has tried to protect its language in ways that English has never bothered to. No Académie Anglaise exists for English, along the lines of the Académie Française that Cardinal Richelieu founded in 1635 in which its 40 members – known as “the immortals” (I love that French can sometimes be so highfalutin in such things) – act as official authority on the French language, and even publish an official dictionary. Their work is considered advisory, however – even immortals recognize how futile it ultimately is to try to govern how mere mortals communicate with each other.
We all do what we usually do when we speak and write: We use the words that come to us, regardless of their foreign birth.
Early in our friendship, in perhaps the first email he ever sent to me, Renaud thanked me for my courriel which, he said, was an abbreviation for courrier électronique, or electronic mail, the French equivalent to the word email. But ever since, he’s simply referred in correspondence and conversation to email. This despite the wish of the doyens (see? a French word in English!) of the Académie Française that courriel be used to keep French, French. You can’t regulate talking (though many would try). Today, rather than courriel, more people seem to use the word email (or e-mail, but not émail, which is something else entirely) and no number of disapproving native speakers such as Dominique can stop it. The thing is, no language is pure. English is a mongrel tongue, but so too is French in some ways. So too is any language that lives and evolves.
This casualness about what words belong to or corrupt a language such as French is an easy-enough attitude for me to assume as a native English speaker, since English is the language of the world in so many ways. But it’s also the nature of English to absorb from other languages and remain itself. French remains itself too. Just not in the way some people would prefer.
We Anglophones have ourselves taken and misused quite a few French words that mean something entirely different or that don’t exist in the same way in French, such as “double entendre,” which makes little sense in French (to hear twice?). But then, so do the French misuse or even construct entirely new sort-of English words, like “relooking,” a term I saw in one of my French textbooks that refers to makeovers or wardrobe upgrades. Nothing to do with looking again at something. Unless you see your new wardrobe on you in the mirror.
French has many particular verbs that don’t have an exact equivalent in English, but so does English have words that don’t translate perfectly into French. Perhaps that’s why we borrow. We might not get it right, but we’re trying to capture something of the original, though sometimes we lose the sharp focus of that word through a different linguistic lens and then eventually the meaning changes and the word becomes something else in another language regardless of what it meant in the language from which it was borrowed.
At the same time I wish that French would replace one or two phrases with a better, or what I consider to be more appropriate, English word. One of the ways I earn a living is by ghostwriting, which I once tried to explain in a roundabout way to Renaud when we first met, until I used the English word to describe it.
Ah, he said, “Tu es un nègre.”
“Un nègre?” I said, surprised. And then I asked if that’s what he really meant.
Yup: It’s what he really meant. A ghostwriter is someone’s negro. At least in French.
Certainly I as an American am in no position to suggest that someone in a language not my own use another word for what I believe to be a decidedly un-PC way to refer to a person doing work for someone else. But it made me uncomfortable to use the French term, and I suggested that perhaps we try the word “ghostwriter” instead – at least when I referred in French to myself and what I did. It might be less insensitive today to try to make peace with past usage in French and substitute an evocative English word.
Renaud shrugged as if to say this is the way it’s always been, but he understood. And he’s been kind enough to indulge my setting up a modest English tent on French territory. He’s even begun to use “ghostwriter” or “ghostwriting” to ask me how my work is going. So perhaps this particular English word might make its way into French at some point.
But it won’t be up to me. Or even to the Académie Française. It’ll be up to the everyday French speakers who really decide such things.