France's Ongoing Quest to Crush English Loanwords - Atlas Obscura
Unusual adventures and hidden discoveries. Explore our 2018 trips now »

France’s Ongoing Quest to Crush English Loanwords

Saying “adieu” to “le smartphone.”

France's language police want "le smartphone" eradicated from the spoken and written word.
France’s language police want “le smartphone” eradicated from the spoken and written word. Public domain

The French language police tend not to shoot from the hip. Instead, these guardians of the Gallic tongue will agonize for weeks, even months, about how to protect French from an onslaught of Anglo-Saxon terms—e-mail, hashtag, MP3. And now, “le smartphone.”

On Friday, the government committee, known locally as the Commission d’enrichissement de la langue française, ruled on the term, which has become ubiquitous in France. They eschewed a literal translation (“téléphone intelligent) and gave up the ghost on other attempts that have failed to catch on, like “terminal de poche” (pocket terminal) and “ordiphone” (from “ordinateur,” for computer). From here on in, the Commission decrees, the French will call the smartphone “un mobile multifonction.” And if that proves too much of a mouthful, a simple “mobile” is fine.

France has been fighting these linguistic scourges for decades. In March 1966, sensing the creeping threat of the English language, then-president Charles de Gaulle established France’s first committee to protect the language. This group of 12 to 18 people would defend the French vocabulary, spark initiatives to expand it, and establish links with private enterprises specializing in cultural cooperation. In time, it, and subsequent groups, have extinguished attempts to extend the language’s vocabulary in unwanted directions, and winnowed out English- and Americanisms wherever they reared their ugly head. When new terms are adopted, like mobile multifonction, they are formally announced in the Journal officiel.

But making those words stick can be a whole other challenge. Sony Walkmans flooded the French market in 1979, with the brand name readily adopted as a preferred term for cassette-players of all brands. But by 1982, the French government had rubber-stamped its own term “baladeur,” a play on “balader” (to stroll) and “ballade” (the poem or song). At the time, retailers expressed skepticism that it would catch on, but agreed to substitute it in for “walkman” in their promotional material. Within five years, “baladeur” was the preferred term in journalism, advertisements, and virtually all written French. The Commission might not have been able to keep “walkman” out of the spoken word, but they did all they could to make sure that “baladeur” was the written go-to.

Whether “mobile multifonction” will be as successful remains to be seen. For every successful “baladeur”, there are at least as many English words that do worm their way into informal French, and then stick there—le jogging, le smiley, le hacking—with a particular je-ne-sais-quoi that just won’t budge.