As you probably know by now, I am a big fan of cultural diversity. But it’s getting harder and harder for cultures to stay “true” to their origins. Between globalization, export systems and the Internet, it’s pretty tough to keep out foreign influences.
Which is something that worries the French government. Worries them so much, in fact, that they’ve created entire committees tasked with ensuring France stays as French as possible. One of the more interesting rules has to do with radio stations playing a certain proportion of French music vs. international music- which, to be honest, doesn’t seem like a terrible idea. But there’s also rules about the use of French in advertisements, on packages, etc. And then there’s the Commission generale de terminologie et de neologie. In English: the Committee on Terminology and New Words. This committee is basically in charge of protecting French from “invading” words. And by “invading,” I mean “foreign.”
Every tongue has had to add words as the world develops new technologies and ideas. Our ancestors back in the early days of English clearly didn’t coin a word that properly conveys what a modern computer is and does. There’s many ways to incorporate new words, but France has taken a decidedly unique approach by refusing to adopt terms from other languages. So rather than using the word “email,” which serves as an Anglicism in many cultures, France encourages its inhabitants to say “courriel.” And according to an article I read over the weekend on Fast Company, France is now trying to replace the word “hashtag” with”mot-diese.” Literally translated, that means “sharp sign.” Really, it seems like hashtags are mostly referenced as symbols (#)- for example, Twitter users employ a hashtag to help group their tweets by topic. But what’s interesting to me here isn’t the exact word they picked or how often it’s going to be used: it’s the idea of keeping the language “true.” Would it really hurt French culture if people say the word “hash tag” rather than “mot-diese?” I find that hard to believe. But I do see merit in the general principle: keep people speaking French to keep their brains in the French world. Keep people confident in their native tongue and its ability to convey what they need to say. And keep people engaged in French culture, overall, rather than turning to foreign influences for everything new and exciting. So perhaps it starts with a little, seemingly inconsequential vocabulary word, but has much farther reaches than we’d expect.
Which makes me wonder how the French feel about us using terms like “RSVP” and “faux pas” so widely in the English language. Are we simply stealing their words right out of their mouths? Or are we- gasp!- letting our language get “tainted?”