France Flexes Linguistic Muscles

CircumflexIt is never a surprise when a change in the French language causes outcry and controversy. After all, control of the French tongue is heavily proscribed by the Académie Française, an organisation which has defended the purity of the language for many years, fighting in particular against the inclusion of English words in the vocabulary.

So it is hardly surprising that this week’s news that new spellings have been unveiled for more than 2,000 words, with the removal of a superfluous circumflex in many of them perhaps suggesting the demise of the hat-shaped accent, has understandably caused outcry and linguistic breast-beating on an epic scale.

Of course, the story is not as simple as the headlines would suggest. The Académie’s advice actually dates back to 1990, and it is only the decision of educators to include the new spellings in textbooks which has caused the current furore. #JeSuisCirconflexe the opponents cry,unwittingly undermining their own argument by choosing a linguistic form which didn’t exist two years ago to express their disgust over the fact that language constantly changes.

Rather than pick through the list of changed words in detail, I have pondered more the English reaction to language change, and how the country might feel if an official language arbiter made changes such as this. Of course, we are probably quite lucky that there isn’t a body which regulates the English language in this way. Given the reaction that new words and trends often seem to get, you would imagine that the vitriol that might be directed to such a body operating in the UK would dwarf anything we are seeing in France at the moment.

The Oxford Dictionary is of course regarded as the ultimate watchword on English, but its lexicographers are observers and recorders of the language, and don’t have the responsibility of having to make the final rules. Nevertheless, if something is acknowledged by it as correct, than that confers a degree of authority on the usage. And plenty of people are happy to weigh in and protest whenever new words are added to Oxford Dictionaries online, or variant spellings or meanings are included, so I suspect that Oxford types are quite happy not to have that responsibility.

What the French experience tells us is that people remain passionately connected to their language, and are resentful when the basic parts of it appear to be arbitrarily changed. But of course language does change, and the Académie’s ruling is not an imposition of rules but is instead a reaction to change which was already present, codifying the usage as it has evolved.

So while people howl in protest, as they do in England, they are merely objecting to changes which they are using already. They just don’t like having it pointed out to them.

 

Advertisements

Charlie No Longer

Back iJe ne suis pas Charlien January, I wrote a blog suggesting that the word of the year might already have been coined. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, I noted how #jesuischarlie had emerged not only as hashtag of solidarity with the French satirical magazine itself but also as a statement for freedom of speech itself. I further speculated that #jesuis may have established itself as a Twitter prefix that would establish itself as a statement of belonging.

No more.

The appalling decision of the Charlie Hebdo team to publish two cartoons mocking the death of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian child whose image propelled the migrant crisis across Europe into the consciousness of everybody, has changed all of that.

I won’t describe the cartoons or reproduce them. They have had quite enough oxygen already. Instead let’s focus on the immediate change this has made on social media. Apart from a small number of supporters, #jesuischarlie as a hashtag and a word is now discredited. People are using it on postings as a way of distancing themselves from the mood a few months ago, using the term now becomes a way of emphasising what it stood for and what has therefore been abused.

Instead, #jenesuispascharlie is being used to condemn Charlie Hebdo. Rather than being a term which could take on generic significance, this is simply an attack on the organisation, anger directed at them for wasting the stock of goodwill they had been given, anger even for polluting the term itself.

Calls for freedom of speech will go on, of course they will, and other causes will be found and become the new focus of social media and comment. New terms will come forward to be the one of choice to express adherence to the philosophy. But #jesuischarlie will not be that term, #jesuis will not become a new prefix. That moment has gone.

We may still end up saying that #jesuischarlie is the word of the year. But the narrative we will now tell will be of how a word flourished and died within a year, rather than that of a word which become important and then continued to resonate for many years to come.

The Word of 2015

Je Suis Charlie
Je Suis Charlie

Even though 2015 has only just started, I think that we might already have the word of the year. Following the horrifying events in Paris, the hashtag #jesuischarlie has taken off globally. And I am left wondering if there will be a more powerful new term coined during the remainder of 2015.

Use of #jesuischarlie is fascinating in a number of ways. Initially it showed solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo employees who were gunned down on January 7.

But for me it has now become so much more. To put #jesuischarlie in a Twitter post or other article, to put it on a T-shirt or just into your normal conversation, is to associate yourself with a global statement about freedom of speech, is to say that people will not be silenced just because somebody thought it reasonable to take a gun to those who would disagree with them. It is now a badge of belonging, of showing that we will all fight back against terror and not be afraid to say what we think. And its meaning will now stick as the marker of any statement of freedom of speech.

From a linguistic point of view, it demonstrates how language evolution is changing across all cultures. The fact that jesuischarlie is French is irrelevant, it is already an internationally understood term, good in any language. It is already capable of evolution, with #jesuisahmed appearing quickly on Twitter in tribute to Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim policeman who also died in the attack. And it is not fanciful to imagine #jesuis emerging as a permanent prefix, capable of taking countless other endings to make anti-terror statements.

This also shows how hashtags are becoming words in their own right. To emphasise the point, the American Dialect Society this week chose #blacklivesmatter as the word of 2014, referencing emotive protests across North America. Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society, said: “While #blacklivesmatter may not fit the traditional definition of a word, it demonstrates how powerfully a hashtag can convey a succinct social message.”

We can only hope that events in Paris will not be the precursor to a year of atrocities and that freedom of speech will not be threatened again in this way. But it is moving to see the way that millions have stood up to have their voices heard, and have found a new word to rally behind.

Losing The Taste For Quenelles

I’m a bit of a sucker for competitive cookery programmes. One thing that is always entertaining is the quirks of the contestants and the fripperies they often try to get into their food. In particular, I remember one contestant who was obsessed with trying to get a quenelle into everything.

In that context, quenelle is an egg-shaped mound of food, and is normally an accompaniment to a main course, or perhaps some ice cream, delicately shaped using two spoons before being added to the plate to give it some apparent finesse. So entertaining did we find this as a family, that my eight-year-old daughter starting forming quenelles of cream cheese to put with her crackers. And in gastronomy, quenelle has a bigger relative, a dish of a creamed protein combined with breadcrumbs and egg and served as a more substantial dish.

But quenelles are no longer funny. No, Premier League footballer Nicolas Anelka and his French comedian buddy Dieudonne have seen to that. At the start of 2014, quenelle was only really known to English speakers from the usage described above. But once Anelka had adopted the quenelle pose to celebrate a goal for West Brom against West Ham, its racially charged meaning started to dominate headlines everywhere.

The gesture, created by Dieudonne in 2005, is an inverted Nazi salute with the opposite hand touching the shoulder. It is derived from its edible cousin and harks back to when Dieudonne said he wanted to insert a quenelle up the backside of Zionists. But his subsequent claims that this is an anti-establishment, rather than an anti-semitic, gesture, seem hollow, given the subsequent usage of the action outside synagogues or Holocaust memorials.

The usage of the quenelle has been growing in France, but it still took its adoption by Anelka to propel it to prominence and a place in the English language. And the debate over the true meaning of it seems irrelevant now. Whether or not Anelka’s usage of it was innocent, and whether or not Dieudonne means it to be truly racially offensive or not, it now is. The quenelle gesture is now perceived by people in England as anti-semitic and it will justifiably become something that people should be vilified for using, without allowing them to hide behind an argument about the nuances of its actual intention.

The quenelle has changed its meaning forever with English speakers, and the next time I watch a cookery show, it will be interesting to see if the producers have seen fit to quietly move them off the table.

Sexting Given French Twist

It’s been an interesting year for sex in France. Linguistically, at any rate. Earlier this year, the word Galocher for French Kiss finally made it into the Petit Robert dictionary. And now another saucy term has found itself in the headlines.

As part of its efforts to keep the French language pure, English terms are frowned on, and L’Académie Française, France’s official language authority, has now published a list of the French alternatives to Anglicised expressions with are creeping into the language.

The proposed variant to Sexting has garnered most attention, with Textopornographie put forward as the new word in the official government list. I don’t know about you, but I know which one sounds more lurid and has a certain je ne sais pas.

There are some other interesting terms in the list, such as Vidéoagression for Happy Slapping, which again sounds more ominous than its English equivalent, or Surtransposition for Gold Plating.

As English-inspired technology drives word evolution, there will be more of this. Earlier this year Wordability reported on the replacing of Hashtag with Mot-Dièse, and as this latest story shows, this trend will only continue. Or as the French will come to say, That’s Life.

The French Learn How To Kiss

The French are famously protective of their language and are constantly monitoring it to ensure that Englishisms are not creeping in. Nevertheless, the language evolves like any other, and so dictionary makers in France follow their global counterparts by regularly adding new words to their volumes.

One new addition to the Petit Robert dictionary has caused quite a stir. Because it turns out, the dictionary had no word for French Kiss. Now this has been amended, and ‘Galocher’, to kiss with tongues, has been given its own entry.

The French have been quick to defend their sexual reputation, pointing out that the novelty of the word does not mean that the practice is new. Laurence Laporte of the Robert Publishing house said: “The French have always had many expressions to describe it, such as ‘kissing at length in the mouth’, but it’s true, we’ve never had one single word.”

The term French Kiss is believed to have originated at the start of the 20th century as knowledge of amorous French practices increased. It has been amusing to see that this image of the French is being stoutly defended now, despite the obvious amusement people are finding in French Kiss only now entering the dictionary.

As Ms Laporte said,  the lack of a specific term “never stopped us doing it”.

Au Revoir Le Hashtag

The French have a famous aversion to the Anglicisation of their language. But such is the pervading influence of the Internet and global terms which surround it that sometimes drastic action is called for.

So it is with hashtag, that vital little addition with which all Twitter users are of course familiar. The term hashtag has started being used by the French twitterati, meaning that the arbiters of all things lexical and French have been forced to step in.

So from now on, French Twitterers are expected to refer to “mot-dièse” meaning “sharp word” whenever they wish to preface anything with an #. Like that’s going to work, and by all accounts, the move has already a received a Twitter thumbs down, especially as a musical sharp, as denoted by the new term, is not the same symbol as a hashtag.

So while France’s Commission Générale de Terminologie et de Néologie decides which popular online term to unsuccessfully target next, we are left to ponder whether this is a seminal moment for French. If the efforts of language officials do not manage to mandate what the correct word should be for the language in this case, will French continue to be a tongue which is limited and proscribed in terms of its vocabulary or will it start to take on a more English identity and be allowed to grow in a more natural way? Je ne sais pas.