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My Parisian boss stopped her rapid stream of French to catch her breath.
“Anyhoo,” she said, before launching onto a new topic, once again explained in French.
I caught the eye of my British colleague Kathy, who shrugged. We had gotten very used to the bizarre French adoption of our language. In our Paris home, it was everywhere.
As a writer wrote on slate.fr in French, “You’d have to walk along with your ears blocked to avoid [the English] in the media, on television, on the radio and on the lips of all French people.”
Especially on the lips of our colleagues.
Yes is the new oui
When I arrived in Paris, my French was already good — a combination of hard work and passion, studying it for 10+ years at school, learning it on a semester abroad in the town of Angers and, most importantly, spending a year living and working on a French island in the Indian Ocean.
But French is different in each of those places. I soon learned that Parisian French is its own breed. My first discovery was verlan, a secret language created by inverting syllables. Born in Paris’ gritty suburbs, verlan is now integrated into even the most central Parisian conversations and workplaces. In my growing vocabulary, meuf replaced femme when I talked about a woman, and chelou replaced louche when I wanted to describe something creepy.
But the suburbs weren’t the only source for Parisian slang. I soon learned that anglicisms — specifically Americanisms — had an even larger effect on the way Parisians speak.
Soon, I was responding to questions like my French friends and colleagues did, by saying “yes” with a marked French accent instead of oui. That’s because “yes” — pronounced yiis — is the new way to give affirmation in a trendy conversation.
After that, I heard anglicisms everywhere.
The politics of franglais
One day, I mentioned these slang words to my mom, Sandra Issa, who happens to be a language specialist at the University of Kansas. She pointed out that all languages morph over time, both changing organically and adopting words from other languages. English has integrated lots of French words over time. For example, we have come to use many French animal names to describe meat. French mouton became English mutton and French boeuf became English beef.
“These borrowings happened so long ago, however, they have been totally embraced into English and most people don’t know or care about their origins,” she told me.
Today, however, the worldwide prevalence of English has upset the language-sharing balance of old. I’m not the first person to report on this trend of the Anglicization of French. Newspapers love a good story about the French language old guard.
It’s true that a policy of protectionism does exist. In 1994, the “Toubon” law forbade teaching and lecturing in a foreign language at French universities. The law, named after the culture minister at the time, also mandated French in official government publications, in state-funded schools, in advertisements, in French workplaces, and even in music on the radio.
To make a long story short, the French government is considering relaxing the ban. According to the papers, the most die-hard protectors of the French language are outraged.
But if they showed up in my workplace — a Paris-based startup that combines media and marketing — they would not find a single French person toting their Petit Robert dictionary and stalwartly refusing to bend to anglicisms. Instead, ‘English’ peppers every conversation, often in ‘new’ forms quite unfamiliar to native speakers.
It gets much worse than just anyhoo.
English is le buzz
I recently asked Marie, a French colleague, why she thought there were so many anglicisms flying around our workspace.
“It’s just habitual, especially in our field,” Marie said. “For example, in my comm studies, everything we learned was in English…like ‘un brainstorming.’”
Anglicisms are rampant in many recentlydeveloped sectors — like marketing and media — or in sectors like music and fashion that have a large internet presence or footprint in pop culture. Even the modern workplace comes with its own jargon. Le Big boss is how my colleagues refer to the company head.
“I think we use English for things that don’t exist in our language, like open-space — it’d just be weird in French,” said another colleague, Clo, giggling at the literal translation.
But English isn’t just adopted for utility.
“There is kind of a plugged-in, cool aura that comes with using English, especially in our field; it seems more…open-minded,” Marie said, finishing by saying open-minded in English.
I see this a lot. The other day, another colleague was writing about celebrity hairstyles. She called me over to ask for the English word for “cornrow.”
“It sounds so much better in English,” she shrieked, grinning and adding it into her article.
Cornrows themselves might be cool, but I had never really thought about the cool factor of the word itself. But, then again, this is for a French-language website called “Get-the-look” (pronounced git-ze-looook).
Another colleague actually had to tell one of her writers to cool it on the random English words. After the writer had been told to take up a more conversational tone in her writing, she started simply changing the odd word to English (eye, written in English, was a rather eye-catching one in the midst of an all-French phrase.)
So, in my life and workplace, English unabashedly proliferates. It often catches me unawares, bursting out at me in the midst of a French conversation at seemingly random occasions (rather like eye).
“As you wish,” a friend might say, suddenly breaking up a stream of French. My boss recently explained in a meeting why she was late, then excused herself for talking about “my life.” Another colleague brought in cookies and proudly proclaimed “made by me.” A colleague’s birthday was recently celebrated by a rendition of “‘Appy Birthday to You” in English.
French conversations are punctuated with “so anyways” and “anyhoo,” and laughs are preceded by “lol.”
Sometimes, I over-translate: My friends laugh when I call a work party a soirée de travail. For everyone else, it’s “un afterwork.”
At least in the “yes” case, “yes” is used in its proper form, as is “lol,” “afterwork,” and “cornrow” (though I’m pretty sure cornrow isn’t really a common borrowing). But more often and more bafflingly, the French appropriate English words in ways that create weird new words or new uses.
One day, Kathy was working on translating something from French to English for our boss. She looked up from her computer screen.
“I like how I’m actually translating English into English,” she said.
She was commenting on a manicure trend that French beauty journalists called “the low nail.” In English, there’s no special moniker — we’d just call it “using neutral-toned nail polishes.”
We were constantly re-translating. The day before, our boss had shown us an infographic demonstrating how to recreate makeup worn by various celebrities. The French team decided to call the series “Face Charts,” making Kathy and I giggle.
An article on anglicisms published in a metro.co.uk article stated, “While speakers of any language can learn what a word means and how to say it, their unfamiliarity with the history and subtle nuances associated with these words will inevitably prove a disadvantage for some.”
This is definitely the case with so-called swear words. My female colleagues call each other “bitch” all the time — something that would be considered extremely inappropriate in an American workplace. I recently had to edit “bitch” out of a product presentation bound for American clients. I also had to discourage a colleague from inserting the word “fuck” in the same document.
But sometimes, it isn’t just about nuance — sometimes it’s just plain not English. In French, for example, a makeover is a “re-looking.”
“Words originating in English can pass through a whole series of vicissitudes in French, and can generate ‘new’ forms that are quite unfamiliar to native speakers of English,” wrote Dr. Christopher Rollason, an independent scholar living in Luxemburg, in a recent paper he presented at the University of Surrey.
I asked him about “le brushing,” a particularly bizarre example, as it means a blow-dry in French.
“I think these are spontaneous generations from those who know an English word like ‘brush’ and are not concerned to find out whether the derivative exists in English,” said Dr. Rollason.
Wouldn’t someone, somewhere along the line grab a dictionary?
“Probably not, unless and until the French Academy rules — and then their ruling may be ignored,” Dr. Rollason said.
“Some of these words aren’t even correct, it’s just a habit to say them,” my colleague Marie admitted.
Finding a French equivalent
While I was researching this phenomenon, I came across another article from metro.co.uk, where a journalist talked about English words that had been replaced by French alternatives (sometimes as the result of a French Academy ruling).
“One example is the word ‘mot-clic,’ which has successfully been introduced by linguists as an alternative to ‘hashtag,'” the journalist wrote.
#wrong, I said to myself.
I had never once heard “mot-clic,” and I use Twitter in French in a professional capacity every day. On the other hand, my colleagues were constantly referring to ‘ashtag this or ‘ashtag that.
The most common joke in the office is “hashtag boobs,” a tongue-in-cheek suggestion for how to attract readers to any given article when you tweet it. (Journalist 1: “I doubt I’ll get many readers for my article on Madonna’s stage costumes throughout the years.” Journalist 2: “Just tweet it along with ‘hashtag boobs.'”)
In the same article on metro.co.uk, Carol Sanders, Professor Emeritus at the University of Surrey, was quoted as saying, “Though briefly LOL was used, people now write MDR (mort de rire, which means ‘dead from laughing’).”
In my experience, MDR is definitely used, as is Ptdr (translation: “exploded from laughing”), but lol is used just as much. Note that it is pronounced as one word: lol.
There are very few French words that have successfully replaced English words: People say logiciel, for example, instead of “software.
And even people who use English daily don’t want to lose their French. My colleague Clo voiced the thoughts of many French people when she said: “I love English, I love the US, but I don’t want it to replace French. Our language is beautiful, it is the language of Moliere. I’d never want us to stop speaking it. We have to…find a balance.”
Interestingly, she chose to say balance in English instead of the French equivalent équilibre.
[Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop in-depth narratives for Matador.]