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English loanwords: are they putting French at risk?

Updated: Feb 6

The future of French in Quebec is a cause for concern. Numerous studies on its use in various areas are cause for concern. Organizations dedicated to defending the French language are running campaigns based on the hypothesis that, in contact with other languages, especially English, French is doomed to virtual extinction. A few days ago, I was reading an interview with former Premier Pauline Marois, who is concerned about the state of French in the province. I fully share her concerns, but where our opinions differ is in the reasons for our concern. Pauline Marois criticizes the use of English words in our conversations. According to her, watching one’s language and not allowing English loanwords to “contaminate” French is the solution to protecting French.

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I must admit that I balked at the idea of going on a witch hunt against English words in our conversations and informal exchanges. This invitation to ban all use of English words in speech seems to me to be a counter-productive approach, which risks creating a backlash. I know what I'm talking about.

I've lost count of the number of times when, when realizing that I'm a translator by trade, the people I interact with start apologizing for using English words or anglicisms in our conversations. Thinking they're not up to par, they start to stutter and keep apologizing. And that's part of the danger. When people are afraid of being condemned for the way they speak, they end up keeping quiet.

In her book La Langue affranchie, Anne-Marie Beaudoin-Bégin explains that Frenglish (mixing French and English) is not synonymous with the decline of French. According to the linguist, we’ve been convinced for so long that not using English words means protecting French, that we’ve come to think people who do use English words are putting French at risk. She goes on to explain that in Quebec, if French were in danger because of the use of some English words, so would all the languages in the world, since all languages borrow words from English. I would add that all languages borrow from all other languages and grow richer.

The late Alain Rey, linguist, lexicographer and editor-in-chief of Le Robert dictionaries was a strong defender of what he called "la grande métisserie", the great blend. He was convinced that what makes a language strong is how it blends and borrows from other languages. French has always been influenced by other languages and cultures, and many of the words we use today come from those. Does this mean French has been degraded through this natural process? The answer is obviously no.

To be honest, I too use English words in my informal (and sometimes formal) conversations. But that hasn’t stopped me from defending the French language over the past thirty years, having raised my children in French, living in French and working in French.

However, I’m careful with my written and more formal communications. I adapt to the context. Because we don't speak the same way we write, and we don't write the same way to our loved ones by text message as we would in business correspondence. By using different language registers tailored to the context, we can adapt to different situations and people around us, and include rather than condemn.

To protect French, we need to support companies in their francization efforts. We need to teach young people and allophones learning our language that there are numerous ways to express themselves, depending on the circumstances, and that the important thing is to continue using French. These people need to stop feeling guilty because they don't speak the way so-and-so prescribes. In any case, whether language experts, columnists or prime ministers prescribe, condemn or forbid, the end users will always have the last word.

Original French text published in Les Affaires on June 17, 2021

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