RADIO / A gander at franglais

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The Independent Culture
THE ELEGANT Frenchwoman gave a silvery laugh. 'It is absurd,' she said. 'We are invited to a cocktail, but if I use such a word, I am to be punished. Will it be the guillotine for me?' It was last July and we were at what I suppose should be called a soiree in Aquitaine, discussing the language police. A minister named Toubon had just introduced a law forbidding the use of English words in French, but nobody seemed to know how it was to be enforced. An hour or two of listening to France-Inter, the French channel, last week shows how little effect Toubon's law is having. I counted three bottles of Coca- Cola, a Walkman, a couple of footballs, about 50 OKs, and a Microsoft system. Off with their heads.

As part of its 'French Challenge', the BBC sent Ray Gosling swanning off to investigate the sacred purity of French. But a Gosling en France (R4) is still a goose. His anxiety was echoed in his tone of voice. Like The Magic Roundabout's Zebedee, it bounced from soprano to basso profundo and back again inside a sentence. The first man he interviewed was the Comte d'Ormesson. This smooth charmer is an 'immortel', one of the select who form the Academie francaise, dedicated to preserving the beauty and integrity of their language. They discussed the admissibility of merde - defined by d'Ormesson as 'sheet', but by the refined Gosling as 'excrement'. Then they tried to define the concept of the man in the street. Communication collapsed. 'The man with a beret basque?' said d'Ormesson, experimentally. 'A bare what?' asked Gosling, panicking.

It got much worse when the General Secretary of Francophonia appeared. Doubtless his French was perfect, but his English was hopeless. 'I depend only the President,' he declared ringingly. 'I am against the jungle and the dessert.' 'Si]' responded our man, manfully, and wisely returned to the immortal Count. They were left pondering the threat of retaliation, of the English Government banning Gosling's rendezvous with a brunette for a quiet tete-a-tete.

By contrast, English happily absorbs words from just about everywhere. Its infinite variety is celebrated each week by the urbane Frank Delaney in Word of Mouth (R4), a consistently stimulating series. This week, he explored Wenglish, the language of the South Wales valleys, look you - only people don't really say 'look you'. What they do use is the Ida Syndrome, an emphatic 'I do', as illustrated by two women overheard at a market: 'Pink I do like, blue I do rather, but p-uce, oh de-uce, I do go sca-tty for p-uce.'

Not content with borrowing words and constructions from other languages, English- speakers still busily coin their own. Dan Abnett, who creates comic strips, is particularly good at this. Delaney asked him how he would write the sound of a fist on a solar plexus. Whumpff, he said, and spelt it. And to celebrate National Poetry Day, the poet Helen Dunmore took up the theme of onomatopoeia, citing her use of the word 'yes' to simulate, surprisingly, a heartbeat. When she read her short poem, Baby Orang Utan, we understood, but it was her metaphor that I really liked. In case you missed it, here it is: 'Bold flare of orange / A struck match against his mother's breast, / He listens to her heartbeat going Yes, Yes, Yes.' Oh yes. It's a very rich language we do have, look you, and the French can borrow whatever they like. Even Ray Gosling.