No English, no jamesbonderie: Legal protection will stifle French creativity, warns Miles Kington

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The Independent Online
I HAD a conversation about the French language, once, which has always stuck in my mind. I was on holiday in France, in Honfleur, at the time of the Falklands War, and got talking to the owner of one of Honfleur's many restaurants. He had just been on holiday to the Philippines. I have never been there. I asked him what it was like.

'It was very good, I liked it,' he said, 'but . . .'

'But what?'

He suddenly became very angry. 'But it was no good there if you did not speak English] Everyone expected me to speak English] Why? Why should I be expected to go all the way to the Philippines and then have to speak English? It's the same everywhere] Why don't they speak French? It's not fair]'

I don't think I've ever heard it expressed so openly, but this linguistic grievance is always there, like a kind of itch that has to be perpetually scratched. Sometimes the scratching gets so bad that the French start passing laws to keep out the infection. Anglicisms out . . .] And now they are at it again; yesterday passing a law that imposes fines, even imprisonment, on anyone carelessly using a foreign word - and especially an English one - where a genuine French one would do.

English-based words are not always turned back at the customs. In 1980, the French publishing firm of Robert produced a Dictionnaire des Anglicismes, a dictionary of English-based words used in French, from ketchup to kumquat. It contained more than 1,000 pages and nearly 3,000 entries. It sounds a lot, but it is only 2 per cent of our total vocabulary, the compilers confessed. In any case, they said, a 1977 analysis of the newspaper Le Monde showed that only one in every 166 words was an anglicism. And this new dictionary of anglicisms would provide a solid body of evidence for further study . . . .

Now, you or I would say that any country that bothers to analyse its newspapers to detect the presence of foreign contamination, must have a bit of an inferiority complex, whatever it says. I have met such linguistic defensiveness nowhere else, except perhaps in Canada and South Africa. But if you look inside that Dictionnaire des Anglicismes you find that there is another side to the argument, one that the French seldom acknowledge: that French is easily a strong enough language to absorb invasion and to make use of it.

For instance, the French are quite capable of manufacturing words from English sources, words that we don't have. L'auto- stop is a fabricated import word for 'hitch-hiking'. It is a recycled word from bits of our language.

Again, le carter means a chain- guard, as on a bike. Why? After Mr Carter, the inventor. Who? The English inventor Harrison Carter, of whom the French have heard but we haven't. Daltonien is their word for colour-blind, after our Mr Dalton. That's John Dalton, of course . . . .

In France they have a word corecordwoman, meaning a 'woman who is a co-holder of a world record'. There is no word in English anything like as concise - in fact there is no word like it at all - yet the word the French use is, in their eyes, not a French word at all. Again, they have imported the word paddock to mean 'paddock', but for some reason they also use it as a slang word for 'bed'. They have a word for derring-do which I find utterly winning: la jamesbonderie.

Their habit of using the first element of a word can also be creative, as when a snack bar becomes un snack, cross-country running becomes le cross and le self turns out to be a 'self-service place'.

This can let them down occasionally. There is no word in French for a kick except the cumbersome coup de pied. So the sensible thing to do would be to import the word kick. Except that le kick is already the French for 'kick starter'.

Even the gender of words, which so mystifies us, can be useful. Le pub is exactly what you would expect, being 'the pub', defined in the Robert dictionary as 'a male-dominated establishment where you can get alcoholic drinks at certain times of day'. There is also in French, however, a word la pub, which is something quite different, being the world of advertising and public relations. (It's short for la publicite.)

In short, if only the French had the courage of their language, they could easily absorb all the words like leader and weekend which come through the immigration channels, and trust to the ingenuity and resilience of their language to protect their culture, and to come up with new or interesting versions of them. If they don't, they are going to have a lot of words coming in as illegal immigrants.

But they don't need to pass laws. If they do, they will become the laughing stock of the world. Just as we were when I went to Honfleur 14 years ago and the man who had just come back from the Philippines asked me to explain what on earth we were doing in the Falklands, and I couldn't begin to.

Later that day I saw a cartoon in the Canard Enchaine which showed Mrs Thatcher totally naked sitting astride a large and rather phallic rocket, flying towards the enemy at lightning speed and shouting the equivalent of 'Geronimo]'

'That cartoon,' I thought to myself, 'will never be published in an English paper.' (And I don't think it ever has been.)

Yes, there are cultural differences. We will never understand each other. Quite right, too.