3 unbelievable reasons the French language is the most controversial

MyFrenchLife™ - French language - ParisAs it stands today, the French language is the second most studied language in the world, with 335 million speakers.

Its reputation as one of the most beautiful languages lends it credence as not only one of the most popular, but also as one of the most intellectually distinguished languages.

Across history, aristocrats adopted French as a means to bolster their own reputations – speaking French marked them out as upper class – and the language has retained a certain je ne sais quoi as a result.

The context: understanding change in the French language

However, even with these reverential roots, the French language continues to develop. Following the emergence of the United States as a global superpower during the twentieth century – and the consequent rise of English as the world’s most influential language – French began to lose its international significance.

With Anglicisms creeping in and Franglish becoming a solid concept, many French intellectuals and officials are becoming more and more desperate to stop this modernisation of the French language. Measures have been put in place to preserve it, and keep English at bay.

“English words are pouring into the French Language; as ‘LOL’ went into the Oxford English Dictionary, so it went into the French.”

With genders, agreements and various ‘you’ forms making life hell for the French student, modernising French might not seem like a terrible idea. As MyFrenchLife™ contributor Emily Monaco struggles to decide whether her Mother-in-Law should be a tu or a vous, we’ve all had similar experiences.

Yes, learning French would certainly be easier without the formalities, and we wouldn’t have the cripplingly embarrassing moments of slipping up. But it’s not only complex: the French language is also steeped in controversy. Non, we’re not just playing on the French cliché of rudeness. There are at least three big reasons that French is the most controversial language.

How many of the following have you thought about as you struggled to make your tenses agree, or to decide whether an article was masculine or feminine? And do you agree with these claims? Let’s find out…

1. It’s sexist

Some activists claim that with its persistent use of genders, French is a sexist language and should modernise to wipe out this antiquated tradition. In French grammar, the masculine form prevails over the feminine form – due to a seventeenth century belief that the masculine was nobler. The persistent enforcement of this rule reinforces the belief.

This gender debate also highlights the deficiencies in the French language in terms of words relating to profession, function and title. While these used to be roles exclusively reserved for men, with the development of society, women have come to fill them. However, the language has not evolved to mirror this.

MyFrenchLife™ - French language - doctor patient

When referring to a woman in a professional capacity where there is no feminine equivalent for her role, the masculine is used. So, a female doctor will be addressed as le médecin, and not la.

Many feminists denounce this as linguistic sexism and demand the instigation of a feminine equivalent. Others argue that the best way to counteract the institutionalised sexism inherent here is by making all words pertaining to profession, function or title gender neutral.

In ‘The Feminization of French Profession Words‘, Skye Rhodes-Robinson even revealed that many feminists see the feminine forms as derogatory. Either way, it seems that some modernisation is required.

2. France has an institute dedicated to keeping ‘modern junk’ out of the French language.

The modernisation of the French language is not uniquely related to the grammar. Perhaps the most pertinent development involves the inclusion of English words and Anglicisms – those which the Académie Française is trying desperately to keep at bay.

MyFrenchLife™ - French language - Academie Francaise

The Académie Française has for a long time made it their mission to keep French in its purest and most beautiful form. While dictionaries such as Le Petit Robert adopt English words and Anglisicms, the académie strives to replace them with French phrases, denouncing many Anglo-influenced words and abbreviations as ‘modern junk’.

However, despite their efforts, English words are pouring into the French Language; as ‘LOL’ went into the Oxford English Dictionary, so it went into the French.

RFI explains that a panel of linguists are asked to contemplate new, trendy words, and decide if they will stand the test of time. Popular new terms such as ‘tweet’ ‘text’ and ‘has-been’ have all made the cut, making it onto Topito’s list of top 50 Anglicisms used in France.

3. Times are changing – does the French language refuse to keep up?

MyFrenchLife™ - French language - TolstoyAs Anne Mellino revealed in her article on Tolstoy’s use of French in Anna Karenina, the Russian aristocracy had their philosophical and political discussions in French. Such was its reputation as an intellectual, noble language.

Today, English is the go-to language for international business, with even some French companies controversially using it as their working language to bolster international prestige.

This is not always popular – Jacques Chirac stormed out of a conference in 2006 after a Frenchman addressed the delegation in English. However it has proven necessary for those wanting to compete on an international market.

However, the modernisation of the French language might be the thing that enables it to survive, both on a domestic and a business level. Including words such as ‘tweet’ keep French relevant and fresh, while the rigour and inflexibility of the Académie Française ensure that French will retain enough of its traditional splendour to remain one of the most beautiful languages in the world.

What do you think about the modernisation of the French language? Do you think it should be kept traditional, or change and develop with the times? Join the debate and add your comments in the box below.

Image Credits:
1. Paris, by Moyan Brenn, via Flickr. 
2. Doctor talking with a patient, by National Cancer Institute, via Wikimedia Commons.
3. Institut France, by Benh Lieu Song, via Wikimedia Commons. 
4. Leo Tolstoy seated, by F. W. Taylor, via Wikimedia Commons. 

About the Contributor

Judy MacMahon

Experience FRANCE beyond the CLICHÉ with MyFrenchLife.org MyFrenchLife is for Curious Savvy Francophiles wherever you are. Meet Francophiles in France, online, and/or wherever you live. You’re very welcome to join us - Judy MacMahon - MyFrenchLife.org

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  1. Michael Dorman Nov 18, 2014 at 10:01 AM - Reply

    Languages are organic and constantly change. I have read that about 5% of French words have English origins and 45% of English words have French origins. I see many English or English-looking words in advertising and I can’t for the life of me understand what they mean. More like gibberish. These “English” words will not last. They are throw-away words just as English-speakers use French words to make ads or store names seem less ordinary. I don’t think Francophones should be overly worried about English words in French as English is far more Frenchified than French is Anglicized. It is better to be sure French-speaking students are taught to write good French, with good spelling and increased vocabulary..

    • Christina Guzman Nov 18, 2014 at 12:56 PM - Reply

      I agree whole heartedly that many of these words we find today in our english language will soon disappear. They tend to stick to generations, but with that being said, the next generations will come up with new words equally as unattractive!
      What worries me is that people are also neglecting grammar and are not applying it to what they write in their everyday life. I think this is a problem that all languages are facing. That’s what we should be worried about – not that new, weird words aren’t an issue either 😉

  2. Beth Holding Nov 18, 2014 at 12:53 PM - Reply

    It’s fashionable to use words from different languages, because people love to be seen as global citizens. For example, in Melbourne recently, French words and slogans have been so popular on t-shirts. It’s interesting to watch how languages evolve and how organisations like the Academie Francaise react to the changes.

  3. Julia Greenhalf Nov 18, 2014 at 1:11 PM - Reply

    To this day I still remember a comment from one of my teachers when we were all baffled by French having gendered nouns…something along the lines of “une règle: a ruler is feminine, because the woman is in charge!”.

    It is also understandable and quite interesting seeing how the Académie adapt to Anglicisms. Some words are inevitably going to stay around. We live such global lifestyles and given that the English language is such a dominant language it is going to continue to infiltrate, phrases here and there are going to be picked up on and circulated. We may laugh at their archaic, pompous ways and poke fun at them for being prescriptivists, but there might just be a method to their madness. Why not preserve such a beautiful language?

  4. Jacqueline Dubois Pasquier Nov 18, 2014 at 7:03 PM - Reply

    I enjoyed reading your article Judy ! For years, I have attended in France an amazing paradox that consisted, on the one side, to hear linguists, politicians, intellectuals warn off that English had invaded the French language that was slowly dying and losing its former aura because of that phenomenon and, on the other side, hear everyone inevitably use and integrate more and more English words. During my 7 years in Quebec, where it is compulsory to use French words in public life (they cleverly invented couriel and pouriel for mail and trash) I became more aware of that fact. Now new studies say French is still widely spoken and learned and that its future is bright. This is good news, for a language should not disappear because of the supremacy of an other. But French are often using and understanding English words their own way and sometimes not exactly as one would expect -for the funny side of it, I remember an article in ‘L’Express’ in the mid-2000s, about English acronyms used in chats that said LOL meant ‘lots of laughs’ !

  5. Jill Craig Nov 25, 2014 at 9:15 AM - Reply

    Languages do constantly evolve, but I find that there’s still a separation between spoken and written French. Written French retains its formality in a way that spoken French among young people has not. The rules of writing `good French` are much more difficult to follow – and although this makes it difficult for students of French, it’s one of the things that attracted me to learning it. I love how Tolstoy’s characters slip so easily between French and Russian – forever envious!

  6. Judy MacMahon Nov 26, 2014 at 8:38 PM - Reply

    Thank you all for such interesting comments and discussion! It continues to be a fascinating topic – if you come accross other articles which you feel will add to the discussion please fell free to add them here.

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