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Hegemony of Language : In French, Ignorance Is Not Bliss

August 28, 1985|STANLEY MEISLER | Times Staff Writer

The second threat stems from the fact that it has become chic in France to mimic American ways and use American expressions. The French newspaper Liberation--favored by young, trendy, educated Parisians--likes to pepper its headlines with English expressions. When Mikhail S. Gorbachev was named the new Soviet leader early this year, Liberation's main headline read, "Kremlin New Look."

Proliferation of Commissions

Over many years, the French government has developed an enormous array of institutions to defend and promote the French language. Besides the academy, there is the High Council of Francophonie, the General Commission of the French Language, the Consultative Committee of the French Language, the Alliance Francaise, the Agency of Cultural and Technical Cooperation, the International Council of the French Language, the Institute of Research on the Future of French and many others.

The newspaper Le Monde has estimated that there are 250 government and private organizations devoted to the French language. A large percentage of foreign aid is spent on the teaching of the French language and on supporting international organizations that promote it.

The General Commission of the French Language, which operates out of the office of the premier, has the authority to fine companies that use foreign words in their advertising and labeling and fail to provide an adequate French translation. Two companies were fined recently for promoting products called Lemtea and Fast Drink.

These penalties are light, but officials believe that they call attention to the problem. "The French must become aware," Christine Auxerre, an official of the commission, said, "that they are being eaten up by American vocabulary."

Some Socialist members of Parliament believe that more must be done, and they have introduced legislation that would increase the defenses against English by closing some of the loopholes in the law. These lawmakers, according to the preamble to the legislation, are fed up with advertising that encourages young people to wear "shrink-to-fit jeans" on "le weekend."

Yet, for an American living in France, these cries of alarm seem somehow misplaced. The most remarkable aspect of the French and their language is not the number of Americanisms that creep in, but the sheer pleasure and pride the French show in mastering their own language. It hardly seems to need defending.

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