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Culture : After le Brainstorming , French Start War on Words : Fed up with 'Franglais,' Paris is imposing penalties for not using native terms.

June 28, 1994|SCOTT KRAFT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — By day, Prof. Daniel Oster heads a learned team laboring to update the official French dictionary, painstakingly building a final barricade against, among other things, the march of English words and "Franglais" into French.

But by night, as Oster digs into the latest edition of the newspaper Le Monde in his Paris apartment, his 15-year-old daughter frequently exhorts him to " soit cool, Papa. " Be cool, Dad.

So what does the professional arbiter and gatekeeper of French do? "I don't punish her," Oster said, shrugging his shoulders. "She's just saying it because the other kids say it. One has to be free to express oneself."

But, he added, "this Franglais, this mixture of English and French, is a completely artificial language. It's made by disc jockeys, journalists and all sorts of media. When I hear someone speaking that way, I know they're just being manipulated."

The French government, for its part, is coolly taking major steps to rid the country of some of these dreaded foreign words. The clear, though unnamed, target is English, especially that language the French call Americain.

For the first time in 19 years, the National Assembly earlier this month approved a new law to protect the French language. This one is the toughest yet. It will make the use of French obligatory in instruction manuals, legal contracts, scientific conferences and all advertising.

The penalties won't be specified until later, but the Culture Ministry has said they will probably include fines of up to $100 per infraction and a six-month jail term and $8,500 fine for anyone preventing the law from being enforced.

The new law probably won't change the nature of discourse in the Oster household or on the street, where jeans-wearing French youngsters spice their language with words such as super (pronounced soo-PAIR), where people in le marketing practice le brainstorming in hopes of hitting le jackpot , and where politicians give le briefing off the record .

But it could mean a big change in advertising on billboards, posters, TV and radio, where American slogans have been warmly embraced, especially by companies going after the youth market.

McDonald's, purveyor of le fast food , uses the slogan "Say Cheese." Coca-Cola uses "There's Always Coke." For Pepsi, it's "Think Different, Think Pepsi." Even the new tunnel under the English Channel (or, if you prefer, La Manche) will no longer be Le Shuttle. Instead, it will be La Navette.

And Nike, the top sports and fitness company in France, is asking its lawyers whether it will have to change its slogan "Just Do It."

"It won't make our life easier, that's for sure," said Stephan Wahlen, Nike's advertising manager in Paris. "We've made a lot of attempts to translate 'Just Do It.' But it doesn't work. If you had a strict translation, it would kill the slogan."

The new law doesn't ban all English from advertisements, but it requires advertisers to offer a suitable French translation.

"I'm not sure this is the best way to protect the language," added Wahlen, who is French. "We have to live with today's reality, and today's reality is more global than the French language."

However, Jacques Toubon, the government's minister of culture and author of the law, insists it is "not an attack on English. It is an attempt to preserve this language, this irreplaceable capital. If it is not preserved, it will die."

It is also, he added, part of France's long and until recently successful effort to assimilate immigrants into one common culture--to, in effect, make them French.

Let there be no doubt, the French love their language, and an overwhelming majority believe strongly that it is worth protecting. About 110 million people, 58 million of them in France, speak French as their main language. And 50 million others are fluent.

In French schools, students learn to write their mother tongue properly in countless dictees , in which they take dictation from their teachers. But the learning doesn't stop there. Hundreds of thousands of adults tune in to an annual, nationally televised dictee , a kind of prime-time spelling bee for grown-ups, to test their spelling, grammar and ear for the language.

For 20 years, each government ministry has maintained a "terminology committee," whose primary purpose is to find French equivalents for English words. The work of those committees led to publication this year of a new Dictionary of Official Terms, which lists 3,500 "foreign or improper terms to avoid." And it helpfully provides French replacements.

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