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Deja Vu All Over Again

July 23, 2003

OK, mes amis, this is guerre.

The French government has issued a formal linguistic edict banning "e-mail" from the French language. Serieusement. The Culture Ministry has officially prohibited the word in all government ministries, documents, publications, even Web sites. Pas de e-mail. Interdit. From now on, instead of e-mails, all French men and women will send and receive un courriel. Mon Dieu, it is an abbreviation for courrier electronique and probably seems rather clever up there in the Ministry of Culture. Is that where they transferred Inspector Clouseau?

Does anyone think in an era of instant global communications that any language -- let alone une belle langue comme francais -- can remain pure in isolation? Evidemment, oui.

To remain the same and forever pure these days a language must die. Not a whole lot of new words are creeping into the Latin dictionary anymore. Languages are not stuffy old castles with tall walls, guard towers and a Ministry of Moats to remain isolated from the outside world -- especially from English, the SARS of language.

Adding new words and adapting the old invigorate the palette of any language. C'est dommage but the pragmatic language that proves most versatile will dominate in the Darwinian world of communications. C'est la vie. And la mort.

English has surpassed French as the de facto international language because of the ubiquity of American economics, the U.S. military and, bien sur, American culture, especially movies and music largely, like, California-based. Also, if la verite be told, being a nuclear power just sounds a lot stronger than having a force de frappe.

Deep in their coeurs, French officials know this. Every day the French have les meetings before using le cash to order a la carte from McDonald's and rendezvous at a cinema matinee. Banning e-mail and Walkman (it became baladeur) simply won't cut the moutarde.

Of course, we could have a little tete-a-tete to plot retaliation against word-banning fromage-lovers. We could give carte blanche to a special commission to ban French from English -- omelet, cafe, cuisine, nom de plume, maitre d', croissant, encore, even Paris, Texas. Give French the coup de grace. But then our lives and conversations would lack that mucho grande Champagne fizz.

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