W is for Words

French Property News - - Real Life - Mark Say­ers is head of the Per­pig­nan of­fice of Ar­taxa, an es­tate agency in Langue­doc-rous­sil­lon Tel: 0033 (0)4 67 28 20 35 ar­taxa.com

The French are jus­ti­fi­ably proud of their beau­ti­ful lan­guage and since my school days I have been a huge fan, opt­ing to study French and lin­guis­tics at univer­sity. Lan­guage and how it evolves is end­lessly fas­ci­nat­ing to me. For me, it is mean­ing­less to say that one lan­guage is bet­ter than another; they all have their charms, but I know that of­ten the French se­cretly (or per­haps not so much!) be­lieve that their tongue is su­pe­rior and can re­gard English with just a hint of dis­dain.

French un­doubt­edly gains more points for sex­i­ness – it is widely recog­nised as the lan­guage of love af­ter all – but I don’t think that it can beat us on vo­cab­u­lary. It is no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to put a fig­ure on the num­ber of words a lan­guage has – do you count ev­ery dif­fer­ent ver­sion of a verb for ex­am­ple? And if a word has mul­ti­ple mean­ings, like the English word ‘bear’, do you count it as a sin­gle word or a dif­fer­ent one for each dif­fer­ent mean­ing? It seems to me, how­ever, from my ad­mit­tedly un­sci­en­tific per­spec­tive, that there are far more English words which can’t be ex­pressed with a one-word French equiv­a­lent than the other way round.

Two com­mon ex­am­ples are the words healthy and cheap, which I would trans­late as en bonne santé (lit­er­ally ‘in good health’) and pas cher (lit­er­ally ‘not ex­pen­sive’). Or how about marcher à qua­tre pat­tes or don­ner un coup de pied, long-winded ways to say to crawl and to kick?

And let’s not for­get the pe­cu­liar­ity of num­bers. Who­ever thought that four twenty ten nine ( qua­tre-vingt-dix-neuf) was a good way of ex­press­ing 99? French num­bers be­tween 70 and 99 still re­quire ex­tra con­cen­tra­tion even af­ter 15 years of us­ing them on a daily ba­sis!

The in­tegrity of the French lan­guage is fiercely guarded by the Académie Française and the 40 or so word­smiths, rather pompously known as les im­mor­tels, who are tasked with writ­ing an of­fi­cial dic­tionary of French words. This is such an oner­ous task that the lat­est edi­tion was started in 1992 and re­mains unfinished to this day.

The im­mor­tals sup­pos­edly act as cus­to­dian to the lan­guage of love, in par­tic­u­lar pro­tect­ing it from the scourge of ram­pant Angli­ci­sa­tion, a job which seems about as easy as try­ing to rid France of baguettes.

In spite of their best ef­forts the French hoi pol­loi are busy adopt­ing English words ga­lore. They def­i­nitely pre­fer le net­work­ing to the of­fi­cially sanc­tioned tra­vail en réseau, and le best of to le meilleur de. Words such as these and le sand­wich, le week­end or le mar­ket­ing are ubiq­ui­tous.

Per­son­ally, I have no prob­lem with this but why oh why must the French in­sist on bor­row­ing English words that don’t ac­tu­ally ex­ist? I per­son­ally find it hard to stom­ach pseudo-an­gli­cisms such as le foot­ing for jog­ging or un brush­ing for a blow dry al­though, as I said at the be­gin­ning, the evo­lu­tion of lan­guage is what makes it so fas­ci­nat­ing.

And when a na­tion uses words such as flâner – to wan­der about a place with no par­tic­u­lar aim in mind – and en­tarter – to hit some­one in the face with a pie – it’s hard not to fall in love with their lan­guage!

French un­doubt­edly gains more points for sex­i­ness – it is widely recog­nised as the lan­guage of love af­ter all

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