W is for Words
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