The English Invasion: Why Don’t the French Want to Speak their Own Language?

What le Hell Est Going sur Here?

September 25, 2012By David JaggardC'est Ironique!
Paris Update People Press Covers
A boulanger’s dozen of French gossip magazines and not one French title. And royal-areola-revealing journalism isn’t the only discipline showing the pervasive influence of English.

I overheard the most extraordinary conversation the other day while sitting behind a young couple on a bus. To pick a sample sentence more or less at random, at one point the woman said:

“We need to go to the supermarket to buy some milk and orange juice, and then we’ll go home for lunch, OK?”

Astonishing, isn’t it? Well, no, because I’m translating a bit. But only a bit. What she actually said was:

“On doit go au supermarket pour acheter du milk et du jus d’orange, et puis on rentre home pour le lunch, all right?”

The two people in question were, judging by their accents, native French speakers, but every sentence that came out of their mouths was peppered with English words.

And that’s still not what made it so extraordinary. They were in fact talking to their child, a little boy who could not have been more than three years old. In other words, they are teaching their son to speak a haphazard hodgepodge of French and English.

As a foreign resident of France I find this alarming, and if I were French I would be appalled. Other than having a few sounds that are impossible to pronounce without bionic implants (see my previous article on the vagaries of speaking French as a foreigner), French is a perfectly good language with more than enough words in it to get you to the supermarket and back. Why use English?

And that dialogue on the bus was by no means an isolated case. As I have mentioned in a number (four) of previous articles, many French businesses choose English names, either to attract an international clientele or because it’s considered fashionable.

This has been going on for a long time, but now the practice is reaching epidemic proportions. For example, if you walk along the southeast side of Rue La Fayette between Rue Bleue and Rue Papillon, you will see one hotel with a French name, surrounded by these places:

Paris Update By My Car

Paris Update Club Charlys

Paris Update Copiprint

Paris Update Copy Top

Paris Update Dolls

For that block, English names outnumber French five to one. And illogical English names outnumber logical three to two: Copiprint and Copy Top are indeed copy shops, but “Dolls” is not a doll store, “Club Charly’s” is not a club, and “By My Car” is not a name that anyone should ever call anything, especially an auto dealership.

I suppose a vehicle purchased there would be a “By My Car car.” And its owner could refer to it as “my By My Car car.” And if that person left a suitcase on the sidewalk next to his vehicle he could say that the suitcase is “by my By My Car car.” And if his vehicle happened to be parked next to the dealership, he could say that the suitcase is “by my By My Car car by By My Car.” And if he were talking to someone whose name happened to be Carr…

Editor: Ah, David? Do you intend to blather on like this all day?

Me: I was going to stop for lunch.

Editor: Well, how about stopping this tedium right now?

Me: I suppose I could skip to the next section…

Editor: Fine by my — I mean me.

Ahem. As I was saying, then there are the businesses that have a French name but see fit to post other information in English:

Paris Update Open Sonnez SVP

This is a jewelry shop in the Passage des Panoramas that locks its door for security during opening hours so customers have to ring the bell. Somehow I suspect that it’s a practical joke — the owner likes to watch hapless Anglophones who can’t understand “ring please” trying to open the “open” but unopening door.

This bank on Rue du Faubourg Montmartre is also trying to discourage a specific segment of its clientele:

Paris Update No Cash No Change

Announcing “no cash” is presumably to let the larceny-minded know that there’s nothing worth risking a felony charge to be pillaged in this particular branch. Are all of France’s delinquents now fluent in English? Or is the notice intended to give miscreants a little language lesson in an effort to educate and thereby reform the criminal class?

I imagine a robber being led away handcuffed and empty-handed, thinking, “And there wasn’t even any cash in there! Gee, I hope I get sent to a prison with an English program…”

And it’s not just the worlds of commerce and finance that are succumbing to the trend. When the French Olympic team returned to Paris from London in mid-August, they rode down the Champs Elysées in open-top buses emblazoned with the name “All Bleus.” (The French national team of anything is nicknamed the “Blues,” after one-third of the flag.)

The idea behind this slogan was that the crowd was supposed to dress all in blue to welcome the athletes back home. As you can see in the linked photo, the concept was about as successful as one of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s pickup lines.

Speaking of misbegotten attempts at crosscultural union, in the office of a magazine group that I work for occasionally, there are little recycling bins in the restrooms marked with this mongrel of a sign:

Paris Update Papier Only

I presume that the wording was chosen for concision: the French equivalent would have been much longer, but if everyone understands “only,” why waste marker ink by putting the “i” in “paper”? I notified the company’s efficiency expert that there was an incongruously worded sign in the men’s toilet, and she promised to get right on it.

Lastly, believe it or not, the incursions of English into Francophone culture have now extended to begging signs. I swear this is true, but it requires two points of explanation.

P. of E. 1:

Because the French language includes so many silent letters, there are a great many words whose pronunciation happens to match that of a sequence of letters and/or numbers. For example, when I first moved to Paris, video and audio cassette tapes were still in widespread use, and many stores that sold them put out a sign marked “K7.”

Why? Because in French, “k” is pronounced “kah” and the number seven is pronounced “set.” So the combination gives you the sound of “cassette” or “cassettes” (the pluralizing “s” is silent in French, which is why you see bizarre-looking plurals like “sandwichs” and “lunchs”).

This kind of shorthand exists in English too (CU, B4, etc.), but it has always been much more common — I mean “,N” — in French.

P. of E. 2:

Because the French socioeconomic system includes so many vociferous labor unions, salaried workers here have a whole array of perks and privileges, including the ticket restaurant, a sort of food gift certificate that companies hand out to subsidize their personnel’s lunch expenses.

Each employee gets a packet of tickets every month or so that can be redeemed for prepared food. For this reason, a lot of beggars are glad to accept them — they’re essentially as good as cash in a grocery store or takeout stand.

Now we come, at last, to the explanation of the point of these points of explanation. In the past year or so, I have been seeing more and more mendicants with signs like this one:

Paris Update TK Resto

The quality of my photo, taken furtively without breaking stride, is on par with the linguistic consistency shown here.

“Please help us to eat thank you” is in correct French, and “resto” is a colloquialism for “eatery,” but “Ticket” has become “TK.”

Why? “T” is pronounced “tay” in French, and “k,” as mentioned above, is “kah.” “Tay-kah” doesn’t mean anything. But if you pronounce the two letters in English you get “Tee-kay,” the French pronunciation of “ticket” or “tickets.” They ought to have footnotes.

About a week ago, a friend and I were accosted by one of these polyglot panhandlers, who apparently recognized my accent and asked me, in surprisingly good English, for a euro. I asked him what he would do with it, and he said, “I would aller to the supermarché to buy lait and orange juice, and then return chez moi for dejeuner.”

D’accord. At least he didn’t say he was saving up to buy my By My Car car.


Reader Marguerite Beck-Rex writes: “Excusez me! C’est fun to mélanger English with French.”

Reader Charlene Moyer writes: “Je ne care pas!”

Reader Margo Berdeshevsky writes: “Agreed, Monsieur Ironique. C’est bien tragique. To those Paris Update responders who opined, ‘Je m’en fiche,’ in one version or another, perhaps pause to remember that to lose a language equals to lose a culture. Such is the story of colonialism worldwide. Vive la différence, et la langue Française.”

© 2012 Paris Update


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