Page last updated at 08:04 GMT, Friday, 23 January 2009

New lingua franca upsets French

That the French resent the global supremacy of the English language is nothing new, but as Hugh Schofield finds out, a newly evolved business-speak version is taking over.

They were giving out the annual Prix de la Carpette Anglaise the other day. Literally it means the English Rug Prize, but doormat would be the better translation.

Lord Nelson
Quelle horreur! Lord Nelson is the inspiration for a French rock band

As the citation explains, the award goes to the French person or institution who has given the best display of "fawning servility" to further the insinuation into France of the accursed English language.

Among the runners-up this year: the supermarket company Carrefour ­which changed the name of its Champion chain of stores to Carrefour Market, not using the French word "marche".

Also the provocatively-named Paris band Nelson (it is the Admiral, not Mr Mandela, that they have in mind) whose frontman J.B. sings in English because, he says, French does not have the right cadences for true rock.

Worst offender

But topping the poll for grave disservices to the mother tongue is France's higher education minister, Valerie Pecresse.

Valerie Pecresse
Valerie Pecresse has decided if you cannot beat then, join them

Her crime: proclaiming to the press that she had no intention of speaking French when attending European meetings in Brussels, because, she said, it was quite obvious that English was now the easiest mode of communication.

The rise and rise of the English language is a sensitive subject for many here in France, who believe that French has every bit as much right to be considered a global tongue.

Even conceding to English victory in the war for linguistic supremacy, the French believe that the least they can do is defend their own territory and keep the ghastly invader at a decent remove.

Personally, I sympathise greatly with defenders of the French language

The same group that sponsors the Prix de la Carpette also brings legal actions against companies that, it says, breach the law, for example, by not issuing French language versions of instructions to staff.

Personally, I sympathise greatly with defenders of the French language. I think it is true that culturally the world will be diminished if one monolithic form of discourse squashes the rest. But then I am also a realist.

Recently I have spent a lot of time in French multinational companies, and what is inescapable is the stranglehold that English already has on the world of business here.

French executives draft reports, send e-mails, converse with their international colleagues - and increasingly even amongst themselves - in English.

It is of course a kind of bastardised, runty form of business-speak full of words like "drivers" and "deliverables" and "outcomes" to be "valorised", but is nonetheless quite definitely not French.

New language

This brings me to Jean-Paul Nerriere.

Monsieur Nerriere is a retired French businessman who one day in the course of his work made a fascinating observation.

In a meeting with colleagues from around the world, including an Englishman, a Korean and a Brazilian, he noticed that he and the other non-native English speakers were communicating in a form of English that was completely comprehensible to them, but which left the Englishman nonplussed.

He, Jean-Paul Nerriere, could talk to the Korean and the Brazilian in this neo-language, and they could understand each other perfectly.

But the Englishman was left out because his language was too subtle, too full of meaning that could not be grasped by the others.

In other words, Monsieur Nerriere concluded, a new form of English is developing around the world, used by people for whom it is their second language.

It may not be the most beautiful of tongues, but in this day and age he says it is indispensible. He calls the language Globish and urges everyone - above all the French - to learn it tout de suite.

In his book Don't Speak English, Parlez Globish, Monsieur Nerriere sets out the rules.

Yasser Arafat
Yasser Arafat, an 'excellent exponent' of 'Globish'

Globish has only 1,500 words and users must avoid humour, metaphor, abbreviation and anything else that can cause cross-cultural confusion.

They must speak slowly and in short sentences. Funnily enough, he holds up the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as an excellent exponent.

Many in France consider Monsieur Nerriere a traitor for promoting the dreaded Anglais, but he insists he is not.

He says the French have to recognise that the language war is lost.

"We're just urinating on the ashes of the fire," he says. We should look on Globish not as a triumphant cultural vehicle for les Anglo-Saxons, but as a tool, he says: essential but purely utilitarian.

For lovers of English there is another consideration, only half-serious I admit. But what if this were all a devious Gallic plot?

After all, if Globish really does take over the planet with its stunted business-speak, its bland insignificance, its cultureless access-for-all availability, then where does that leave the real English?

Will the language of Shakespeare suffer by association, leaving the field open one day for the resurgence of the other great tongues of the world ? Like French?

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 22 January, 2009 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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