This week Motherboard added a new language site. Editor Sébastien Chavigner launched Motherboard France, presumably at a soirée with lots of champagne and canapés and other chic-sounding French things.
Bidding bienvenue to our Francophone friends reminded me of a quirky phenomenon I came across while studying a modern languages degree at university: France apparently has an obsession with policing its vocabulary in an attempt to stop French speakers from adopting English words into its tongue. This seems particularly rife in the world of tech, with the government's General Commission on Terminology and Neologisms declaring to much bemusement over the years that French people should use the word "courriel" instead of "email" or that French social media users should consider the clumsily literal translation "mot-dièse" instead of "hashtag."
I wrote to Sébastien as our new authority on all things tech in France to figure out whether this is actually a thing, and what the French really think about it.
Victoria Turk, Motherboard UK: Hey Sébastien! So tell me, is it true that over in France you guys aren't supposed to say "email" and have to use more French-sounding words like "courriel"? Or have people given up on trying to make "courriel" happen by now?
Sébastien Chavigner, Motherboard France: Well, the officials sure wish we'd use terms like "courriel" (or "pourriel", which is the official translation for "spam"), "ordiphone" ("smartphone") or "mot-dièse" ("hashtag"). But it's simply not happening. Over recent years, with so many new terms being coined in the tech industry and general jargon, there's been a fear among the people in charge of protecting our language that young people might increasingly resort to some sort of "Globish." France has always been very proud of its language, and it is supposed to convey what's left of our influence in the world. So the General Commission on Terminology and Neologisms was created in 1996 to make sure that we have a French word for everything, and (hopefully) stop people from using the English terms.
The Commission also made up words like "fouineur" ("hacker"), "bogue" ("bug"), "filoutage" ("phishing")
So far, all they have accomplished is that people make fun of their new words each time they come up with a fresh batch, and immediately resume using "email" and "hashtag" like normal people. The only times you'll see "courriel" written somewhere is on official documents, because they legally have to bear French words. I think nobody in France seriously believes we're going to start using it anytime soon.
But it's very big in Québec. Our Canadian cousins actually care more about our language than we do, and they refuse to use English words whenever they can. For instance, every movie title is translated quite literally there, to the point where it sounds really ridiculous to us French. So they use words like "courriel," but we don't.
Who are the General Commission on Terminology and Neologisms and why do they care so much?
[I]t's a government creation and its president is appointed by the Prime Minister (the other members are appointed by the Ministry of Culture). They work hand-in-hand with the Académie Française.
It's all become a joke
Whenever I hear about them (admittedly rarely), it seems to be in relation to a tech-related word. Why is that? Is it just because new technology requires new words, so those are the ones they get all worked up about?
Most of the words they come up with are indeed tech-related, and I believe you're right in saying that it's probably because the tech sector is responsible for most of the new words that have appeared in recent years. But sometimes, they decide to take on a word that has been used for decades, for no apparent reason. For instance, two years ago, they decided that "one-man show" and "talk show" should be banned, so they tried to replace them with "spectacle solo" and "émission-débat." These words had been around for more than 30 years. Nobody even pretended to care.
What are some other French words for tech that are totally different to their English or American equivalents? Like, what do you call a drone, or biohacking?
Well, as I said, everyone uses the English words. But apart from "ordiphone," the Commission also made up words like "fouineur" ("hacker"), "bogue" ("bug"), "filoutage" ("phishing")… I could go on and on, but these words are forgotten as soon as every media outlet has published an article for the sole purpose of having a good laugh. It's all become a joke. As for "drone" and "biohacking," there's no equivalent that I know of; we simply use those.
How would you translate "Motherboard"?
"Carte mère," which is actually quite literal :)
Merci beaucoup Sébastien!