- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 26, 2003

The French inferiority complex strikes again, as usual in the guise of superiority. How else explain why a people with so lovely a language could still be so insecure in it they would want to ban foreign words and phrases?

Once again the Language Police in Paris are trying to deport foreign phrases that have slipped across the border. But guardians of language who think they can decree which words will and will not be used in their jurisdiction will in the end succeed only in impoverishing themselves. For words are wealth; they are the very currency of thought.

The latest Americanism to make the French hit list is, yes, e-mail. So decrees the General Commission on Terminology and Neology of the Ministry of Culture, which sounds like a government bureau out of the late Soviet period in Russia.

Said commission has announced that the smooth, French-sounding “courriel” is to be used in preference to the businesslike, American “e-mail.” By law.

References to e-mail are to be banned from all government ministries, documents, publications or Web sites. Call it a fait accompli.

But surely the forbidden word will pop up entre nous when the French wish to appear sophisticated — the way art critics, fashion-setters and the pretentious in general like to pepper their English with French phrases.

On the whole, wouldn’t it make more sense to reserve a word like “courriel” for a sleek, medium-sized French car? Why Frenchify a perfectly serviceable Anglicism like e-mail?

Note the contrast with wholesomely unregulated English, which is a laissez-faire language. English has never been declared a government monopoly, which may explain why English was multicultural even before multicultural was a word.

The Jutes and Angles and Saxons and Romanized Britons were melding their tongues into one lingua franca even before it was shaped and civilized by those invaders from Normandy. (Don’t tell anybody, but the Normans were what we today would call French.)

The great river that is the English language continues to flow, and even flood the world in all its polyglot power. One reason is that it engulfs foreign words, and even delights in them, rather than shrinking back in horror.

Americans have never hesitated to borrow French and Spanish spellings of American Indian words and incorporate them into American English, as anybody from Arkansas should know.

These French bureaucrats who think they can chain language like a dog, forbidding it to wander off, bring to mind our own English First types, who too often verge on advocating English Only. They, too, may think they can reduce English to an official language. As if English couldn’t dominate and absorb any other language out there in a free market and fair fight. Which is how it’s come to sweep the world.

Like e-mail, English has become an international medium, surrounding and engulfing everything in its path. It has grown by adopting words, not rejecting them. For a language frozen is a dead language.

The French won’t succeed in replacing e-mail with courriel any more than they managed to eliminate le weekend. But if they ever did succeed in sealing their language off from foreign influences, French would be as dead as Latin.

A language that doesn’t adapt — and adopt words and phrases and concepts from others — dies. Or it enters a state of suspended animation where only scholars and priests wander. See the history of Hebrew before it was revived in Israel, complete with many words adapted from modern languages.

The scholars at the Academie Francaise don’t get it: A living language happily lends and borrows words from others and recirculates them. Like fresh air. Like working capital. Like a free-flowing, life-giving stream.

This country has had its language snobs, too. In the 19th century, they deplored the flood of Americanisms being introduced into the language and tried to hold fast to Briticisms. But it was a vain effort in the face of the overflowing force and gush of Pure-Dee mongrel American.

In his masterful study of “The American Language,” the incomparable H.L. Mencken, referred to these purists as “schoolmarms, male and female,” and called them, in a typical Menckenism, Anglomaniacs.

Mencken’s Teutonic broadsides against the linguistic Puritans offer a splendid example of the heavy artillery a robust American language can produce; he blew away volumes of buncombe at the slightest provocation, or even without any. And the booboisie were never the same.

Editor Mencken, a newspaperman by training, instinct and sheer mischievousness, knew what all the French professors and censors and rigorists have yet to learn:

A living language is always in the market for new words — that is, new concepts. It plays well with others. It does not snub them but learns from them. It is friendly, charming, forthright, honest, engaged, sincere and engaging — unlike, say, Jacques Chirac.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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