Lingo Wars: Urban Dictionary v Academie Francaise

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 4/17/2012 12:09:00 PM
While most things Anglo-Saxon are taking a well-deserved beating nowadays--neoliberal economic policies and a penchant for soaring rates of obesity among other things--there remains considerable vitality in their common language. As the Global Transformations crew rightly pointed out sometime ago, having the most speakers of a language doesn't make it a "global language." For, if this were the case, then Mandarin would be the world's lingua franca. Instead, it's English that makes the claim, being the language expected to be spoken among business and political elites. With the coming of the Internet, those most able to propagate their views remain English speakers, for better or worse.

It was not so long ago when French aspired for similar status. While it may have currency in certain diplomatic circles even in this day and age, its claims to widespread use in commerce and pop culture are iffy at best. In a way, the treatment of these languages by their respective progenitors mirrors their respective government's penchant for economic intervention. The (mostly) laissez-faire English couldn't care less about the adaptations and proliferations the language has undergone, from pidgin English to American English. So, for instance, the global financial crisis and the the tubby nature of many Anglophone residents are symptomatic of "first world injury." The Urban Dictionary is a vast complilation of such colloquialisms--many more offensive than these, and some of which eventually make the gold standard for such references, the Oxford English Dictionary.
Meanwhile, the dirigiste French still have a high-faluting body which guards the sanctity of their language--especially against intrusions of lowbrow English terms (the likes of which you're likely to find in the aforementioned Urban Dictionary). Our friends over at the World Policy Journal have an interesting feature concerning the Academie Francaise, guardians of French against poor language use. English slang, mon dieu!
In 1635, Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister of Louis XIII, established an institution known as L’Académie Française—the French Academy. Its mission was then and remains today to serve as the guardian of the integrity and sanctity of the French language. At its full strength there are 40 members, elected by their peers for life. Each takes the seat vacated by the death of his or her predecessor and named for the individual who first held that seat in 1635. Accordingly, they are known as The Immortals. Each Thursday, they gather beneath the cupola of the Institut de France, which has dominated the Left Bank of the Seine overlooking the Pont des Arts since its construction by Richelieu’s successor, Cardinal Mazarin, in the 17th century.

They are at work today on the ninth edition of the authoritative French dictionary. The last edition, the eighth, was completed in 1935. The first volume of the ninth, A to Enzyme, appeared in 1992. Since then, the Immortals have picked up the pace. The second volume, Éocène to Mappemonde, was published in 2000. The Immortals are an elite group, and even leading figures of French language or politics have been ignored. Through the years, Rousseau, Sartre, Balzac, Descartes, Diderot, Flaubert, Moliere, Proust, Verne, and Zola have all been shunned for one reason or another.

Today, l’Académie is at the center of a raging controversy over “Anglo-creep”—the rampant and unrestrained import of English terms into French. Accordingly, the Immortals have urged that walkman, software, and email be avoided, replaced by their equivalents—baladeur, logiciel, and courriel. They also waded into the controversy when the nation’s former Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, insisted on calling women cabinet members la ministre, the Immortals maintaining that the masculine le ministre designate both sexes.
There is also a thought-provoking interview with one of its newer members further in the link. To me at least, it's a rearguard movement by elitists who've been overtaken by the times. French can adopt like any other language. Why not? However, the language police certainly have done their part in forestalling fertile adoption. Why can't French borrow from English and come up with something unique? It's the linguistic equivalent of Not Invented Here (NIH) syndrome. The important point here is that new terms are mostly developed spontaneously and adopted in a similar fashion instead of being dictated by a bunch of geezers.

While educators like yours truly require a certain standard for academic work, it's how people actually communicate with each other that sets possibilities for propagating a language instead of pronouncements from distant language police, methinks. So, to understand why English language trumps French, look no further than the difference between the Urban Dictionary and the Academie Francaise.