How long can language protection policies still hold out against the influx of English?
by Pisana Ferrari – cApStAn Ambassador to the Global Village
Since the 17th century the Académie française, an élite group of 40 “immortals”, as the members are known, serves as the official guardian of the French language. “Language may change, and society, too, but slowly, in the view of the academy”, says the author of a recent article in the NY Times. The recent approval of the “feminization” of professional titles, for example, had been resisted for years, despite being widely used in the country. The Académie also protects France against “brainless Globish” and the “deadly snobbery of Anglo-American”, as one member has recently said. French equivalents to “unwanted” English words, once validated by the Académie, are published in the Official Journal of the French Republic and are compulsory for public institutions (not for the general population, where they should be used as “a reference”). But for how long can the Académie still hold “progress” out? The combination of a predominantly conservative group, where the average age is 70, and the inability to fill vacancies open since 2016, leads observers to think that it is currently in a deadlock, one which reflects that “between the proud, timeless France determined to preserve itself at all costs, and the France struggling to adapt to a 21st century defined by globalization.”
France is not the only country which protects its language against foreign influence. In Italy the Accademia della Crusca plays a similar role but, unlike France, its recommendations have no legal force, not even for the public administration. In a post for our blog in May 2018 we wrote about the Accademia’s warning that the excessive use of foreign loanwords may represent a threat to democracy. It expressed, in particular, grave concerns about the Italian Education Ministry’s “syllabus to encourage entrepreneurial skills in secondary school students”, which features an alarmingly large number of English terms (we personally counted no less than 50 in the 11-page document). Examples include “design thinking”, “hackathons”, “startup bootcamps”, “growth hacking”, “edugames”, “business modeling”, “pitch deck”…. English words have also made their way into Italian legislation. “Spending review”, “Jobs act”, “Flat tax”, “Welfare”… these are just some of the English terms that have been used in Italian legislation in past years. According to the Accademia, this makes it difficult for Italians who do not know English to understand the meaning of important legal provisions that affect their every day life. In a country where over half of the population does not know English, and of those who know it only about one third “at a good level”, the Accademia may have a point.
As we wrote in our blog in 2018, languages evolve naturally and “cross-pollination” is a part of this process. Some new words remain mainstream, many adapt, others die off. It is impossible to block the evolution of language without this being imposed and even in France and Italy and other countries which practice “language purity” policies this has not prevented ordinary people from using foreign words. However we would tend to agree with the French that public administrations should use the official language(s) of the country in their communications, in order to ensure that all citizens can fully understand their meaning.