A couple of weeks in the south of France has many attractions – the architecture, landscape, the wine, the weather, the food, and, yes, the people. Have the French made a decision to be less ratty and exploitative in recent years ? Seems so to me; we met some charming and lively people, including one couple who invited us to their home in St Raphael on the basis of a cordial lunchtime conversation.
What is striking, though, is the spread of Franglais. By that, I don’t mean the willingness of French people to speak standard English, though that is markedly increasing. When I went to France as a kid, it seemed that even French people who spoke decent foreign languages refused to do so, as if it were a slight on the national honour. Now, the position is sometimes reversed. Speaking decent French is always appreciated (yes, someone did ask what region I came from, purr, purr), but elsewhere it can be difficult to stop French people speaking English, even when you want them to. And it’s not quite like Holland or Germany or Austria, where someone with perfect English feels they are being helpful. The French may be more willing, but their competence hasn’t yet reached those Saxon levels. And a waiter who persists in speaking a brand of English that is markedly worse than my French has the potential to be very irritating.
I can see the attraction of English. It is the language of business – we spoke to a couple of people who said that English was the language of their workplace in a multinational company. Science is conducted in English. At my old grammar school in the 1950s, boys studying chemistry were encouraged to learn German as that was the language of discourse, but it isn’t any more. English is also the language of Hollywood, and pop music. In England, kids can regard learning a foreign language as a bit of a bind. But if it were the language of the most beautiful actresses, the hippest pop singers ?
But my topic for today is not French proper, but Franglais, that lovely mixed-up use of Anglicisms within French that is increasing so markedly. The BBC recently collected some anecdotes, and I am going to add a few more. There is a huge amount of Franglais which I think comes from the search for cool. In fact, “cool” is one of the preferred words of the new usage – even “hypercool”. A casual clothes shop was titled “Jean’s Lovers” (the misplaced apostrophe is as common in French high streets as British ones, I am afraid). The pet shop is “Animal City”, the fitness club is, well, “Fitness Cub” or “Body Minute”. On a Camargue Beach, a bar called “Palm Beach” (perhaps Palm Beach has a posh bar called “La Camargue”). The employment agency was called “Start People”, and it ran a young people’s career fair called “Jobs d’Ete”. Sex toys are, inevitably, “Sex Toys”. Sometimes French and English are brought together with an ear-splitting thud, as in “sandwicherie”. Shops have English signage – I was surprised to see how often “Sorry, We Are Closed” was hung on doors well out of tourist areas. And the observation made after the London Olympics – that the Union Jack is a popular youth emblem – certainly seems to be true, with UK jeans and bags, T-shirts and shorts.
The products are also being frangled. Timberland and Levis, Subway and Macdonalds are, of course, international and to be expected, but maybe not a fried chicken outlet that advertises the great deals available from “Nos Buckets”. “Tee-shirt” is universal – indeed, the ones I bought at Monoprix were labelled “modern fit”. As everywhere in the world, they are covered with garbled English that seems to owe more to Japan or Hong Kong than Paris or even the West Coast – the bizarre linguistic backwater my daughter calls “Los Angeles Sportboy”. I had to write down one T-short message I saw – “Global Yard Someone Must Fly On Face Of Mind”, and another, “East London Make Me Thirsty”. Surely you can’t design textiles whilst being out of your head on hallucinogens ? The use of Anglo Saxon elsewhere seemed not to know which areas are cool and which are tatty. I saw a man with a “Newham” T-shirt, named presumably after the poorest borough of London. “Chesterfield” is a pleasant enough northern town, but needs more than a wonky steeple to justify the elegant and expensive clothes named after it. And what to make of “Finsbury”, a clothes shop in that most snooty of avenues, the Cours Mirabeau in Aix ? Was it the association with Dolly Kray or Arthur Mullard that offered something trés chic ? In a more down-market location, underpants on the market were presented in two styles – respectable boxers were “Business” whilst those offering a more racy fit were titled “Trendy”.
I loved the use of verbs that have leapt the Channel – or maybe the Atlantic. A tough old sailor in a TV drama was told “vous bluffez !” when he announced an outrageous plan (to built a development of “mobile homes” in parkland, as it happens). Signs at Marseille Airport tell security staff that they must “badgez” to get past an electronic gate. Cosmetics (and none are more dishonest that French cosmetics – slimming cream, indeed – sold, inevitably, at “Beauty City”) assure you of an anti-age effect – “lifting”. Invented words are common – what we would call a makeover is “relooking”. A bar that offered sport on satellite TV advertised “Foot On Streaming”. At least, I think that’s what it was. A pop group advertised a concert that was “Best Off”. You can see what they mean, but the title opens a hostage to fortune.
Elsewhere the right words are used, but sometimes to replace perfectly good French ones. “Ticket” seems to have replaced “billet” in concerts and public transport. TV and celebrity magazines always refer to “stars” now, not “vedettes”. Magazines are called ”So Foot” (like our Four Four Two), The Good Life, Men’s Health, Man and so on. (Whilst we have, you may point out, “Marie Claire” and “Vogue” – showing the international trade in cool. We have buffets, the French have snack-bars). Sometimes the right words are used in the wrong place – such as offering ‘brunch’ all day long.
One aspect that pleased me was that English nowadays seems to be less of a language for yobs. It used to be that graffiti – which, like dog-shit, is much worse in France than in the UK – was written in English. It was usually English broken enough for a native speaker to know that it wasn’t being done by visitors, but I have always hoped that the locals knew that. As I said, it’s less common than it was, though monsieur “Barsick” who left his tag all over Bandol hasn’t helped. But English, in either its regular format or its handsome but illegitimate frangled child is absolutely everywhere. I have decided to launch “Perry’s Law”, which states “It is not possible to stand or sit anywhere in urban France without seeing some example of the English language”. I tested in rigorously during my stay, and only came close to failure twice. The first time, I was saved by a flyer for a Rock’n’Soul concert stuck to a lamppost, the second time by a big guy overlooking the Arles Bull-Run in a denim shirt that advertised “Original Workmanship”.
Footnote: None of the above reflects on the success of French companies, by the way, which appear to be a major beneficiary of out-sourcing the UK public sector, whether it’s owning our gas and electric utilities, running assessments on the long term unemployed or picking up our domestic rubbish. I have a linguistic clue as to why that might be. When a manager is interviewed on an issue in a French news bulletin, he is called le or la “responsable”. This seems to me to be a rather better way to refer to someone pulling a big salary to make sure things go OK than calling them a bloody “Chief Executive”