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Home | 2016 | March

What's the French for 'dodo'?

Posted by Austin Morris on UTC 2016-03-23 07:41.

Time for the French language authorities to have the usual whinge about the pollution of their beautiful language by the Anglo-Saxons.

Professor Jean Maillet described his compatriots' increasing use of Franglais as 'reprehensible and unnecessary' because French already has a rich vocabulary of its own.

'The reason is partly due to linguistic laziness, because many English words are shorter and more user-friendly than their French counterparts.

'They don't sound nice on the ear, but we use them because they have become automatic.

'Why do French people use the word 'look' when our own language proposes: aspect, apparence, tenue, allure...'

Yes, perfessor, this 'linguistic laziness' is outrageous! How dare the French people use words that are 'shorter and more user-friendly than their French counterparts'! Words that 'don't sound nice on the ear', zut alors! Words that have become 'automatic'.

Perhaps it is because:

  • the English language is where the cultural action is nowadays;
  • there is a Darwinian efficiency in language: people use the simplest and most fitting words – 'user-friendly', you said it yourself;
  • 'linguistic laziness': why should a language require extra effort?
  • words becoming 'automatic' is a fundamental linguistic process: that's how language works.

The Mail reporter recalls a previous whinge:

The French culture ministry launched a drive three years ago to ban the torrent of English words invading their language.

The ministry even put up a list of English words on its website ago which it said had slipped into common French usage and should be banned.

These included 'email', 'blog', 'supermodel', 'take-away' and 'low-cost airline'. Even such obscure terms as 'shadow-boxing' and 'detachable motor caravan' and 'multifunctional industrial building' were blacklisted over 65 pages of forbidden vocabulary on the website.

Senior French government adviser Herve Bourges warned at the time that the global domination of Anglo-Saxon culture had plunged the future of the French language into 'deep crisis'. A study revealed 90 per cent of French people regularly use English words and phrases when speaking

In a damning report commissioned by French ministers, he said French was being 'besieged' by the growing numbers of English speakers around the world.

Mr Bourges said: 'English speakers have a vision of the so-called English-speaking world, but an equivalent concept does not seem to exist in France.

'Despite having 200 million French speakers on earth, the idea of a French-speaking world is becoming obsolete.

'France is failing to promote its own language, and there seems to be very little interest in doing so.'

Perhaps it is because

  • The '200 million French speakers on earth' live in pretty uninteresting places. Who cares what the residents of all the little former French imperial plots around Africa such as Burkina Faso think? I suspect that the figure of 200 million is arrived at by creative accounting for places which are really bi- or trilingual, but I really can't be bothered to check because whether the number is 200, 100 or 50 million, it really does not matter.
  • 'France is failing to promote its own language': well, mon frère, a language that needs to be promoted to stay in business is already on the way out.
  • The written English language has evolved dramatically over the last thousand years. Two centuries as the world's language for science, commerce and literature have made it a grammatically tolerant medium of communication for all those using it as a second language.
  • All the sharp edges have been knocked off English by the need for linguistic simplicity. French (and German for that matter) have diacritics, cases, special subjunctives and conditionals. Irregular verbs and complex conjugations are a nightmare in French. The initial hurdle to learn the language is much higher for French and German than it is for English.
  • The French seem to think that having a language that is hard work is a good thing. It isn't: it's a dying-out thing.
  • As noted above, English is where the cultural action is at the moment. Three hundred years ago, when Louis XIV was on the French throne and his excesses where being imitated by the other despots of Europe, when Voltaire and the Encyclopédistes were writing, French was the language to learn. The French themselves may not have noticed it but that has all changed.
  • This cultural need of the French to keep their language as complicated as possible, probably so that it can act as an instrument of social stratification, is easy to demonstrate. As an example of how inefficient French is for daily use, consider the verbal antics the writer needs to perform in order to close a letter. No matter how trivial or business-like the letter, it must always be concluded with some outrageous verbal gyrations. In English about the most one ever needs to write is 'Yours faithfully'. In French there are entire web pages devoted to the complexities of concluding a French letter with at least half a paragraph bristling with accents and subjunctives without risking the exposure of your peasant upbringing.

As our reader knows, we like our ironies on this blog. It thus amuses us that one of these French colonies, Mauritius, was the home of the dodo, the which unfortunate creature the French were also unable to save. The estimated date of its final extinction coincides with the arrival of the French on the island, bringing their marmites with them.

Of course, as Voltaire showed, French was then the language of satire. Nothing has changed seemingly: the French Wikipedia tells us that the French for 'dodo' is in fact, le dronte de Maurice, although every French speaker calls it a 'dodo'. The 'correct', 'normalised' name has been defined by the Commission internationale des noms français d'oiseaux (Cinfo) – yes, there is indeed a commission for that, of course with its own acronym. (Since the titles of things usually get completely out of hand in French there always has to be an acronym.)

Even more amusingly, it turns out that dronte is not a French word at all, but a Dutch word taken from the previous inhabitants of Mauritius. Using a Dutch word, however, is clearly much better than using an Anglo-Saxon word, even though it, too, was derived from Dutch. So le dronte de Maurice it has to be.