By Henry Samuel in Paris
Last Updated: 2:08AM GMT 16 Mar 2008
The French want to preserve their beloved language
Defenders of the French language have devised a secret weapon to counter the invasion of English: a computer program that automatically replaces Anglo-Saxon terms like email with their proper French equivalent.
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By the end the year, all French ministry computers should be equipped with the revolutionary program, dubbed "le correcteur terminologique" (the terminology corrector).
Thus, when a civil servant types in the word "email", a window will instantly pop up on the screen suggesting the term be changed to "courriel" - the official French alternative.
Workers who type in "carjacking" will be invited to replace the word with "piraterie routière" while they will be urged to swap "cameo star" for "vedette éclair " when referring to a film role.
"The problem is that the French often don't even know the proper equivalent to English terms that have crept into our language. This program will give them a helping hand", said Alfred Gilder, who oversees French terminology in the French finance ministry — which alone has seven different terminology commissions.
"Prince Charles cries foul when Britons used American terms, well it's the same for us with English terms", said Mr Gilder.
French purists hope the program will help beat back the spread of both English and Franglais — words that are neither proper English nor French - at a time of deep concern that the French language is losing influence in Europe.
In 1997, 40 per cent of documents at the European Commission were first written in French, compared to 45 per cent in English. In 2006, the ratio had fallen to 14 per cent French versus 72 per cent English.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose English is poor, intends to push the use of French when he takes over presidency of Europe in July for six months.
"It's not about trying to dominate Europe, but (the French presidency) could be a chance to encourage speaking different languages instead of international English, or globish, which is a weakened version of English and has nothing to do with the language of Virginia Woolf", culture minister Christine Albanel told the Telegraph.
Or else she could encourage the French to use English instead of international French, or Franchabic, which is a weakened version of French and has nothing to do with the language of Victor Hugo.
Just a thought.
Mr Sarkozy has also called for the creation of a BBC à la Française, called France Monde, insisting that it should broadcast exclusively in French.
News of the new word processing weapon coincided with the launch yesterday of a new website — www.franceterme.culture.fr - listing all new official French terms, but also asking the French to come up with their suggestions for future ones.
"I think that the defence of a language is the sum of a multitude of small battles, and it's worth the fight", culture minister Christine Albanel told the Telegraph.
"Even if only two out of ten words stick, the language has moved and breathed and we have marked our territory", she said at a ceremony to launch the "week of French language".
Each French ministry has its own commission of terminology and neologisms, whose job is to track down English terms and offer French alternatives.
They send their proposals to the Académie Française, a council of guardians of the French language, who debate the new terms and rubber stamp them. Once published in the statutes book, French civil servants are obliged to use them. About 300 such official French terms appear each year.
Although the official terms are only obligatory in the state sector, their creators hope the new web site and program will also help to spread the good word into the French street and private sector.
One recent addition yet to catch on is "prix hypotecairé à risque", designed to replace subprime, in the wake of the American cheap mortgage crisis.