Parlez-vous franglais?

hollywood_style_coktailJust because English is your mother tongue doesn’t mean you know how to speak it in French. And few things frustrate the French more than your inability to understand their English. Here’s a quick survival guide to speaking and understanding franglais.

“Schwingahm?” The first time someone asked me this, I thought they were speaking neither French nor English but some other language – Finnish or possibly Swahili. The proffered pack of gum made me realize my mistake, and learn my first word of franglais. Chewing gum.

Another good one is shampooing, the official French word for shampoo. (Listen to the rather surprising pronunciation.) It took awhile before I made the connection with the English word.

The French have a penchant for taking English words and adding ‘ing’ to the end to make their own versions. Most of the time they pronounce it like we do, with extra emphasis on the last syllable. So you’ll hear things cocooning, footing, relooking.

It’s been ages since I set foot in a McDonalds. But when my kids were young I remember the challenges of ordering in that restaurant as the menu was full of English words that I couldn’t seem to pronounce correctly in French: “Un happy meal, un coca light, un menu maxi-best of…”

The French also like to use brand names as short-cuts. I remember asking my mother-in-law, using my textbook French: “As-tu un mouchoir?” She looked at me blankly for a moment, then said, “Tu veux dire un kleenex?” (The correct term is actually mouchoir en papier, distinguishing a tissue from a handkerchief.) You’ll often hear things like ball-point pens called stylo-bic, a whirlpool bath called un jacuzzi, sticky tape called du scotch. And, as immortalized by former president Sarkozy, a high-pressure cleaner called un karcher*.

Another former prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, famously took franglais from the sublime to the ridiculous with this speech: 

The use of franglais is somewhat controversial in France, yet so deeply engrained in la vie quotidienne that it would be impossible to eradicate. And why even try? The illustrious members of the Académie Française (the same geezers who were responsible for the trademark infringement of my name) would have you believe that the encroaching anglo invasion will lead to the disappearance of French as we know it. But I would say that the way the French take an English word and make it completely their own – through meaning, pronunciation, usage – actually strengthens the French language.

Here’s my list of some commonly used terms of franglais:

Un snack. This is not something you eat but a place that sells it, ie a snack bar.

Un toast. Why the French prefer ‘toast’ to pain grillé is a mystery but they use both terms. They also borrow the term ‘porter un toast’ when it comes time to raise a glass – (also: ‘lever un verre’). Which happens a lot.

Un fast food. It’s easy to see why the French didn’t bother inventing their own word for fast-food, aka un McDo (pronounced: mac-doh). For most French people, fast food is an aberration of American invention that has, regretfully, become part of modern life. Oddly enough, the French version of McDonalds is called Quick.

Un soft. Well, you could say logiciel (software) but it is so much trendier to use English.

Un rave party. Why they feel the need to add ‘party’ always strikes me as bizarre (although possibly because ‘rave’ is a kind of root vegetable). But the concept is the same.

Le weekend. The French adopted the English word, while our French Canadian cousins say ‘la fin de semaine’. Pronunciation tip: put the emphasis on the last syllable and barely pronounce the ‘d’

Un best of. Same meaning as in English, but more broadly applied to a collection of the best moments in a campaign, chronicle or television show…and as mentioned above, the most popular combo at McD’s. Note that the French will say ‘off’ instead of ‘of’, making it sound like un best-off.

Un happy end. A happy ending to any story, especially a film or TV show. For once without the ing.

La French touch. This term was coined to loosely describe the influence of French groups like Daft Punk on electronic music, especially house. But it is now more broadly used to denote any specialty in which the French bring their own special creative expertise, as seen by the rest of the world. High-end luxury goods, animation, video games, fine foods…

Le leadership. There is no French word for leader or leadership. The closest translation is ‘direction’ but this word can mean anything from the management of a supermarket to the steering of a car. There is also no French equivalent for the concept of leading people (I would be tempted to venture that this is in itself revelatory of something, ie that the French refuse to be led…)

And here’s one I recently overhead in a conversation on the street:  “T’as vu le self-control?”

Want to savoir plus? Entire books have been devoted to franglais. You can read a good writeup on Wikipedia about its history and use in different parts of the world here. And following some recent controversy around English teaching in French universities, this topic is back in the headlines. The following NY Times article provides a good overview.

*One of Sarko’s most renowned political blunders was his pledge to clean up the city’s bad neighbourhoods with a “karcher”. Looks like somebody in that company’s PR department is trying to undo the damage caused by this unasked-for publicity, as you can see here.

10 thoughts on “Parlez-vous franglais?

  1. To make a balance, you must not forget the hundreds of French words that have been adopted in English centuries ago, which are pronounced and even SPELT in the most original way …

    1. Yes, and one very good example of a French word that has been totally adopted by the Americans is espionage.

      1. This one is recent . I meant the large part of English vocabulary that came from French between the XIth century and the XIXth century .

  2. I would be totally lost in France yet I speak French here in Montreal all the time! And we thought the English language was bizarre…Great work Mel!

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