French and English have had a long and eventful relationship with each other. You can trace it back to almost 1,000 years ago, when the Normans invaded England and French became the official language on the island, despite the fact that most people were speaking an early form of English.
More recently, the two languages jostled against each other in 20th-century Europe as they both fought to become the regional lingua franca in the aftermath of the World Wars. The near-constant interactions between the two languages have spawned two interesting linguistic phenomenons. One is called Franglais, and the other is called Franglais.
Yes, those are the same name, but it describes two different phenomena. The word itself is a portmanteau (also a French word) that combines Français (“French”) and Anglais (“English”). Franglais can describe both the adoption of English words into French and the use of French words in English. How both kinds of Franglais manifest in the real world reveals a lot about the relationship between the two languages, and how culture affects the way we talk.
Franglais: English Words In French
The first attested use of the term “Franglais” comes from the mid-20th century, but the word was popularized in 1964 by novelist René Étiemble, who admonished the use of too many English words in French. To be fair, loanwords are a natural part of language change; English, for example, is almost entirely an amalgamation of words coming from other languages. Certain French people, however, have always been more protective of what constitutes “proper French.”
An institution called the Académie française was established in 1635, and it has helped define the French language in France for hundreds of years. The people in the Academy decide whether a word gets admitted as an official French word or not (English has nothing comparable to this). The Academy attempted to keep English loanwords from entering the language, because some people saw it as a “corruption” of the French language and identity — especially as American and British influence expanded in the aftermath of World War II.
While the Académie française can affect the way the French government uses language, they can’t completely stop English influence from entering France. The phrase le week-end, for example, has been adopted by French speakers, despite initially being resisted. English terms are most likely to be used by French speakers when France doesn’t have a ready synonym (Quebec uses fin de semaine for “weekend,” but that’s a mouthful). Oddly enough, sometimes the way English words are used in France are different than they would be in English. Here are just a few examples of this Franglais:
- le footing — a noun equivalent to “jogging,” because you run with your feet
- un jogging — you’d think this is the word that would mean “jogging,” but instead means what you wear when you’re jogging
- bruncher — a verb meaning “to brunch”
- tweeter — the verb for “to tweet” (like, on Twitter). A number of tech-specific words have been adopted because the websites were started by English speakers, so there’s also Skyper, follower (“to follow” on Instagram) and googeliser
- le relooking — a makeover
Because of the internet, the fight against English influence on French is a losing one. English influence continues to grow, and it won’t stop unless some major shift in world power were to happen. And it’s worth noting that English swear words — particularly “fuck” — are very popular in France.
Franglais: French Words In English
Franglais, referring to French words in English, is not just the mirror opposite of the other meaning. The English language already has a ton of loanwords from French that you probably don’t even think about anymore. Whenever you crochet, or hold a rendezvous, or commit sabotage, or make a faux-pas, you’re using French. These words, then, are not Franglais, they’re just English. Franglais in English specifically refers to using certain French terms to put on airs.
Speaking a foreign language is a way to seem worldly and educated, and no language has a posher reputation than French. There’s no telling exactly why that is. Centuries ago, French was the language of politicians and the nobility, so it’s possible that this high-class status has followed it until the present. It helps that the French are usually presented in the English-speaking world as artsy, romantic people. So it’s really no surprise that people might return from their Paris study abroad throwing around joie de vivre and je ne sais quois a bit more than they did before.
One of the most famous fictional practitioners of this specific kind of Franglais is Miss Piggy (you know, of the Muppets). Her near-constant use of moi to refer to herself, as well as dropping phrases like mon petit cheri, is meant to convey her attempts at being glamorous, despite being born as a small-town pig.
Franglais also sometimes refers to the comedic use of French phrases. Mark Twain, for example, used a mix of French and English in his book The Innocents Abroad for joking effect. And in the 1970s, Punch — a British humor magazine — published a regular column by Miles Kington called “Let’s Parler Franglais,” in which French and English is mashed together. This kind of Franglais wasn’t necessarily to make fun of French, but just to create fun wordplay for English speakers who know a little bit of French. Of course, mangling another language for laughs can always come across as a tad condescending.
Other Uses Of Franglais
Beyond these two examples, Franglais is used to describe myriad phenomena. French and English brush up against each other in many regions of the world, and this produces a different result every time.
In Quebec, the part of Canada with the most French speakers, English and French coexist. Without the Académie française, Quebec French has historically adopted more English words into the language. This isn’t to be confused with Franglais, which refers only to newer loanwords and language-borrowings (though the line between the two can be hazy). Because of Canada’s large English-speaking population, the mixing of English and French is incredibly common. This doesn’t mean everyone accepts it, however, as in 2017 the Quebec legislature tried to ban the word bonjour-hi, which is used as a greeting by some Quebec salesclerks.
Because of colonial history, the African country Cameroon has French, English and Cameroonian Pidgin English speakers. The younger generations have combined them all into a language that is being called Frananglais (slightly different, but basically the same concept). Example phrases include Je veux go (“I want to go”) and Tu as sleep hier? (“Did you sleep well last night?”). The language is far from codified, but this linguistically inventive way of speaking could cement itself if it isn’t stamped out by teachers.
Franglais can also refer to a bilingual person who code-switches between French and English. Similar to Spanglish, it’s the free-mixing of English and French that isn’t really bound by any external rules. This can also be referred to as Frenglish, though that’s the less popular term.
Franglais is a source of contention in France, an insult for a pretentious person in the United States and a part of everyday life in Canada. If it’s not clear already, just know it’s a pretty flexible term. Really, anywhere that English and French come into contact, a kind of Franglais is born. It proves the amazing adaptivity of language in a multilingual world.