Elsa Court is a French woman who has lived in the UK for more than a decade. In this monthly column she discusses contemporary issues raised by living in a foreign country today, such as origin, identity and belonging.
After years of living in London, I am used to seeing friends come and go. I have never been one for seeking the company of French expats exclusively, but it struck me a few years ago that, after most of my compatriots had decided to return to France, I had only one French friend left in the UK. She is also called Elsa.
We consistently message via WhatsApp in English, but only because English is more efficient to communicate practical information such as arranging travel between London and Oxford. It is, after all, historically the language of trade.
When we meet in person, however, we automatically revert to French. Actually, what we speak is a cross between French and English, often referred to as “franglais”.
Elsa and I met when we were studying for our masters in English at the Sorbonne university in Paris. We had both returned from a year abroad on the Erasmus programme and were eager to continue studying English in the UK. I did my PhD in London, she did hers at the University of Oxford.
One person’s franglais is different to another’s. Ours is composed of raucous running commentary in French on whatever it is we are discussing, interspersed with English nouns or turns of phrase, chosen for their irreplaceable efficiency in conveying something for which the French language has no obvious or simple equivalent.
Elsa, who teaches French language and literature at Oxford, says her students are often baffled at how much more flexible, succinct and economical English is compared with French.
A recurrent example is the translation of English words and phrases such as “anyone”, “anything”, “however” and “whatever”, which can only be transposed into our native tongue by way of clunky and unnecessarily formal paraphrases such as “qui que ce soit”, “quoi que ce fût”, “quelle que soit la manière dont” and “n’importe quoi”.
Maybe that is why we so often feel the temptation to resort to an English word in the middle of a French sentence. It is not so much that we are showcasing our plurilingual education, but rather it is a form of laziness — seeking the easiest route from one idea to a form of expression.
Not all who speak franglais are binational, however. In France, the language of advertising naturally lends itself to English. Despite growing up in geographically distant regions of France, Elsa and I were surrounded by English from an early age.
Today, sectors such as technology and finance use English expressions to convey a form of ultra-liberalism that is foreign to France. French president Emmanuel Macron was derided last year for a tweet in which he used franglais freely. He wrote, in the context of a speech on artificial intelligence: “La démocratie est le système le plus bottom up de la terre.”
Defenders of the purity of the French language reproached Macron for not trying to use a French equivalent which, they said, the French language would have perfectly supported.
In fact, the criticism is as much about Macron’s liberal use of both languages as his ease with the niche, status-signalling language of finance, which many in France see as a reflection of his divisively pro-business, globalist stance.
Macron later justified his choice by saying it helped promote French as a global language to showcase its inherent plurilingualism and flexibility. Although he told French radio station Europe1 he was not “one of its grouchy defenders”, on a visit to Africa in 2017 he said his hope was for French to become the first language in the continent and “maybe even the world”.
This kind of statement puts things into perspective. French, historically, is on a par with English as one of the great languages of western colonial expansion. I suspect — though Elsa and I never speak about this — that had our native language been less dominant on the world stage, and instead one more threatened by the global omnipotence of English, we would perhaps speak it with more care.
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Photographs: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images; Bloomberg; Anadolu Agency/Getty Images