THERE WAS A a conference this week in Paris at which French-speaking leaders from all over the world worried about the decline of that language in international conversation and wondered how to shore it up against the erosion caused by a flood of foreign words -- most of them English.
This preoccupation with the purity and popularity of French has a long history, but it seems to have become especially intense during the presidency of Charles de Gaulle. Now there is a fear in Paris that French is being shut out of the worldwide conversation among computers, which is conducted largely in English. As French President Francois Mitterrand put it, "Must we translate into English the orders that we give machines?"
The reaction to this last problem has been characteristic: a governmental body has been established to meddle in it. Michael Dobbs reported in this paper that a Computer Technology Commission is working to come up with properly French- sounding replacements for such imported words as "debug" and "floppy." It continues a tradition established by the government's High Committee for the French Language, which has sought to root out such anglicisms as "le Walkman" (to be replaced with the officially sanctioned baladeur), "le drive- in" (which becomes le cine-parot) and "le jingle" (le sonal).
All this governmental activity (which leads one to think that France could use a touch of le Gramm-Rudman) is aided and abetted by members of the Academie Francais, whose efforts in this regard seem chiefly aimed at embalming the language in some idealized state and rouging it up with a lot of artificial words. There is even an effort to enforce such creations as baladeur by warning people in the mass media when they say "Walkman." (Imagine a bureau in Washington that listened carefully to the radio and then sent letters to disk jockeys saying, "It has come to our attention that you have repeatedly used the word 'taco' to describe the comestible for which the officially sanctioned word is 'corn-meal crispette.' Please be advised that . . . ")
In some ways, languages are like children. They seize whatever words delight them and use them without worrying much about who owned them or where they came from. Moreover, languages resent being saddled with responsibility for the nation's identity and even its destiny. When a bunch of grim academicians comes along and tries to take away their Walkmen, their drive-ins and perhaps even their hot dogs, they are likely to cling to them all the more fiercely. Using forbidden English words becomes a little like sneaking a smoke in the washroom.
Some of the inhabitants of France's former north African colonies oppose the current effort being made on behalf of the French language on the grounds that it's a form of neocolonialism. It's worse than that: it's a form of neo-Miss-Quimby- from-the-sixth-gradism.