Why Are the French So Afraid of Other Languages?

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

Uh oh. Now we’ve pissed off the French intellectuals:

A celebration of the “Scène Young Adult” at the Salon du Livre in Paris next month has drawn the condemnation of dozens of French authors and intellectuals, who have described the adoption of English terminology as an “unbearable act of cultural delinquency”. The proliferation of English words on display at the book fair, where the “scène YA” was set to feature “Le Live”, a “Bookroom”, a “photobooth” and a “bookquizz”, spurred around 100 French writers into action, among them three winners of the country’s Goncourt prize — Lullaby author Leïla Slimani, Tahar Ben Jelloun and Marie NDiaye — and the bestselling writers Muriel Barbery and Catherine Millet. Together they have issued a scalding rebuke to organisers over their use of that “sub-English known as globish”.

….“For us, intellectuals, writers, teachers, journalists and lovers of this language from all walks of life, ‘young adult’ represents the straw that broke the camel’s back … This use of ‘young adult’, because it is referring to French literature, because it is deliberately addressing young French people looking for readings, is too much. It has become an aggression, an insult, an unbearable act of cultural delinquency.”

….Following publication of the letter, the Salon du Livre website has been updated, according to Le Monde. Although it still refers to the young adult scene, there are no longer any references to a photobooth, a bookquizz or a bookroom.

So I’ve got a question for any French natives who might be reading this. I know this is a longstanding grievance, and that France protects the French language with an unusual fervor. But haven’t any of these folks looked around and noticed what happens in other countries that don’t bother with this fanatical approach to language? What happens is…nothing. At least, as near as I can tell. German is still German, Italian is still Italian, and Russian is still Russian. They share words back and forth constantly and it doesn’t seem to have had any effect at all on the purity of their languages. So why keep up this fight? What am I missing?


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend