Today is the last day of the Forum mondial de la langue française, a week-long meeting of leaders and thinkers from French-speaking countries across the globe to discuss the language’s history, present, and future. This year the forum was held in Quebec City.
One of the hot topics of conversation at this year’s forum was the language of the internet. French is the third most used language on the internet, and yet it’s still very far behind English when it comes to actually talking about the internet. The French tend to use words like “email” and “networking” even though equivalents exist in their own language. Other terms, like “tweet” and “hashtag” have no French translation.
It’s appropriate that this topic be discussed at a forum in Quebec City because the Quebecois have actually done a somewhat better job of creating their own internet language. They have words like “pourriel” (spam), a portmanteau of “poubelle” (trash) and “courriel” (email), and “clavardage” (web chat), combining “clavier” (keyboard) and “bavardage” (chatter).
I just learned a new Quebecois web term, the word for “podcast.” It’s a bit of a mouthful: baladodiffusion. It has within it two levels of clever word repurposing. You start with the word balader which means “to take a walk.” From that, the French (all French, not just the Quebecois) came up with un baladeur, a Walkman. When portable cassette players turned into mp3 players, they remained baladeurs in French. Add to that the word diffusion (broadcast), and the Quebecois get: a broadcast for an mp3 player – la baladodiffusion. And you wonder why the French just say le podcasting?
While I like baladodiffusion for its thoughtfulness, I definitely don’t like it for its usefulness. Besides being unnecessarily difficult to say, it’s unnecessarily generic. The word podcast was created to describe a service for a brand name product. The word iPod isn’t French, but that doesn’t mean they can or will make up their own word for it. So a broadcast for an iPod, a podcast, ought to remain such in French.
The interesting thing about language in today’s world is that translations for newly created words really aren’t necessary. The reason why one object is called something different in every language isn’t a matter of national pride. It’s because people in one country didn’t know (or care) what people in a country on the other side of the world chose to call the same item. But nowadays, everyone is discovering new internet technology at the same time. It just so happens to have been created by English speakers, so the universal terminology is in English.
So what? Why can’t a French speaker call it a tweet? Do they have to understand where the word comes from in order to understand how to do it online themselves? I don’t think so. Honestly, the word “hashtag” means nothing to me outside the context of Twitter. Apparently “hash” is a British way of referring to the pound sign (#). Of course, in England, that –> £ is the pound sign. The makers of Twitter could have called it the sfprlltag, and while I may have had a difficult time pronouncing it, I would have been able to learn how to use it just fine.
That’s the beauty of language. We learn it. We create it. We adapt to it. Sometimes other languages have better words, so we steal them. Did you notice how I dropped the word portmanteau into the conversation a few paragraphs back? I did that on purpose so I could later make this point, but I also did it because there is no other word to describe what I was talking about! I certainly don’t mind that the English-speaking world didn’t invent the word. I’m content with borrowing pieces of all languages if it helps me express myself in the best possible way.
Maybe, instead of spending so much time worrying about Twitter vocabulary, the French should spend a little more time inventing life-changing internet technology of their own. Then they can call it whatever they want, and someday maybe the whole world will be speaking a little more French.