By Anaëlle Jonah, CNN
But for French officials, that generosity doesn’t extend to the Games’ official languages.
“The official languages of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are French and English — in that order,” said l’Académie Française, the pre-eminent council for matters pertaining to the French language.
The 2024 Olympics continues a tradition of an evolving roster of sports, with surfing, breakdancing and sport climbing among the recent additions. With them come a flock of terms that are foreign to the French language.
For some French-language purists, it’s too much to bear to revert to English to compliment surfers on their ‘noseriding’ — standing on the front of the board — or to mention a breakdancer’s ‘cypher’ — the circle that athletes dance in. They’ve decided they need a solution ‘à la française.’
The French government has created a college of experts devoted to promoting the national language, in conjunction with several Olympic federations.
“The translation of tricks will be crucial,” said Daniel Zielinski, a high-ranking official for the French language in sport and spokesperson of the committee. “Because when you are a [French] athlete or a viewer, watching rollerblading or skateboarding, you don’t understand anything the specialists are saying.”
During their first meeting last January, the college agreed to start working on its first two terms: ‘breakdancing’ and when dancers ‘freeze.’ Various translations have been suggested so far, including ‘le breaking’ and ‘la frise.’
“Once a term is made official, it becomes mandatory,” said Zielinski.
The organization, composed of experts and intellectuals from different fields, will meet periodically over the next couple of years to identify and define new sports terms.
The IOC, whose role is to supervise and monitor the organization of the Games, is not involved in the project.
“It is not for the IOC to comment on a governmental initiative but we applaud the objective of trying to make sport as accessible to as many people as possible through language,” the committee told CNN.
The invasion of Franglais
The French battle against the influence of other languages isn’t new.
In 1994, the Toubon law was passed, mandating the use of French in all government publications, contracts and advertisements. Yet it contained several loopholes, which allow brands and companies to extensively use English.
As a result, anglicisms are becoming more prominent, including made-up words such as ‘footing’ for ‘running’ and ‘baskets’ for ‘sneakers.’
Julie Neveux, linguistics professor at Sorbonne University in Paris, said anglicisms are “sometimes estimated at just under 5% of the current lexicon, but they are disturbing because they show that we follow an economic and cultural model other than our own.”
They are particularly present in sports competitions and events, during which athletes from around the world are used to communicating in English.
“Sport was one of the first areas to be globalized,” said sports historian Michael Attali. “This phenomenon has imposed English as the official language.”
Attali added the media and sports federations are also to blame, as they relay anglicisms by not “making the effort of translating them.”
A pointless battle?
Despite their best efforts, no committee has successfully prevented English from infiltrating everyday language. By the time French officials have agreed on a translation and its definition, the English version has already spread throughout the nation.
“Similar assemblies have been put in place in the past, but nothing has changed so far,” said Attali. “In soccer, we still use terms such as ‘corner’ for corner kick, instead of its official translation, and that will not stop anytime soon.”
Once the sole official language of the Olympics, the language of Proust and Dumas has taken a back seat as the use of English has soared in recent decades.
In protest, the French government has sent a delegate to each Olympics since the 1996 Atlanta Games, tasked with assessing the place of the French language at the event.
However, athletes and commentators alike have continued using English terminology.
In her report on the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Games, former delegate Fleur Pellerin noted “the presence of the French language (had) been insufficient on the competition field.”
“The growing importance of English as an international language of communication and work, the preponderant influence of English-speaking funders and elected officials in international sport and in the Olympic Games, and the insufficient coordination of the French-speaking sport community contribute to explaining this evolution,” read the report.
Spokesperson Daniel Zielinski says he is not “dogmatic” when it comes to this new committee’s potential. He only hopes their initiatives will “encourage watching and practicing those sports, for those who want to do them.”
The French exit
If English is now the preferred language of athletes and commentators, French has had a long-lasting influence on the world of sport.
Ballet remains flooded with French words, such as ‘pas de bourré,’ ‘arabesque’ and ‘chassé.’ At the beginning of every fencing match, the French imperative ‘Allez’ — meaning ‘Go’ — is used by referees.
Even the term ‘sport’ originates from the Old French word ‘desport,’ meaning ‘leisure.’
“There are far fewer anglicisms in French than there are French words in English,” said Neveux, adding these exchanges should not be seen “as a threat.”
“All living languages exist by borrowing from each other, it is an asset. Languages only exist thanks to their impurity.”
But, for some, this impurity is perceived as a danger to the French identity.
As the official guardian of the French language, the Académie Française continues to closely keep track of the number of English words that have crossed the border.
Their website has a section dedicated to “Neologisms and Anglicisms,” in which they advise against improper English terms like ‘trials’ as major competitions approach.
“The French language conveys the French soul,” Jean-Marie Rouart, author and member of the Académie Française, told CNN. “It conveys at the same time French universalism, tolerance and a concern of beauty and aesthetics.”
The Académie is a key member of the Olympic language committee. But whether the project ultimately succeeds — or fails — its mission of eradicating English words in the French sporting arena, Rouart has little hope for the language he has spent decades defending.
“In twenty years, French will be a dead language and will be studied the way Latin and Greek are now,” he said.
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