Gamers planning a trip to France will no longer be engaging in “cloud gaming” in the country. Instead, they will spend their time playing a jeu vidéo en nuage.
And forget e-sports; instead, your device will connect to a jeu vidéo de competition.
That is the latest ruling from the country’s Ministry of Culture, which has long fought to preserve the purity of the French language—and to stave off the invasion of new English tech lingo from the other side of the Atlantic.
The list of new French tech terms was published on Monday in the government’s journal, in theory making them binding for use in official government documents.
Yet the government will find it hard imposing the words on the rest of France’s 67 million people—many of whom have played video games for decades, and for whom English is increasingly common in everyday language. In response to Monday’s ruling, one French tech site quipped ironically, “Game over [in English] for English tech jargon.”
The government estimates the country’s gaming industry revenues are about €3.5 million a year, and many previous attempts to Frenchify tech words have failed. The French word for Wi-Fi is Wifi (pronounced “wee-fee”), despite the officially approved term l’access sans fil à internet” (wireless access to the internet).
Yet France has maintained strict vigilance over its language.
Rulings by 40 ‘immortals’
The ultimate arbiter over its use is the state-funded Académie française, or French Academy, which has issued rulings about the correct use of French since it was founded in 1653, at a time when the language was still being created.
From its centuries-old domed headquarters on Paris’s Left Bank, the work is overseen by 40 language experts, mostly writers, known as “immortals”—which the academy says refers to the immortal nature of the language, rather than their lifetime appointments.
French is hardly immutable, however. Africans represent more than half the world’s 270 million or so French speakers, and mix in countless African words. And French President Emmanuel Macron’s global envoy to the French-speaking world is novelist Leila Slimani, who was born and raised in Morocco.
But for French officials, who regard the language as a cherished national symbol, the tsunami (a Japanese word) of English is the most explosive issue by far. That is because it highlights deep concerns over France’s declining clout in the world, both in culture, and in business and tech, and its age-old rivalry with the U.S. for global importance.
For months, a fierce debate has raged in French media over le wokisme—woke culture—in universities, which conservative pundits deem an unwelcome American import.
Anger over wokisme and iel
Last November, there were loud objections, including from first lady Brigitte Macron (a French teacher by profession), when a dictionary added the new word iel—the nonbinary French pronoun, like the English singular “they.” “I am stupefied,” conservative lawmaker François Jolivet wrote in a protest letter to the academy, tweeting that the dictionary writers represented foreign “wokisme.” And in February, the academy erupted in anger over France’s new biometric ID cards, which are in both French and English, saying that including English violated the constitution.
But tech lingo—including among thousands of les startups in France—represents another kind of threat: economic.
To many French, the profusion of English reflects the overwhelming dominance of American Big Tech companies, against which Macron’s government has worked hard to compete.
The competition has proved immensely difficult. And judging by past experience, rooting out English tech language could prove equally hard.
Guerre du streaming
In 2017, the academy fought a similar effort to replace English terms among les gamers, including replacing “binge watching” with visionnage boulimique or “bulimic watching.”
Five years later, the results are not good. The French TV site hitek.fr still lists recommendations for “le binge watching.” And despite a ruling against the word “streaming,” the business media intensely covers the guerre du streaming among Netflix, Disney+, and others.
The academy itself admits it has fought an often losing battle against English for centuries.
Its website lists some of its many failed attempts to eliminate words like “pickpockets,” which crept into the French language during the 1700s; “baseball,” which the French adopted in the 1800s, and “chewing gum,” which arrived in France in the early 1900s. All three words are commonly used in France.
Still, the “immortals” say English has exploded with the rise of global tech companies, growing from about 3,000 words listed in 1990, to more than 60,000 today.