Signs of the Times

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Half a dozen errands to do and lunch with friends, then stock up the pantry: a day on foot.  Not enough distance to bother taking the Métro and anyhow the weather is good and I’m a walker.  Coming up from underground and holding the chin up, since it’s no longer cold or rainy, Paris begins to look like Paris again.  I’d almost forgotten one of the city’s most striking characteristics.  There’s advertising everywhere. Once in Paris for a few days, advertising becomes wallpaper: it’s there, yet you barely see it as you walk down the street.  But after some time in Washington, which forbids outdoor advertising almost entirely, Paris looks like the handiwork of demented quilters, with bright patches everywhere, not one of which seems to have any relationship—commercial or aesthetic—with any other one. The old warning Défense d’afficher—Loi du 29 Juillet 1881 still applies to the façades of buildings, but advertising companies are buying the rights to post bills with abandon.  And not just posters.  Street advertising has gone very swank in Paris with automated electronic signs planted in the sidewalks that show several different ads, each for a few seconds, and more ordinary electric signs.  In a city that spends a fortune cleaning the streets daily there seems to be no concern over eye pollution. The walk today, however, revealed something I hadn’t noticed before—or I guess I had noticed, but it took some time to become aware of the trend, to see it.  Here are a few examples of the evidence: “Le futur du one man show.” “Écoutez nos sketches.” “Semaine No Stress.” “Avantage Happy Zone Illimité.” “Lady Moving Fitness.” “Wanna Juice.” As Winston Churchill said, there’s no need to make the rubble bounce.  The language of publicity is not exactly being vetted by L’Académie Française, and I could add at least a dozen other examples I saw in the course of the day.  And it’s not just advertising.  I cherish “le flop de la bière sans alcool” and “le journalisme trash” just as much even though I read both in newspapers. I don’t know if this upsurge in Anglicisms (or more likely Americanisms) is the revival of franglais, the word René Étiemble gave to the creeping, unconscious invasion of French by English or a conscious effort to catch the eye and find (how shall I say?) le mot juste.  The Académie would have a fit with that idea, but who knows?  Impossible to tell, and I have other fish to fry. Seeing English all over the face of Paris, I begin to wonder why I ever went to the trouble of learning French.  Maybe if I had waited long enough, I would only have had to learn to speak English with a French accent—very droll.  Granted: I would also have had to learn how to shrug (which is harder than learning the imperfect subjunctive of irregular verbs), how not to say uh instead of euh, and how to get a time stamp on my railroad ticket.  But it would have saved sweat and tears. Even so, I am annoyed as much as I am amused, and I think I know why.  Foreigners who learn something about French and France, and especially Paris, tend to be a little snotty, sometimes as fanatical as the convert, sometimes just going native.  French should be French, such people believe in a rather pious way—and maybe I am becoming one of them.  Having cracked the mysteries of idioms, weights and measures, and dozens of daily customs was at one time a point of pride, like having puzzled out hieroglyphics or proving the existence of God using Cartesian principles.  It was an accomplishment. It could be more than that.  It could be a trade, as if to say, “I’m a professional knower of France and the French language.  Just watch this,” and then dazzle the speechless tourist with translations of language and explication of menu.  But when French and France are making themselves easily known and understood along every sidewalk in Paris to the clueless visitor who can’t even read a map, where’s the joy in knowing more?  Not to mention of course one’s firm belief in the purity of la langue française?  And fighting off the barbarians? I need to take a deep breath, maybe a cold shower, and remind myself that the French themselves don’t seem particularly perturbed about the franglaisisation (that’s a humdinger) of their language.  If they were, it seems that the products advertised would suffer un flop, and there would be manifs or even grèves constantly until the government intervened.  After all, the French know how to express perturbation. If the French are comfy with what is happening to their language, I should just get used to it, too.  And I will.  But I will have to learn to pronounce the English words like a Frenchman, and that is not always easy.  But I will try—and I’m sure I’ll feel much better for it the next time I take a walk. D’accord. Pardon, I mean okay. © Joseph Lestrange
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