Toubon's Faux Pas

France has proposed a law to outlaw foreign words.

Americans have grown accustomed to French intellectuals bemoaning the invasion of our degenerate culture into their sacred realm.

Before construction on the EuroDisney project was even completed, the theme park had already been condemned as a "cultural Chernobyl." And the self-proclaimed cultural critics have apparently won: Disney's venture on the outskirts of Paris currently loses $1 million a day.

Long the domain of beretwearing intellectuals, the French government now appears to have joined the struggle--insisting on cultural purity.

Last week, the government announced a bill in Parliament which would outlaw foreign words. The proposed law, which would effectively complete previous partial regulations, would ban the use of foreign words in public announcements, work contracts, advertising, and on radio and television. Sanctions for breaking the law would include fines and possible prison sentences.

For years, French intellectuals have criticized the Americanizing of French into an impure and odious hybrid, which has been dubbed "Franglais."

The French government has ominously decided to support the supercilious intellectuals in their pursuit of cultural purity. Recently, in a bureaucratic effort to save their culture, French leaders won a "cultural exemption" to keep foreign films and books out of the GATT global trade liberalization pact.

And Culture Minister Jacques Toubon plans to defend the new language bill in Parliament. According to Minister Toubon, "the government is turning the policy of French language into a national cause." Like a good French deconstructionist, Minister Toubon takes language very seriously: "A foreign language...often becomes a tool of domination, uniformization, a factor of social exclusion."

Although it might be rude to point out, language is not a sacred entity. The French language did not descend from the heavens in its present incarnation. As Steven Pinker, a professor at M.I.T., explained in his New Republic article entitled "Grammar Puss," language is a continually evolving conglomeration of sounds and symbols inherited and assimilated from countless cultures.

The French would certainly not ban the use of words derived from Latin, as such an action would entail the prohibition of the bulk of the current vocabulary. Of course, Latin is a noble language of antiquity, while American English is the vile bastard child of culturally illiterate, gum-chewing slobs.

The French government's crusade to purify French culture appears eerily reminiscent of Germany's infamous cultural campaign leading up to World War II. The German government banned and confiscated "degenerate" works of art and encouraged citizens to burn "impure" foreign books. Still, as far as I know, Germany did not imprison citizens for letting a foreign syllable slip from their Teutonic tongues.

Despite intellectual pretensions, France's reactionary proposal is about to do just that. "We have too often believed," explains Minister Toubon, "that relinquishing French was the price to pay to enter the modern world." Perhaps French officials will eventually realize that the "price to pay" is not the French language but rather their petty contempt for foreign cultures.

Brad Edward White's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.