The Rambling American: Pardon My French

Locke McKenzie weighs the pros and cons cultural protectionism, as exemplified by France, and cultural openness, as seen in Germany.

I hear very little French standing in an exhaustingly long line to get into the Louvre, free the first Sunday of the month. There is a bit of something Eastern European behind me, some Spanish in front of me, and the woman taking the photo of herself “holding” the entire glass pyramid in her hands is speaking German.

Comically enough, despite this international mob thronging to get in, there is not a single sign posted in English upon entry. What is this painting called? Where is the description of this particular movement? I remember this being a problem in the Ukraine, but people still shovel the city streets there by hand. In what is arguably the most famous museum in the world, I had expected something a bit more, well, international.Inflatable Castle Jumper review

French protectionism. In the ever-globalizing world, there is a strong initiative to make sure that France stays French.

Is this wrong? We see this not only in France, but everywhere in Europe. In early February, I wrote about protectionism of food culture in the Italian city of Lucca. People work hard throughout Europe to preserve their identity. One of the most significant ways that France has chosen to do this is through language.

Over the last 20 years, the French have put in place EU directives limiting the amount of film, television, and radio allowed to come from outside of the European Union (not more than 49%). They have massive subsidies for the French arts, they create new French words for all foreign words that enter their language (t-shirt = camisol), and they only have signs in French at the Louvre.

Is this snobbery or simply a way to combat the overpowering force that is the English language? As University of Washington scholar Jessica Harrison put it [pdf], “Actions to protect the French language have become an even more pressing concern with the growing numbers of people learning, speaking, and conducting business in English rather than French.”

English is taking over everywhere. In international settings, it is the least common denominator. If you want to become international — whether in music, business or elsewhere — you need to use English. Then the native language becomes less and less important.

Some countries have been prone to embrace this reality, some have not. As seen by my experience in the Louvre, France has not.

Germany, on the other hand, stands at the complete opposite side of the spectrum.

It is very common to hear Germans, especially business people, throwing bits and pieces of English into full German sentences. They have taken English words and made them German, at times with the wrong meaning (the German word for cell phone is Handy). And often times they have signs written in English where completely unnecessary. For example, the bar down the street has a sign that reads “Come in and enjoy!”. I would assume less than five percent of their clientele are people who can’t speak German.

When I hear a German say to me, “Ich muß zu ein Meeting ASAP,” I can’t help but be a bit disappointed. Knowing how much English speaking Western culture has infiltrated the rest of the world, it’s always a bit unnerving to have the reality thrust in my face.

For this reason, I appreciated the absence of English in the Louvre. (It was also refreshing that I didn’t feel compelled to read every sign of every description, but that’s a different story.)

But is this French system of rejection really any better? This exaggerated form of protectionism that puts quotas on culture and invents French words for things that already exist?

It seems artificial. Languages have all developed from the necessary sharing of them. English itself would not be the English it is today if the French had never come to the British Isles.

In the even more modern style “American English,” we see a second wave of infiltration. The dialect is full of German and Yiddish phrases (Kindergarten, Gesundheit, and “I’m shvitzing like a gefilte fish”) along with French and Spanish and every other country now settled in the New World. Is this a raping of our language, or does it simply give it a distinctly American feel?

For this reason, I sometimes think I’m too hard on the Germans. In many ways one could argue that Germany is not being colonized; it is enlightened

As I was doing research for this article, I stumbled on a whole new wave of thought that we seemed to have missed at the university. This idea champions some forms of cultural globalization, arguing that those who allow for globalization allow for new ideas and inspiration.

As French writer Jean Francois Revel wrote:

The idea that a culture can preserve its originality by barricading itself against foreign influences is an old illusion that has always produced the opposite of the desired result. Isolation breeds sterility… The proof of this goes back to the old comparison between Athens and Sparta. It was Athens, the open city, that was the prolific fount of creation in letters and arts, philosophy and mathematics, political science, and history. Sparta, jealously guarding its “exceptionalism,” pulled off the tour de force of being the only Greek city not to have produced a single notable poet, orator…

If you don’t open yourself up to the ideas brought in by others, your culture will stagnate. Exclusivity may preserve contemporary art and culture, but it won’t let it develop.

If Hamburg had never been open to English-speaking music, the Beatles may have never matured to the band they ultimately became. They spent a large part of the ’60s playing in small bars of Hamburg’s red light district and began their climb to fame.

As John Lennon once said, “I was born in Liverpool, but I grew up in Hamburg.” Thank God Germany was willing to accept those guys.

France is admittedly one of the pinnacles of Western culture, and it’s easy to argue that their history is one to protect. Especially with Europe’s small boarders, it is necessary to hold on to one’s cultural identity.

Whether the French identity is actually French, however, is a question we could probably answer by taking a stroll through the Louvre. Although all the signs were all in French, I spent the whole day looking at the classics from the Flemmish and the Italians.

Locke McKenzie runs a language company in Munich, Germany. When not expounding on the finer points of communication, he tends to drink and write about it at Reinheitsgebot-Renewed.