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Are the French right to ban the word "hashtag"?

Cultural anxiety on twitter.

New Statesman
Photograph: Getty Images

Last Wednesday, the French government’s snappily-named General Commission for Terminology and Neology issued a recommendation that French social media users should shun the term “hashtag” in favour of French alternative mot-dièse, or "hash word".

The recommendations of the Commission, which was created in 1996 in order to combat the influx of Anglo-American words, have been met with widespread criticism. The proposed term mot-dièse has been accused of not being Twitter friendly (it is longer than "hashtag" and contains an accent), and of being inaccurate– dièse actually denotes a musical sharp symbol (♯), rather than a hash sign. The outlawing of "hashtag" is also seen by many social media users as reactionary and futile; it has variously been described as a “Frankenstein word”, “ridiculous” and, fittingly (or ironically), it has been branded  an #epicfail on Twitter.

On first glance, the recommendation may seem ill-judged or even risible, but it begins to look a little more raisonnable when put in the context of a more general cultural anxiety. In the last fifty years, English words have become increasingly ubiquitous in French day-to-day life. This is largely thanks to the import of a great deal of American – and some British – television programmes and films, which are watched in VO (version originale) with subtitles. American music is also very popular in France; nothing is guaranteed to fill a French dance floor like the opening bars of the Black Eyed Peas hit I Gotta Feeling, though clubbers will sing along to only a few selected lyrics: “up!….off!… masel tov!… good, good night!”.

French governments of all political colours have fought to protect their culture from being dominated by a tradition alien to their own. Whilst Chirac’s conservative government introduced the terminology Commission in 1996, it was France’s much-revered socialist president, François Mitterrand, who created the “cultural exception”, which necessitated ‘cultural goods’ to be treated differently to other commercial products, encouraging the autonomous production of French art.  Mitterrand also introduced the controversial radio quota that necessitates that at least 40 per cent of music on France’s airwaves is in French. For the British, who tend to find patriotism a little embarrassing (though the Olympic Games proved an exception), this cultural approach may seem a little precious. But it is worth remembering that we too grumble about the "Americanisation" of the English tongue, despite the fact that we, at least, share the same language as our U.S. counterparts.

The proliferation of Anglicisms is particularly present in the world of beez-ness where terms like “debrief”, “meeting”, and “manager” are d’un common. In recent years, Paris metro carriages have been splattered with adverts for courses to learn "Wall Street English", depicted on the posters is a tanned man in a business suit, his mouth opened wide to reveal a tongue decorated with the stars and stripes. Little wonder, then, that many French people are often anxious about, what writer and French culture expert Lucy Wadham terms, the “relentless advance of Anglo-American capitalism.”

The dominance of English-based terms is nowhere more prevalent than in the ever-developing world of technology. The same Commission that coined mot-dièse has fought since the birth of the internet to preserve French terminology; along the way it has tried to promote French alternatives for ‘the web’ (la toile) and ‘email’ (courrier-électronique). But is it realistic, in a domain where new products, systems and concepts are being developed and created all the time – and therefore where words signify completely new phenomena – to seek translations for digital terminology? Speaking to The New Statesman, David Carzon, the web editor of French cultural magazine Télérama suggested that there is a distinction to be made between official and colloquial language. “[The state] cannot control colloquial language; "courrier éléctronique" is widely used in official communication , whilst "email" remains the preferred term in everyday language.”

He adds that “ultimately, it is [Twitter] users that will decide if mot-dièse will replace hashtag.” According to a survey this week, only thirty percent of a cross-section of 300  said they intended to start using the term, whilst 67 per cent said they would stick with "hashtag".

Carzon, however, does not view the adoption of English words as necessarily worrying for French culture. “French culture doesn’t seem to have been changed radically by the adoption of foreign words. Users are capable of appropriating their own language and integrating it in to their own culture without becoming "colonised".” For him, the internet is a symbol of cultural “mixing”, rather than hegemony. And he has a point – it is not anglais that the French have so taken to using, but franglais – a language in which English terms are adapted, used and mis-used to fit with French grammar, sensibilities and convenience. The hybrid term for a car-park, un parking, is a good example of this, as is the French adoption of le week-end, and the adapted French verb for texting, textoter —   which can be conjugated in every which French tense and mood, including the subjunctive. English film titles are often re-translated for their French release with "The Hangover" being re-named "Very Bad Trip", and 2010 rom-com "No Strings Attached" becoming the rather more blunt, "Sex Friends."

In any case, whether mot-dièse catches on or not – in spoken French at least – "hashtag" will never sound American or British; though the French use English words, they are always pronounced as if they were French. It is not really a question of mot-dièse vs hashtag, but rather mot-diese vs. ‘ache-tague’, so really la belle langue always wins in the end.