Q&A

University of Ottawa study suggests Franglais isn't weakening French

Franglais might make some French speakers cringe, but research at the University of Ottawa is showing it’s not having a negative impact on the language.

The professor studied hundreds of speakers to reach conclusion

Shana Poplack is a linguistics professor at the University of Ottawa. (University of Ottawa)

Franglais might make some French speakers cringe, but research at the University of Ottawa is showing it's not having a negative impact on the language.

Professor Shana Poplack, who runs a sociolinguistics lab at the university, has studied thousands of words and hundreds of speakers.

She said research shows that many of the concerns people have about hybrid languages don't hold up over the long term.

"We have examined millions of words from speakers of Quebec French, as far back as 1846, most of the borrowed ones simply disappear after their first mention," she said.

The research also found that when English words do become part of the language they don't permanently alter the fundamentals of the language.

"When people borrow words, they strip them of the grammatical properties that they came with," said Poplack.

"English words are treated just like any other French word, so mixing them has no effect on the grammatical core of the language."

Poplack was a guest Wednesday on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning. Her interview has been edited for clarity.


Why did you want to study what happens when languages blend or bleed together?

Canada is a bilingual country. People speak French here. They speak English. They mix them.

We have plenty of immigrant groups, and they maintain their languages and mix them with English as well. 

In every community we've studied, people mix languages … [We study how] people manage to mix them together and still maintain coherent sentences.

A lot of people think Franglais is a four-letter word. You can get in trouble with your French teacher if an English word sneaks in. Why do you think many people have issues with it?

This is done everywhere in the world, not just in Canada. Just about everywhere, people denigrate this kind of mixing.

They fear that the mixing will destroy the integrity of the two languages. They also believe it will lead to the disappearance of the languages.

On the question of whether English is eroding Canadian French, what did the results reveal?

That nothing could be further than the truth.

Words like jewelry, lawyer, court, terrace — all these words are French. We use them every day. Did they destroy the structure of the English language? Absolutely not.- Shana Poplack

When people mix these languages, they have two basic ways of mixing. One is going and taking a word from the other language and incorporating it into the borrowing language.

The other type of mixing is what we call switching — alternating between stretches of the two languages.

Both follow very strict unwritten rules.

Sometimes when I hear people stick a French word in where an English word should be, or vice versa, I think they just forgot the word. Or they're lazy, or they're not quite as bilingual as you might expect them to be. But it's not that?

Yes, these are the most widespread stereotypes about language mixing. Nothing of the kind [is true]. 

Why do we order cappuccinos? Don't we have an English word for this?  And if you noticed, I just used the word "cappuccinos" using an English plural — when in fact the plural is "cappuccini."

I don't use the Italian plural because we take these words and convert them to the grammar of the borrowing language.

I know you've spoken to francophones who say that Franglais is a denigration, that English is creeping in at the expense of French. What do you say to that?

I say let's have a look at the English language, which is estimated to have up to 50 per cent of its vocabulary coming from French.

These words came as far back as the Norman Conquest [in 1066], so we don't pay that much attention to them.

Words like jewelry, lawyer, court, terrace — all these words are French. We use them every day.

Did they destroy the structure of the English language? Absolutely not.

I had a conversation with a colleague who's francophone and I asked for some examples of anglicisms that have crept into the French language. [I got] words like "check" instead of verifier and "tooter le horn" instead of klaxonner. Can you understand why a classic French educator would groan when they hear those words?

In our studies of millions of words of bilingual speech spoken in the Ottawa-Gatineau region, we found more than 20,000 English-origin words.

That sounds like a lot, but when you put that in context, it represents less than one per cent of all of the vocabulary.

These words aren't invading the language. They're quite rare, and they're not bringing their grammatical properties with them.

Purist ideas are understandable, but the science doesn't back them.

We speak to a professor who's spent years researching language mixing and has just released her findings in a new book. 6:59