I cross into France. Another day, another language.
Here’s a test of your school French for you. Is it le toilette or la toilette? Don’t think about it for too long; this is a trick question.
Actually in this case it’s academic because the lavatory on the train is hors de combat — but the correct answer is actually les toilettes.
Strictly speaking, toilette is feminine and so takes la, but no French person would ever talk about la toilette in that context. La toilette means “toilet” in the more archaic sense, more akin to “wash and brush up” than to “lavatory”. For this reason eau de toilette is not translated to English as “bog water”.
I shouldn’t be talking about toilets. The one the train is out-of-order and I’m busting for a pee. We’ll be in Metz in a few minutes, my stop — but given France’s reputation for public toilets and with my luck being what it is the next useable one will be in Paris.
I should point out that les toilettes is a purely French expression. In Belgium, if you ask the question où est la toilette? you will be directed to the nearest public convenience without the slightest allusion to Fabergé Brut.
The Belgians have a joke on the subject which goes something like this:
Why do you say la toilette in Belgium and les toilettes in France? Because in France you need to ask for more than one before you find a clean one.
I feel reassured that other nations share Britain’s prejudices about French public conveniences but as the train pulls up at Metz I fear the worst. Either I must run the gauntlet of bubonic plague or I must find a bush.
I need not worry. Metz railway station’s facilities are excellent and you could eat your dinner off the floor.
Actually, French lavatories have come a long way since the days when I lived in the country. Some might attribute that to my departure but I prefer to think about it as symptomatic of Europe’s best kept secret: The supposedly stubborn French are actually very adaptable.
Monsieur Macron will probably disagree with me in the coming months as he tries to coerce his nation into sacrificing yet more of the fringe benefits of la belle vie in order to become economically competitive. But I don’t come to France very often these days and it’s the little things I see that convince me that its citizens are secretly very adept at change management.
Public toilets are but one example; there are countless others. You can get baked beans and proper bacon now. Working life has adapted to meet the demands of the 21st century: Gone are the two-hour business lunches and deals sealed over a bottle of cognac.
Most of all stunningly of all, these days French people are happy to speak English and do so rather well.
They always could actually; it was just that they didn’t see the need to. By and large they still prefer to holiday in France and whenever possible they buy French products. What other countries did was a matter of supreme indifference and so, by association, were their languages.
At the same time the Académie Francaise ran a barbed wire fence around the French language through which few Anglo-Saxon words were permitted to intrude.
French office workers, their desks already cluttered with Bécherelle grammar books and verb conjugation tables, were encouraged to sacrifice precious working time looking up authorised French equivalents for new vocabulary. Everybody knew what “e-mail” meant and secretly yearned to use it instead of the more cumbersome Académie approved courriel.
These days, the Académie are fighting a losing battle. They are not in retreat, they would argue, but more and more often they affect a strategic withdrawal. Take the new French word which describes the concept of consuming large amounts of alcohol with purely hedonistic intent: le binge drinking.
Claiming that the concept was uniquely Anglo-Saxon that no French equivalent could be found, they confirmed it as an official French word . One look at the drunks at the front of Metz station tells you how wrong they were.
Please do not think that I approve wholeheartedly just because English is my mother tongue. The protectionism versus evolution debate is an issue for most European languages and I believe that the French do well to defend and promote theirs.
However, the reality in France and elsewhere is that, whether you like it or not, English is here to stay. The challenge now is to avoid unneccessary cultural associations, the apparently seductive world of Justin Bieber, le Macdo, Premier League and Friday night pints. Globalisation and Anglicisation all to often go hand in hand but it need not be so.
At the end of the day, English is seen as “cool”, it is good for business and nobody in France wants to go back to the days when radio stations were hit with regulations stating that 40% of their output had to be Johnny Hallyday.
The toilet is operated by a company called 2theLoo by the way; quirky anglicisms are everywhere in France. Somehow I doubt a British company would come with a name like that.
Jean-Claude Juncker is more sceptical about the rise of English. He recently gave a speech (in French) during which he commented that English was losing importance in the EU — seen by some as a less than subtle reference to Brexit.
Dream on, Jean-Claude: We might be going but you’ll be stuck with our language for a good while yet.
When Britain leaves the EU, less than two percent of the remaining population will be English native speakers. It matters not one iota.
Slightly over half of the population speak it as a second language, something no other language even comes close to. As such, unless an entire continent wants to sit down and get to grips with the German case system just to spite the British then English will still be Europe’s lingua franca after Brexit.
Jean-Claude might well be wishing that we all use French but believe me when I tell you that it’s not easy. French is full of little traps such as the toilet example where you think you’re saying one thing and you’re actually saying something else.
Take the word for “half”: demi. Une demi heure: half an hour. Half a litre: Un demi litre. Now say “half of the French”. Le demi des Francais? Wrong. What you just said was “France’s favourite beer”.
English is here to stay, despite what Monsieur le Président might think. President Juncker that is. President Macron is more than happy to show off his English skills.
If France has been at times reticent when faced with the advance of English, Germany has embraced it with open arms. Most Germans speak English and many speak it very well.
If anything, the biggest problem with English in Germany is over enthusiasm. So cool is English that perfectly good German words have been made redundant.
Our railway stations and shopping centres have an equivalent of 2theLoo, it’s called Rail & Fresh. German retail has fallen in love with the ampersand and nearly every second shop now bears a name consisting of two random Anglicisms connected by an &.
Some of these are sensible enough: Bet & Win, Click & Collect etc. but some of them just sound weird. At Dortmund station we have Fish & Rail, officially a fish stand but in reality the best place to get a can of beer in the small hours of the morning.
Other punctuation marks are equally open to abuse. In Herne we have Church Street Tatoo’s — so if you ever want to get your body inked for eternity by a guy who uses the greengrocer’s apostrophe then you know where to come.
Despite their enthusiasm, not all Germans speak English well. As in the Far East, T-shirts with serendipitously arranged Anglicisms are a feature of nearly every high street on a Saturday afternoon.
This phenomenon is compounded by the fact that Germans have a sense of humour which is tailor-made for novelty t-shirts and bumper stickers. I saw some beauties in Saarbrücken: “A warrior is no worrier!” and “If you’re rich, I’m a single!” for example; elsewhere across the country the situation is not better.
It’s worth reiterating that if Germans murder our language with Anglicisms then they positively hang, draw and quarter their own. My own personal favourite is the concept of Lady Fitness, used by gyms open exclusively to female clients. Politically correct in intent, the unintentional whiff of Kinder, Küche und Kirche is bound to raise a few eyebrows among English native speakers.
English (or something like it) is cool, it is practical and it keeps me in a job — and for those three reasons it will remain the EU’s main language of business, at least behind closed doors.
Time to see a bit of Metz. It’s a wonderful city, a cultural and religious centre which can trace its origins back to Roman times. I spend a good three hours in the city museum with a curator who will not let me go until I have seen and commented approvingly on every exhibit.
He is telling me about the city’s tradition of religious diversity. He tells me where to find la cathédrale, le synagogue, l’église catholique.
“Est-qu’il y a une église protéstant aussi?” I ask, desperately thinking for something to say.
“On ne dit pas ‘église protéstant’ en français, Monsieur. Si on parle de l’église protéstant il faut dire ‘une temple’ “
For the Catholics you say “church”, for the protestants you have to say “temple”. How very practical. I’ll never master French and neither will anybody else.
English losing its importance? Dream on, Jean-Claude. Stuff & Nonsense.