Breakdancing? French Olympic planners plot to end English language invasion

But for French officials, this generosity does not extend to the official languages ​​of the Games.

“The official languages ​​of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are French and English, in that order,” said the French Academy, the preeminent council for French language matters.

The French government has created a college of experts dedicated to promoting the national language, in collaboration with several Olympic federations.

“Translating the stuff will be crucial,” said Daniel Zielinski, a senior Francophonie sports official and spokesman for the committee. “Because when you’re a [French] athlete or spectator, watching rollerblading or skateboarding, you don’t understand what the specialists are saying.”

At their first meeting last January, the college agreed to start work on its first two terms: “breakdance” and when the dancers “freeze”. Various translations have been suggested so far, including “le breaking” and “la frieze”.

“Once a warrant is formalized, it becomes binding,” Zielinski said.

The organization, made up of experts and intellectuals from different fields, will meet periodically over the next two years to identify and define new sporting terms.

The IOC, whose role is to oversee and control the organization of the Games, is not involved in the project.

“It is not for the IOC to comment on a government initiative, but we welcome the goal of trying to make the sport as accessible to as many people as possible through language,” the committee told CNN.

Paris 2024 Organizing Committee President Tony Estanguet (L) and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo (C) wave the Olympic flag to mark the handover.

The invasion of the Franglais

The French battle against the influence of other languages ​​is not new.

In 1994, the Toubon Law was passed, mandating the use of French in all government publications, contracts, and advertisements. Yet, it contained several loopholes, which allow brands and businesses to make extensive use of English.

As a result, Anglicisms are becoming increasingly important, including coined words such as “footing” for “running” and “baskets” for “sneakers”.

Julie Neveux, professor of linguistics at the University of the Sorbonne in Paris, said that anglicisms are “sometimes estimated at just under 5% of the current lexicon, but they are disturbing because they show that we follow an economic and cultural model other than ours”.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo (C) speaks to French President Emmanuel Macron (second L) during a visit to the construction site of the Olympic Village in Saint-Ouen on October 14, 2021.

They are particularly present in sports competitions and events, during which athletes from all over the world are used to communicating in English.

“Sport was one of the first areas to be globalized,” said sports historian Michael Attali. “This phenomenon has imposed English as the official language.”

Attali added that the media and sports federations are also to blame, because they relay anglicisms by not “making the effort to translate them”.

A pointless fight?

Despite their best efforts, no committee has succeeded in preventing English from infiltrating everyday language. By the time French officials have agreed on a translation and its definition, the English version has already spread throughout the country.

“Similar assemblies have been set up in the past, but nothing has changed so far,” Attali said. “In football, we still use terms like ‘corner’ for corner, instead of its official translation, and that’s not going to stop anytime soon.”

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Once the sole official language of the Olympics, the language of Proust and Dumas has faded into the background as the use of English has exploded in recent decades.

In protest, the French government has sent a delegate to each Olympics since the Atlanta Games in 1996, responsible for assessing the place of the French language in the event.

However, athletes and commentators continued to use English terminology.

Crowd at the Olympic Games handover ceremony on August 8, 2021 in Paris.

In her report on the PyeongChang 2018 Olympics, former delegate Fleur Pellerin noted that “the presence of the French language (had) been insufficient on the competition field”.

“The growing importance of English as an international language of communication and work, the preponderant influence of donors and English-speaking elected officials in international sport and at the Olympic Games, and the insufficient coordination of the French-speaking sports community contribute to explain this development,” the report reads.

Spokesman Daniel Zielinski says he is not “dogmatic” about the potential of this new committee. He only hopes that their initiatives “will encourage watching and practicing these sports, for those who want to practice them”.

The French release

If English is now the preferred language of athletes and commentators, French has had a lasting impact on the world of sport.

The ballet remains awash with French words, such as “pas de bourré”, “arabesque” and “chassé”. At the start of each fencing match, the French imperative “Allez” – which means “Go” – is used by the referees.

Even the term “sport” comes from the old French word “desport”, which means “leisure”.

“There are far fewer Anglicisms in French than there are French words in English,” Neveux said, adding that these exchanges should not be viewed “as a threat.”

“All living languages ​​exist by borrowing from each other, that’s an asset. Languages ​​only exist thanks to their impurity.”

But, for some, this impurity is seen as a danger to French identity.

France's elite acrobatic team Patrouille de France flies over the Eiffel Tower during the handover ceremony of the Olympic Games.

As the official guardian of the French language, the French Academy continues to closely monitor the number of English words that have crossed the border.

Their website has a section dedicated to “neologisms and anglicisms”, in which they advise against inappropriate English terms such as “essays” when approaching major competitions.

“The French language conveys the French soul,” Jean-Marie Rouart, author and member of the French Academy, told CNN. “It conveys both French universalism, tolerance and concern for beauty and aesthetics.”

The Academy is a key member of the Olympic Language Committee. But whether the project ultimately succeeds – or fails – in its mission to eradicate English words from the French sporting arena, Rouart holds little hope for the language he has spent decades defending.

“In twenty years, French will be a dead language and will be studied like Latin and Greek are today,” he said.