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Saturday, April 17, 1999



The French connection — IV

TO generalise about French borrowings since 1800 is a difficult exercise for two reasons. One, while the number of borrowings has increased once more, it is too soon to tell whether all these comparatively recent borrowings will be permanent. And if they are, will they achieve central positions in the vocabulary.’ Words like resume, restaurant, morgue, prestige and discotheque have stood the test of time. But what about words like accouchement (lying-in) that were in use until a few years ago? Two, french words from certain specialised registers are the ones usually borrowed. Will the English language come up with substitutes or continue with borrowings? For example, cookery terms like aperitif French aperitif = tending to open the appetite) and fashion terminology like chignon.

French words continue to predominate in the vocabularies of haute cuisine and haute couture. This is a kind of tacit admission that in cetain fields the French are clearly peerless. It is not for nothing that the word cachet (special, admirable quality) comes from France. Any gourmet (again, French) realises that there are no substitutes for words like julienne (cut into thin strips), crepe (very thin pancake) and canap’e.

A large number of expressions were consciously created, as one can deduce from the many calques or loan translations of recent times. Calques are lexical items which are translated part by part into another language. Some calques in English taken from French are given here with their equivalents:

Flea market — marche aux puces

Ivory tower — tour d’ ivoire

Third world — tiers monde

In the last analysis — en derniere analyse

It goes without saying — ca va sans dire

It is not as if English has been doing the taking only, it has also been a generous giver, to French. That is not the subject under discussion here, but it is worthwhile to mention that French has taken many words like vote, derby, wagon, cockpit and jet from English along with calques like lavage de cerveau (brainwashing) and lune de miel (honeymoon).


Where familiarity with two languages may not be the rule, it is easy to trace the development of calques. But, when fluency in two languages and bilinguals are fairly common, calques are difficult to identify. For example, where the Hindi dil toot gaya or tuta hua dil and the Punjabi dil tutt gaya or dil tod ditta or the English heart-broken or heart-break are concerned, which is the epicentre? Heart is not made of glass then how have three different languages caught hold of the same idea? Back to the basic premise: language belongs to the user. Language is human, a mirror of human civilisation.

— Deepti

This feature was published on April 10, 1999

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