The precursor to the World Wide Web was called Minitel. Launched in France in 1982, these chunky brown machines are now relics in history museums. But at the time, the Minitel was an innovative technological and industrial success story.
Interestingly, it was the French who introduced the concepts serveur, fournisseur de service and autoroute de l’information, which were translated into English as server, service provider and the information superhighway. In Minitel’s last days, an odd Entrer (enter) key was introduced to their keyboards – that simple idea was replicated on every computer in the world.
This shows that objects have a language, too.
For example, the French spoken by Quebeckers, French Acadians and French Canadians at large, contains more technical anglicisms in industries like construction and automotive, than anywhere else in the French speaking world.
While the close proximity to the English language and environment explains a lot of this use of anglicisms, it’s only one piece of the puzzle. In certain regions of Quebec that are less exposed to the English language, the same anglicisms are used.
Objects themselves are important vectors of a language. A French repairman works on Renauds, Citroëns or Peugots, while his Quebec counterpart handles Fords, Chryslers and GMs. For a long time, American companies didn’t even make the effort to translate car manuals in French. Through technical norms and related ideas, industrial objects like cars become vehicles of a culture and language.
It is not because the organizers of the French Language World Forum wanted to please their sponsors that they decided to make two out of the four of the conference’s themes about business. Business and economics are powerful vectors for any language.
Roland Barthes went into great detail about the semiotics of objects, but what about the language of objects? Intangible goods and services cannot even exist outside the context of language.
In 1986, the British review The Economist created the Big Mac index to compare the purchasing power between different currencies on the planet. How about creating the “C Factor” which would measure the French Language content of an object?
Those who take the time to reflect on language are usually literary and think first and foremost about its Culture, with a capital C. But it’s a mistake to focus exclusively on the beautiful. What’s useful is just as important. And while French is a language of culture, it is also a language of engineers, inventors, industrialists, consultants, diplomats and innovators at large.
According to an urban legend, George W. Bush asked: “What’s the English word for entrepreneur?”
This Gallicism (a term borrowed from French) comes from a period in history when the French, as well as the Belgians and the Swiss, were heavily investing in objects… industry, technology and great ideas a like the Red Cross (invented by the Swiss). Saint-Exupéry and Jules Vernes are among the most translated of French authors, and played important roles in the world of objects and language.
It’s fascinating that economists who study language often see it as a “collective good”, or more precisely, as a “club good” – in the sense that we adhere to it and there is rivalry between other languages.
The power of attraction of a club doesn’t come from a cute jersey, but from the things it has to offer.