How do you say “selfie” in French?

egoportraitLast May, two of France's most prominent dictionaries, Le Petit Robert and Le Petit Larousse, leaked a sampling of the 150 new words included in their 2016 editions. And amongst those words are more than a few Anglicisms, added to the dictionaries because (in Europe at least) they meet the criteria of widespread and popular use, anticipated to endure.

What's immediately obvious is that many of these new terms have to do with digital technology. And it shouldn't really come as a surprise; just as Greek and Latin permeate the natural and physical sciences, the apologist argues, English has become the lingua franca of computing.

Indeed, "big data," "open data," and "bitcoin" are all English loan words that not only French, but many of the world's languages have been compelled to adopt. Even the word "selfie" has made it to the new dictionaries' pages. It's a term, however, unrecognized in our belle province of Québec, where the more meaningful French expression, "égoportrait" is used instead.

And that's just it: "selfie" doesn't really mean anything in French, does it? While our British-born grandmothers in Anglophone Canada may gain, at the very least, a dim sense of the word's meaning based on its apparent etymology, our Francophone grandmére is not so lucky. So too with "big data" and "open data": their precise definitions are hazy even to me, though I can divine their general meaning on the intuition of my native tongue.

But none of this really seems to bother those in France. As Culture Minister Fleur Pellerin is reported to have told The Local, "We need a dynamic approach to the French language. Of course I want to defend the French language but not to the point of preventing any influence from outside."

Indeed, as my colleague pointed out last year, Francophone Canada has been, at times, much quicker than her European cousins to rise to the defense of the language of Molière.

After all, it's in Québec that the term "courriel" originated, a contraction of the formal, "courrier électronique." In France, on the other hand, "e-mail" is perfectly acceptable and widely used—however empty in comparison.

So why the knee-jerk reactions? Why is Francophone Canada so quick to stand on guard?

It's worth considering a point that linguist Guy Betrand made to ICI-Radio Canada listeners last year: Quebeckers are especially eager to fight for the French equivalents of English loan words because the linguistic context of the loans presents a risk.

In France, French is clearly and assuredly the language of power. But in Canada, the home and native land of the Québécois, English is over-represented.

We Canadians—Francophone and Anglophone alike—are ever ready to stand on guard to protect our ever-evolving, vibrant and colourful cultural heritage. We devote public funds to invest in the Canadian arts. We listen to Canadian radio and Canadian TV that are governed by Canadian content laws. And why? Mostly to preserve ourselves from the barrage of our American neighbours.

So imagine, for a moment, a linguistic and cultural barrage coming from not one side, but all. And so "égoportrait" it is.

Kirsten McPherson

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