Wednesday 7 December 2011

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About the Festival of New Words)

If I was to choose my favourite word of the year that's about to finish it would be neither a neologism nor a slang term, but a quaint, short beauty I came across whilst reading The Road: "bivouac". It means "a military encampment made with tents or improvised shelters, usually without shelter or protection from enemy fire" and it encapsulates in its brief but complex spelling the tribulations that the two main characters in the book have to face on a regular basis.

However, having a "word of the year" is not an activity in which I normally indulge. I usually have a record or book that becomes my highlight of the previous twelve months, but very rarely does my attention centre on a word that stands out amongst the myriad vocables I come across every day whether they are just a sequence of sounds or considered as a unit of meaning. Sometimes, though, I put on the mantle of eccentricity when it comes to linguistics. Especially when it's about sticking two fingers up to the establishment.

In France they have a similar attitude. Since 2002 in the Gallic nation, a festival has been held in both Paris and Le Havre in the third week in November to choose a new word and sound. As reported in The Guardian recently the latest winner at the Festival XYZ was attachiant(e), a term whose literal translation could be something like captivating or attractive nuisance. Or Marmite in good old British English. You either love it or hate it. Speaking of the famous yeast extract which usually ends up spread on so many of our sandwiches ( I love it), it had something of a PR disaster recently when a lorry carrying more than 20 tonnes of the stuff got overturned on a busy motorway. Cue endless jokes about the driver "being yeast extracted from the wreckage" or people wondering if the accident had affected the "yeastbound carriageway". And that's the key to language and its uses sometimes: humour. Which is an element usually found wanting in the puritanical bodies tasked with looking over our languages, for instance, L'Académie Française and La Real Academia Española for French and Spanish respectively.

Unlike these rather austere meddlers, the organisers of the Festival XYZ, by their own admission, seek to highlight the contributions that keep French live and kicking. Whilst having a jolly good time. As they put it succinctly and clearly on their Facebook page, " ce festival d'hiver apporte sa contribution en musique et en textes à une langue vivante et sonnante... Le Français. En y associant un son nouveau, elle va plus loin encore dans le déchiffrement du mot Mot (mo), n.m. (lat. vulg. mottum, mot et grognement, du v. muttire, grogner, murmurer). Son articulé, composé d’une ou plusieurs syllabes réunies." You have to love the etymological component in their mission statement.

Some of the terms included in the newspaper's article made think of English equivalents. Thus, the new French word "aigriculteur", a farmer upset with the hand life's dealt him/her, could easily become "angryculturist" or "angrycultor". This would describe a farmer from a developing nation really vexed with the huge subsidies enjoyed by members of the European Union.

Likewise, the Gallic "bête seller", the type of novel that hasn't got much going for it from a literary and artistic point of view, but sells in its thousands (no names mentioned, but there's a certain author who writes political thrillers that comes to mind), could easily morph into "beast-seller". In Cuban Spanish we've come very close to a literal translation. When a movie or a book is really good, especially from a commercial point of view, we sometimes tend to say: "¡Qué monstruo de película/libro!"

We need more events like the Festival XYZ to remind ourselves that a language is a living body of words and it cannot be confined solely to a canon of syntactic and grammatical rules. I'm all for the correct use of our linguistic norms including syntax and grammar, however these standards do not operate in an abstract world but in a very practical one. Even if we sometimes, unfortunately, we have to deal with "phonards".

© 2011

Photo taken from the Festival XYZ Facebook page.

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflection and Music”, to be published on Sunday 11th December at 10am (GMT)


  1. I have never heard of this festival - especially fascinating now that I am living in France and grappling with the change from spanish to French -thaNks and I will look into it more - greetings from the riviera

  2. Lovely post, and something I knew nothing about (the festival, that is). I love bete-seller!

    Did you know no one who uses them actually says 'bivouac'. Builders of such structures only, ever, use the term 'bivvy'.

  3. Thanks for your comments. Titus, didn't anything about that "bivvy". Love it! Ta.

    Greetings from London.

  4. I'm interested that you call the Marmite incident a "PR disaster" ... I wouldn't have thought of it that way, since it's hardly their product's fault that a lorry overturned!

  5. Hi, Rachel, well, since Marmite divides people so much, an accident like that will always trigger off a flurry of jokes which, in my opinion, don't bode well for the company. What I meant to say is that it was an "unintentional" PR disaster. Of course, I don't believe their marketing department had a brainstorming session in which the words "motorway", "lorry", "overturn" and "Twitter" were ever suggested.:-)

    Thanks for your comment.

    Greetings from London.

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