French government asks: 'Pourquoi English'?

How do you say ''Walkman'' in French? Until recently, the little stereo headphone was simply called ''le Walkman.'' But this horrified linguistic purists, so the High Committee of the French Language stepped in last week and banned the word.

Now say ''balladeur'' . . . or face charges.

''Balladeur sounds French,'' explained the high committee's director, Alain Fantopie. ''We're trying to make our language clear and comprehensible.''

The banning of English words in the audiovisual field is only the latest episode of the high committee's war on Franglais. Offenders are assessed a small fine, although prosecutions are rare. British Airways was fined once for not printing its conditions for travel in French.

Beside ''Walkman,'' the high committee banned 100 other audiovisual words. ''Cameraman'' gave way to ''cadreur,'' ''drive-in cinema'' to ''cine-parc,'' ''close-up'' to ''gros plan.''

The audiovisual committee was enraged enough by the common use of ''sponsoring'' to invent a French substitute. Now choose between the equally difficult ''parrainage'' or ''commanditaire.''

The war against Franglais began in earnest in 1972, when the high committee started forming separate committees to create substitutes for unacceptable Anglicisms. Last spring, for example, a committee put the tourist trade, riddled with English, through a cure. ''Jumbo jet'' became ''appareil gros-porteur.''

Even many Frenchmen characterize the Franglais campaign as a futile crusade against the overwhelming power of Anglo-American influences. But Mr. Fantopie explains that the high committee does not attempt to weed out words like ''le weekend'' or ''le baby-sitting'' which he says are firmly entrenched in the French vocabulary. Past attempts to expunge them from the language proved useless.

''Weekend is clear to Frenchmen, so why change it?'' Mr. Fantopie said.

The banned Anglo-Saxon terms can no longer be used in government publications , speeches, legal contracts, or even schoolbooks. The high committee hopes the banned words will slowly but surely disappear from informal usage as well.

Success on the street has been mixed. Some words have been successfully replaced. Windsurfing is known widely as ''planche a voile.'' Say ''computer'' or ''data-processing'' and few here will understand. ''Ordinateur'' and ''informatique'' are the accepted terms.

Just as often, though, the substitutes fail. ''Le logiciel,'' for example, has never replaced ''le software.'' And who sells a Walkman . . . I mean, ''balladeur?''

''A what?'' responded one Parisian audio salesman. ''We just sell 'hi-fis.' ''

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