March 11, 1996
Francophones Fight Dominance
Of English Language on the Internet
By PIERRE-YVES GLASSARIS (AP) -- In their unending war to prevent English-language domination, the French are turning their attention to the most global realm of all: cyberspace.
As Internet use spreads, French-speaking Internet promoters -- from France's Ministry of Culture to cyberspace crusaders in French Canada -- are working on the first-ever online French searching software and a French vocabulary for Net users.
The goal: to allow Francophone "cybernautes" to use the Net without submitting to English, which dominates the worldwide computer network.
"For me, the Internet is the theater for a new colonial war," said Alain Caristan, a researcher at INRIA, France's computer research institute.
"Anglophones created the Internet. They're at the heart of its growth," he said. "There's a danger it'll stay that way."
Challenging the English-speaking world's cultural bulldozer is nothing new to the French. Since January, radio stations have been required by law to play a minimum of 40 percent French-language music. Similar laws require advertisements and product labels to be in French. And France spurred the European Union to limit non-EU -- i.e. American -- television programs.
On the Internet -- a global, often anarchic web of interconnected computers -- most information and user jargon is in English.
Search engines like Yahoo or Webcrawler are tools that enable users to find what they're looking for -- and are virtually all in English. They also are geared to find English-language information, though links to foreign sites are certainly plentiful.
That puts non-English speakers at a disadvantage. They must understand English to use the search engines, even to find information in their own languages. And search engines often can't handle accented letters.
In February, a group of French researchers put the first all-French search engine, Lokace, on the Net. Francophones use it to find information in any of the thousands of French-language sites.
The Montreal Computer Research Center in Quebec plans to launch another all-French moteur de recherche in coming weeks.
Many users also want to stop a new Internet "Franglais" from taking hold -- the use of English slang by some French Net surfers.
Scientists, professors and other users in France, Canada, Belgium and Switzerland feed proposals to an office of the French Ministry of Culture, which recently began a list of French Net jargon.
Many of the terms come from Quebec, which has a tenth of France's population but about as many Internet users -- between 100,000 and 400,000.
Words Quebeckers coined that are now in widespread use include fureteur for Internet user and mitrailleur (machine-gunner) for flamer, someone who shoots off an angry, often obscene e-mail diatribe. Other proposed cyberspace slang includes autonome for off line -- when you're no longer hooked into the Net.
For Pierre Oudart, who oversees the list, the Internet is a chance to unite Francophones around the world.
"In geographical space, the French-speaking world is dispersed," he said. "But in virtual space, via the Internet, the entire French-speaking world is at your fingertips, from France to Quebec or elsewhere."
Canada's French-speaking province is home to some of the Net's most exciting Francophone areas on the Net. And the fureteurs there didn't wait around for their government to begin a jargon list.
One of the most popular Francophone sites is Chroniques de Cyberie or Cyberia Chronicles, a weekly satirical newsletter by a Montreal translator, "l'Hyperman" Jean-Pierre Cloutier.
For many Quebeckers, Frenchifying the Net is a crusade. Michel Cartier, a technology professor at the University of Montreal, told the Paris newspaper Liberation that Quebec's Net users are "on the front line of technology, soldiers of the French language."
Internet use is growing in France, albeit slower than elsewhere. The reasons include competition from Minitel, a less-sophisticated national network, and the high cost of telecommunications.
About 6.5 million French homes and offices have small Minitel terminals that hook up to phones. Users dial a number and can order pizza, read news, look for jobs, indulge in sex chat, bank, find out sports results or book vacations.
Other languages also are thriving on the Internet, especially Spanish and German, which got its own search engine, Cinetic, in January. Germans, though, lack their own Internet slang; they use English words.
Roger Crocombe, an Englishman in charge of selling Internet services at the French computer company Bull Multimedia, said the pressure is on other languages to muscle in to the Net to avoid being eclipsed by English.
"The French could do it," he said. "They have the character. The Dutch know no one's going to follow their language; same with the Scandinavians. If the younger generation in France looks to the Internet for role models, and only finds English or American role models, then that will be a shame."
Francophones, to be sure, have been the most aggressive promoters of multilingualism on the Net.
"It's fair to say the very existence of a language will be threatened if it isn't computerized," the Francophone Agency for Higher Learning and Research warns. "It is comparable to civilization's passage from oral language to written language. The French-speaking world's future is at stake."
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Lokace, the first all-French search engine.
Chroniques de Cyberie (Cyberia Chronicles), a weekly satirical newsletter by a Montreal translator, "l'Hyperman" Jean-Pierre Cloutier.
Cinetic, German search engine, which premiered in January.
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company