Mere Formalities

by David Sugarman

If someone French asks you to send something “par mail” don’t hunt around for a postage stamp. Sending something by snail-mail is known as “par courrier” (just to heighten the potential for confusion, this has nothing to do with using a courier on a motorbike: that would be “par coursier”… but I digress). “Par mail” is actually French for “by e-mail.” When e-mailing first got off the ground in the 90s, the term “e-mail” was used in French. But when the hyphen started getting dropped, it looked too much like “émail”, which is French for “enamel”. (I hope you’re following at the back.)

It was time for the muscular intervention of France’s linguistic guardians, the Académie Française (est. 1635). Just the people for the job. First of all, they had to Frenchify the spelling. Thus was born the word “mél”. In the circles in which I move, the birth of this barbarism passed largely unnoticed. It may have evoked too many bad memories of the Spice Girls. So the “immortals” (as the French call their Académiciens) had another think, and came up with “courriel” (i.e. “courrier électronique”… e-mail… geddit?). This has found official acceptance, and is seen on forms and documents, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say it. No, it’s “Envoyez-le-moi par mail.”

So how about the actual content of the e-mail? Well, it will come as no surprise to anyone who knows much about the country where “Yours sincerely” becomes a subtle variation on the theme of “Je vous prie d’agréer, Madame, Monsieur, l’expression de mes sentiments distingués” that things are not simple.

First things first. Starting. My professional e-mails in English generally begin “Hi David”. But that wouldn’t do for the French. Sometimes it’s “Cher Monsieur”, as in a traditional letter; sometimes just a more starchy “Monsieur”; if generated by a computer “Cher David Sugarman” (probably telling me I’ve won €1,000,000). The English “Hi” can become “Salut, David”, but I come across it less often than the English equivalent. Mostly, it’s “Bonjour, David”. What’s wrong with that? Well, I think it’s impersonal. “Bonjour” is what you say when you walk into a crowded bank or baker’s shop.

The next problem is that you have to keep up a brisk and familiar style. French is not good at that. Any language that encourages formal expressions like “J’ai l’honneur de…”, “Je me permets de…” and “Je vous serais reconnaissant de bien vouloir…” has little room for the direct language that is part and parcel of e-mailing in English. For me, the e-mails I receive in French seem too florid: for my correspondents, those I write are probably too abrupt.

As for the issue of whether to use “tu” or “vous”, it seems a lot less clear-cut in the e-mail environment than in the real world. Here, at least, the French seem to be willing to compromise on the stilted formality that comes with a two-tier form of address. Quite often, people with whom I have a “vouvoiement” relationship use the “tu”-form in an e-mail. Naïvely imagining they must be signaling a desire for a closer, warmer relationship with me, I duly switch to “tu” the next time I speak on the phone to them… only to hear that they immediately use “vous” back to me.

The sign-off, fortunately, is never “Veuillez agréer” etc. At one time, “Sincères salutations” was quite widely used, but business and professional e-mails mostly end with “Cordialement” or “Bien cordialement”, which has pretty much the same weight as the now ubiquitous “Best regards” in English. Some of my correspondents include it in their e-mail signatures. Personally, though, I’m not too impressed when it appears as “Cdt” or “Bien cdt”. I know I was saying that French in courriels should be briefer, but that’s going too far.