Expressing the Cybermedium in English and French


Internet, English, French, browser, home page, freeware, -ware, cyber, surf, medium, navigateur, page d'accueil, -ciel, médium

How to Cite

Wooldridge, R. (1998). Expressing the Cybermedium in English and French. Digital Studies/le Champ Numérique, (6). DOI:


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0. I should like to address one or two aspects of the English-language-driven medium used by on-line electronic writing, where my own experience of editing a bilingual journal has entailed conceiving and writing introductory and explanatory pages in English, and then translating them more or less happily into French. In so doing, one is led to talk of such things as browsers and home pages. Does French have a word for them? What does the Internet have to say on the matter? In parts of my discussion I shall compare findings made in May 1996 with those of 10 December 1997 (the latter being the "default" date).

1. Some sources simply accept English to be the language of the medium. La Corporation Compuform, Quebec, for example, states that in their glossary of Internet terms, they have deliberately kept English terms in order to facilitate the understanding of them, since most Internet communication is carried out in English.

"Ce glossaire des termes utilisés dans l'Internet vous donnera une explication des principaux termes et acronymes que l'on y retrouve. Nous avons délibérément conservé les termes anglais pour faciliter la compréhension de ceux-ci. L'Internet étant une ressource mondiale, la majorité des communications s'y font en langue anglaise."

In France, Réseaux & Télécoms, part of the IDG Communications Group, define English terms in their glossary, without offering French equivalents.

2. A survey of the many sites that do give, or use, French terms reveals disagreements at the recording level (glossaries) and lexical richness amongst web writers.

2.1. browser, home page

On one French Ministry of Culture site, Jean-Karim Benzineb translates browser as logiciel de navigation (the only term offered in May 1996), navigateur or "butineur" (Canada), the quotation marks and the label "(Canada)" relegating the last term to the curiosity shop; home page is page d'accueil.

On another French Ministry of Culture site, Guy Brand and Jean-Pierre Kuypers offer a choice of metaphors: for browser, the worlds of the sailor, the pollen-hunting bee, the screen-gazer and the book-browser; for home page, home base, reception area, store sign and portal.

"Browser (WEB): Navigateur; Butineur; Visualiseur; Feuilleteur"
"Home Page : Page de base; Page d'accueil; Enseigne; Portail"

Gilles Maire's guide to the Internet says that the French for browser is navigateur. The multilingual NetGlos comments on its two words for browser -- fureteur and navigateur --, specifying that the former is used particularly in Quebec; home page is simply page d'accueil.

"browser: 1) fureteur. Terme employé surtout au Québec pour traduire browser. 2) navigateur"

What does Quebec have to say in fact? Néomédia's L'Internet au bout des doigts has navigateur (replacing May 1996's fureteur) for browser, page d'accueil for home page. The Quebec Government's terminological agency, l'Office de la langue française, gives navigateur, outil de navigation and logiciel de navigation for browser; page d'ouverture, page de départ and page d'accueil for home page. It distinguishes many of its synonymous terms; it makes a clear distinction, for example, between navigation and furetage, the former signifying legitimate browsing, the latter unauthorized browsing; it also notes that page d'accueil is more widely attested than the expressions page de bienvenue and page d'entrée.

"Étant donné que le furetage se définit comme une exploration non autorisée d'un ensemble de données stockées en mémoire et constitue de ce fait un délit informatique, il est possible que son emploi dans le sens de « navigation » amène une certaine confusion." (s.v. browsing)

"Termes non retenus : page de bienvenue; page d'entrée [...] Les termes page de bienvenue et page d'entrée font une concurrence inutile au terme page d'accueil qui est beaucoup plus attesté." (s.v. home page)

Crude statistics of WWW search hits can give some relative idea of the fate of the various terms proposed. For browser, the most commonly used, and thus unmarked, French term is navigateur; both fureteur and butineur have fairly wide usage, whereas feuilleteur remains largely virtual, occurring at least one third of the time in on-line glossaries. The December 1997 AltaVista figures for number of French-language documents are the following:

butineur/butineurs 809
feuilleteur/feuilleteurs 56
fureteur/fureteurs 1206
navigateur/navigateurs 9793

It is interesting to note that of the first ten hits for butineur*, nine were on servers in France, the other in Belgium (i.e. none in Canada). The situation was quite different for fureteur*: nine of the first ten hits were from Canadian servers, the tenth on a French server where the word was used in the sense of search engine (see "Le Fureteur de"). Visualiseur (372) is used more in the generic sense of viewer than in that of a web browser.

2.2. freeware

The fact that it is the English language that drives the electronic medium means both that there is a richer lexicon in English than in other languages, and that agreement on usage is achieved faster. The universally accepted freeware has several French equivalents: Brand and Kuypers give gratuiciel and graticiel (only the latter in May 1996), NetGlos has gratuiciel, Gilles Maire informs us that the form gratuitiel, with a t, is used in Quebec. In point of fact, the Quebec glossaries on the whole prefer gratuiciel. After giving an undifferentiated list of variants -- gratuiciel, graticiel, gratisciel and logiciel gratuit --, the Office de la langue française then goes on to sanction the first by commenting that

"On trouve de nombreux gratuiciels dans Internet, qui sont télédéchargeables par l'internaute s'il le désire." (s.v. freeware)

The Glossaire d'Internet au bout des doigts and génération.NET, Montreal both give gratuiciel. François Bergeron, the author of UQAM's Socioroute, gives gratuiciel though he doesn't like it:

"J'ai déjà vu la traduction «GRATUICIEL» que je ne trouve pas très élégante..."

The number of documents found by AltaVista searches for the French equivalents of freeware has increased enormously (as much as 20 times) over the last 18 months. The December 1997 figures for French-language documents, showing an even distribution between France and Quebec for the first three terms, are as follows:

gratuiciel/gratuiciels 392
gratuitiel/gratuitiels 70
graticiel/graticiels 581
gratisciel/gratisciels 3

2.3. -ware, -ciel

Both English and French are inventive, using their particular morpholexical models to augment their paradigms. Shouichi Matsui's Jargon File contains many examples of new combinations: for example, prestidigitization, progasm, proglet. The same source gives a number of examples of the productivity of -ware: Berkeley Quality Software, brochureware, careware, charityware, crippleware, crudware, freeware, fritterware, guiltware, liveware, meatware, nagware, payware, postcardware, psychedelicware, shareware, shelfware, shovelware, treeware, vaporware, wetware.

The French -ciel, as productive as its English equivalent -ware in its pre-Internet days but less so now, offers several recent manifestations. I didn't find a French Jargon File, but in my search of the net did come across particiel, partagiciel and contribuciel (for shareware; Brand & Kuypers give all three, NetGlos and Maire the second only), fumiciel (for vaporware; Brand & Kuypers) and synergiciel (for groupware). The last term is given by the Lexique informatique officieux de la Commission ministérielle de terminologie informatique of the Institut national de recherche en informatique et en automatique (INRIA). Another item, containing the orthographic variant -tiel and not listed by the on-line glossaries, is the educators' term présentiel (mainly used in reference to video-conferencing in the field of distance learning). AltaVista found (in March 1998) 258 French-language documents containing presentiel* and 266 for présentiel*; also 10 (the same ten in each case, as AltaVista neutralizes the accent) for both presenciel* and présenciel*.

The main problem that French has with -ciel words -- apart from the spelling difficulty of deciding between c and t, as exemplified above by gratuiciel/gratuiciel (from the adjective gratuit) and présenciel/présentiel (from the noun présence or the adjective présent?) -- is that, in principle, they require a base form that lends itself to what is essentially an erudite suffix. If logiciel, didacticiel and progiciel are linguistically and phonetically satisfactory, what does one do with such down-to-earth, concrete Anglo-Saxon concepts as cripple, crud, meat, nag or shovel? The answer in many cases is simply to borrow the English term. Thus in French documents occurrences of the term freeware/freewares (AltaVista = 1142) outnumber those of the French variants listed in the previous section.

A revealing example of the opposing forces of the practical need to root French terms in the referential world of the English-language-driven medium (borrowing) and the ideological need to justify neologisms in terms of the language's own resources (internal creation) is offered by the Office de la langue française's entry for plug-in. The OLF proposes the term plugiciel, which implicitly suggests an association with the English plug (this is not stated), justifying it as a combination of plus and logiciel, to be pronounced with a soft g:

"Notes. 1. Le terme plugiciel est un néologisme proposé. C'est un mot-valise créé à partir des mots PLUs et loGICIEL. Le plugiciel constitue un « plus » en augmentant les performances du logiciel principal. La prononciation du g est la même que dans logiciel."

On-line glossaries, even analytical ones such as that of the Office de la langue française, are not necessarily the best place to find a discussion of the issues involved in creating new terms. On the subject of -ware words, one of the best sites is that of a discussion paper by Lluís de Yzaguirre (Institut de Lingüística Aplicada, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona), entitled "Maquinar-hi o programar-hi", written in the context of the Catalan contribution to the European PatRom project.

2.4. cyber-, surf

Much more productive in French than -ciel, and equally so in English, are the prefix cyber- and the radical surf.

Cyber-, like hyper-, does not need to worry what the morphophonetic properties or linguistic origins are of the base form it attaches itself to. It is a truly translinguistic element, encouraging the francophone net's tendency to use English forms and to drop accents, both signs of chicness. The base forms run the whole gamut of the alphabet from cyberaction to cyberzoo, by way of cyberjeune, cybermédecine and cyberquelquechose. Places and spaces include cyberboutique, cyberespace (or cyberspace), cyberhome, cyberhouse, cyberpage, cybersite, cyberunivers, cyberville and, of course, cyberroute. The cyberbranchée cybernaute, looking for a job as a cyberartiste or cyberqualiticienne, writes her cyberrésumé in a cyberstudio and sends it via a cyberlink to a cyberjournal, cyberzine, cyberlab, cybertheque or cyberuniversité. Much is made of Cybérie -- see Les Chroniques de Cybérie, addressed to "tous les Cybériens et Cybériennes" --, including a French cyber-café called the Saint-Cyberien, "la francophonie cybérienne" and the inevitable "route trans-cyberienne" (dead AltaVista link).

The English verb surf is open to all forms of derivation; AltaVista finds surfing, surfer, surfable, surfability and surfdom, all applied to surfing on the Internet. Prefixed forms include netsurfer, cybersurf, cybersurfer, cybersurfing and cybersufari. French is equally inventive: the verb is surfer, the act le surf or le cybersurf; the surfer is un surfeur, un surfer, une surfeuse (AltaVista found no Quebec documents attesting the form surfeure) or un netsurfeur; the adjective surfable is attested, but not the derived noun surfabilité. There is also a French data management system (written in PrologII+) called SURF, Système d'Unification et de Rapprochement de Fichiers, what is called a motivated acronym. Both surf lists given here are necessarily incomplete, the limits being those of inventiveness.

To conclude this brief discussion of the productivity of cyber- and surf, I shall quote the entry for cybersurfer given in IBM Canada's Vocabulaire de l'internaute (I have normalized the typographical presentation).

"E. cybersurfer, cybernaut, netsurfer, network surfer, net head, netfarer = F. internaute, cybernaute, netsurfeur, surfeur, inforoutier, cybérien."

2.5. medium, médium

As for the word medium, none of the glossaries deals with it, presumably because it is a hyperonym, i.e. not specific to the particular medium. However, an AltaVista search for médium showed that this anglicism is widely used in the McLuhanesque sense in French, along with le média.

"Le médium, c'est votre message? Sur les inforoutes, plus que jamais. Tous vos échanges avec vos clientèles, vos partenaires, vos actionnaires et l'opinion publique, passent d'abord par les contenus. Vos contenus." (Rg cyberéditeur)

"Cependant, la norme juridique en matière d'obscénité ne semble pas se limiter uniquement à une évaluation du contenu. Un deuxième élément dont les tribunaux tiennent compte pour déterminer le seuil de tolérance de la communauté est le médium ou support technique utilisé pour la diffusion au grand public." (Muriel Usandivaras & Eugène O'Sullivan, "Médium ou contenu?", Université Laurentienne)

"Comme tout nouveau médium, le WWW est appelé à connaître une évolution rapide qui verra s'ajouter, au fil des développements technologiques, une foule de nouvelles applications." (Métadyne internet, Hull, Quebec)

"Un média puissant. 87% des foyers reçoivent au moins un journal gratuit, 90% déclarent les consulter dont 53% régulièrement. Un média efficace qui génère du trafic au sein du point de vente." (Comareg, Le Média, France)

"Ainsi, sur le plan national, la radio reste le média le plus consommé, suivi des quotidiens, de la télévision, des hebdomadaires, du teletext (qui figure en bonne place!), des mensuels, du vidéotex et enfin d'Internet qui fait cette année son apparition dans le Baromédia." (Baromédia, Consommation: Indice de consommation régulière des médias, Switzerland)

3. The determining characteristic differentiating English and non-English expression of the Internet is creation vs. translation. In the same way as English-language productions of Hamlet all use Shakespeare's original text and French-language productions use a translation of their time, the text and the time being open to variation, the Internet is expressed in a relatively stable manner in English, the language in which it was created and continues to evolve, and an unstable manner in other languages, which translate and borrow. A considerable difficulty in expressing the Internet, as compared to producing Shakespeare, is that the constant evolution of the medium militates against efforts of linguistic normalization. The number and competitiveness of American sites and software distributors impose, by quantitative usage, a common vocabulary of English-language terms: browser, home page, freeware, e-mail. French has the time to decide, more or less, on navigateur and page d'accueil, but not, so far, to choose amongst gratuiciel / graticiel / freeware or email / mail / mel / courriel. (A factor to be considered here is the relative number of English-language and French-language sites. Among the several studies that have been done to calculate the languages of the World Wide Web I shall mention that carried out by Alis Technologies and the Internet Society on a sample of "3,239 home pages containing more than 500 characters" (excluding html tags): 84% English, 1.8% French.)

The most striking characteristic common to English and non-English (or at least, in the present observation, French) expression of the cybermedium is creativity, a heartening sign both for the medium and the languages that express it.




Russon Wooldridge (University of Toronto)





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