Digital for all now

“Digital“ or “numérique“? A new linguistic debate rages in France

Econocom 27 Feb 2015

In France, the latest debate on French terms vs. Anglicisms concerns the term ‘digital’: should they use the French word numérique or the borrowed English term? The French-speaking social networks are currently abuzz with heated exchanges between techies and linguists. So which is the right way to go?



According to the Académie Française, that venerable institution and the ultimate authority on the French language, the word digital means “belonging to or pertaining to the fingers; from the Latin, digitalis.” The Académie advocates using numérique in French rather than digital, but bearing in mind that the vast majority of the French population uses the English term email, in defiance of the Academy’s exhortations to adopt the French neologisms courriels and mèls, their influence on modern language could perhaps be questioned.


One of the main arguments put forward by the anti-digital league is that the term comes from the Latin digitus (finger) and thus – as the Académie pointed out – logically means ‘of or pertaining to the finger’. The French for fingerprint, for example, is empreinte digitale. ‘Digital’ in French doesn’t have any associations with ‘figures,’ as it does in English.


Therefore the use of the word digital, they argue, is a direct borrowing from the English, where the word has been used in an IT context since as far back as 1945.


In France, the word first came into use with the term affichage digital (digital display) on old alarm clocks or radios – a term which continued to be used even after the advent of dot matrix displays.


The registering of certain trademarks for technical solutions containing the word digital, (e.g. Dolby Digital and the Digital Theater System (DTS) also contributed to adoption of the word in everyday language in France.


Numérique: THE favoURITE OF THE DEFENDERS OF “bon français”

The French word numérique, meanwhile, from the Latin numerus, means ‘represented by numbers”. The term was originally used in IT to describe the binary system of the very first computers.


The meaning of the word numérique has evolved over the years, but it continued to be used in IT even after computers ceased to calculate numerically and when algorithms and symbols replaced numbers.


culture numérique vs. culture digitale

Of course, this isn’t the first time digital technology has been the source of linguistic controversy in France: a few years ago there was the whole hashtag embargo. Numérique will doubtless continue to be used in France by those who make a point of resisting the invasion of Anglicisms in the French language and use mercatique instead of marketing, remue-méninges and not brainstorming, and pense-bête rather than check-list, etc.


But in reality, digital is increasingly used by French-speakers, particularly in Communications, an area that is notoriously fond of Anglicisms, to the point where it has become part of everyday parlance and essentially has the same semantic function as its French equivalent.


And whether the purists like it or not, words and their meanings change over time, and French has always borrowed from other languages. Language today is more descriptive then prescriptive: aside from the strict etymological aspect, what determines a word’s meaning is the way it’s used. As long as there is no problem regarding understanding, the choice of digital or numérique is really down to personal taste as opposed to actual rules.


The language expert’s take

In an article on this very debate on a French-language blog, Anthony Mathé, a linguistics and communication PhD, believes there is a subtle distinction between the two terms: numérique refers to technology as it is used by engineers, whereas digital is about users’ practice of technology. In terms of the process too, argues Mathé, there is difference between numérisation, which describes the transforming of media – films, images, recordings signs – into a computerised format, whilst digitalisation refers more to communication via computerised media.

“Digital takes us to the other side of the screen.”

When we talk about Digital for All, Now, it’s about focusing innovation projects on UX Design, whether the user is an employee, client or prospect. Because in the end, it’s by addressing their needs that companies will get the best results and significantly improve their performance.


Photo credit: ed_needs_a_bicycle – Question mark, Ipswich, 21 January 2012 (, license CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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