The quirks of the French language are an eternal puzzle for many foreign learners. But what students often don’t know is that they are also the matter of heated debates and controversies within France itself.
The evolution of the language and the variety of linguistic practices throughout society in France are commented upon with passion in the press, and governed by the famous Académie Française – the semi-official authority on the French language whose members, known as “immortals”, issue decrees on how it should be used.
Among the phenomena to which purists take much exception, probably none is more contentious than the now highly frequent use of “pas de souci!”, an expression mirroring the English “no problem!” or “no worries!”
The noun souci normally means worry, care or concern, but “pas de souci!” can be used in all sorts of contexts, including as an equivalent of English “all right” or even “you’re welcome”, to signify that the speaker has taken note of the other’s statement or expressed intention.
For instance, if I am sitting in a café and order a coffee, the waiter may answer “pas de souci!” to acknowledge my order. There is of course no concern or no worry at stake here.
The case against “pas de souci!”
Some, including the Académie Française, say this expression is a mistake; the immortals have ruled that it is a phrase heard “too often”, when the speaker could instead simply say “oui”.
Others say that “pas de souci!” is rude. In a sketch, stand-up comedian Blanche Gardin said the phrase was symptom of a “parano-megalomaniac” disposition. For Gardin and others, “pas de souci!” is a self-centred display of excessive vulnerability, or alternatively a misplaced demonstration of one’s own magnanimity.
The claim is the following: by saying “pas de souci!”, or “no worries!”, I am supposedly implying that the other person’s statement might indeed have raised a grave concern or worry, in which case I would have demanded that they withdraw their request.
Some raise a second objection to the use of this expression: its similarity to the English “no worries!” and, above all, “no problem!”. This was the most frequent remark I received after the French-language version of this article was published on The Conversation. “Pas de souci!” is suspected of being a loan translation, a disguised borrowing from English, which, at least for some, is a problem (or… a worry?).
Lire cet article en français: “Pas de souci”: retour sur une expression mal-aimée
Taking care without worrying
But we need not fear “pas de souci”. These days, it is false to say that in French, “souci” stands for “worry” or “concern”.
For instance, “dans un souci de quelque chose” means “for something’s sake” or “in the interest of something”. When we say, “On a un souci”, we mean that something stands in our way, but not necessarily something to worry about. “Le souci de soi” means self-attention or self-care.
In other words, the original meaning of “souci” has morphed into something else. Currently, it is used to point our attention toward the future, anticipating plausible impediments for our plans.
Just like for “no problem!” or “no worries!”, there is no real trace of first-person (je) or second-person (tu) in “pas de souci!” There is nothing egocentric or personal here: what is addressed is the general absence of obstacles.
“Pas de souci!” and “no problem!” also serve an important linguistic function. These types of phrases are known as “situation-bound utterances”. This means that these are not phrases we freely construct ourselves: their form and their meaning have become conventionalised in their entirety.
“Pas de souci!” and “no problem!” are part of what linguists call “pragmaticalization”, where certain individual phrases become specialised for certain conversational uses. “Tell me about it!” or “So what?” are both good examples of this.
With this in mind, the question becomes: what is the specific conversational use fulfilled when we say “pas de souci”?
“Pas de souci!” is an example of what the American sociologist Erving Goffman called “facework”. The aim of facework is that each speaker can “save face” throughout the conversation: everybody has to take care of their own face, but also has to preserve the face of the addressee.
“Face” here stands for the symbolic territory claimed by each participant, starting with the image of themselves that they wish to convey. Thus, facework is a matter of both competition and cooperation. It relies on the anticipation and elimination of any kind of micro-aggression, disappointment or wound that may arise from a mismatch in the shared space of conversation.
In this sense, “pas de souci!” and “no problem!” are very useful, precisely because they do not contain any personal references. By leaving aside any difference between me and you, and by not stating who may endure a concern of any kind, these expressions make an interaction smoother and show that the speaker is taking care of everybody.
Another French expression in the same vein as “pas de souci!” is “t’inquiète”, or “don’t worry”, where the second person is referred to by the “t’”. This can easily give the expression a paternalistic flavour (“I’m taking care of that for you”), whereas the impersonal “pas de souci”, means that I don’t judge it relevant to distinguish between me and you in the situation.
The trouble with purism
We have to dismiss the claim that “pas de souci!” is a mistake, a manifestation of egocentric attitudes or the result of the covert influence of English.
The reference to English in particular is a strawman and has probably much to do with a more general attitude toward language change in France: the opposition to language change at the micro-level – the evolution in the meaning of individual words or phrases – is framed as opposition to language change at the macro-level – the refusal to let “the French language” turn into something different.
It is true that macro-level language change often happens via the accumulation of smaller changes. But in opposing “pas de souci!” the superficial dismissal of a small evolution in meaning is used to stigmatise individual speakers who use the disparaged expression as unfaithful to the rules of language, but also as rude, egocentric and socially unaware of the others.
What makes “pas de souci!” so interesting is the fact that a detailed analysis shows the exact contrary to be true. In fact, everybody who cares about meaning in everyday speech should also care about facework both as a concept for the analysis of speakers’ behaviour and as a rule for our own practices when we discuss language use.