L’Académie Française A Closer Look at the French "Grammar Police"

  • Greater than 4 minutes, my friend!

    On January 26, 2013, the Daily Mail Online reported that the French governmental body on language, the Académie Française, had disallowed the word “hashtag” (the ‘#’ symbol used by Twitter) from all official documents, urging the use of the word mot-dièse instead. This ruling is just the latest in this government body’s campaign to remove any and all English loanwords from the French language. But what exactly is the Académie Française and how much of a role do they play in the French language?

    The institution known as the Académie Française started its life as an informal literary group in 17th century France, akin to the salon, where matters of art, politics, etc. were discussed. Eventually, this group found a protector in Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII, who would sign the charter for the group on February 22, 1635. He called them L’Académie Française and tasked them with maintaining the French language as a language capable of global discourse. During the French Revolution, in an effort to eliminate all royal institutions, the Académie was stifled and then eventually dissolved by the National Convention, the legislative body during that period. Some years later, it was revived by Napoleon Bonaparte as a part of the Institut de France, a loose confederation of institutions that promotes the arts and sciences. In 1816, it was fully restored by King Louis XVIII and has been in operation ever since. In that time, some of the more famous members have included Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers, Victor Hugo (Les Miserables, The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Louis Pasteur and the satirist, Voltaire. Members of the “Forty-first Seat”, a term coined by the French writer Arsène Houssaye and refers to famous French writers who were never members for various reasons, include the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, the philosopher René Descartes, the playwright Molière and one of the first science-fiction writers, Jules Verne.

    The body of the Académie consists of forty seats, which is occupied by an immortel, as members are officially called. Prospective members apply for a particular seat (or even more than one, though they can only hold one seat at a time) or are nominated by any of the current members. Then the new member is determined by a vote of the current members (a minimum of 20 members must be present). The member-elect is then validated by the Protector of the Académie (originally Cardinal Richelieu but now is simply the current head of state). Though this is usually just a formality, a few have not been validated for various reasons (political, personal, etc.) but nonetheless were still members of the Académie. Membership in the Académie is held for life barring any severe misconduct. For instance, the immortels Abel Bonnard, Abel Hermant, Philippe Pétain and Charles Maurras were banished for collaborating with Vichy regime during the Second World War.

    As of this writing, thirty-six out of the forty seats are filled. The most senior member is French novelist Jean d’Ormesson, having won his seat in 1973 and is also the Dean of the Académie. One member is elected to the lifelong position of Secrétaire perpetuel, a position now held by Hélène Carrère d’Encausse. The Secrétaire perpetuel handles the financial and administrative aspects of the Académie. Of course, one does not necessarily have to be French to join the Académie. The six current members who are not native French are poet and writer François Cheng from China; exiled Lebanese journalist, Amin Maalouf; François Weyergans, a Belgian literary critic and filmmaker; researcher and scientist Jules Hoffmann of Luxenbourg and British professor of English and the first Englishman to be elected to the Académie, Michael Edwards.

    These and the other twenty-eight members of the Académie are considered to be the ultimate authority on the French language, although they have no legal power to enforce their rulings. They are responsible for publishing the Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française, the French equivalent of The Oxford English Dictionary. The first edition of the Dictionnaire was published in 1694 and the ninth and latest edition was published in two volumes in 1992 and 2000. In June 2008, according to The Telegraph online article, the Académie protested the passing of legislation for constitutional protections for regional languages, such as Occitan, Alsatian and Franco-Provençal (but to no avail).

    However, the Académie is probably best known for its stringent efforts to drive out English loanwords from the French language. Just as some French words have made their way into English (hors d’oeuvres, chef and fiancé, for example), some English words have crossed over into French, such as le businessman and most recently, le hashtag. These English words do not sit well with the sensibilities of the Académie, who would encourage French speakers say l’homme d’affaires and, as stated before, le mot-dièse. In fact, the Académie’s website, has a page called “Dire, ne pas dire” (“Say, Don’t Say”) which consists of short articles about some anglicism that has found its way into French and what they would like for you to say instead. These verba non grata include:

    • business-plan (say plan de développement)
    • être blacklisté (say figurer sur une liste noir)
    • to-do-list (say agenda, carnet, liste detâches)
    • briefing (say réunion préparatoire)
    • impacter (say affecter)
    • Walkman (say baladeur)
    • software (say logiciel)
    • email (say courriel)

    The Académie has no legal power whatsoever to enforce their rulings. They can only urge and encourage the use of native French words. Despite their efforts, most native French speakers, including government officials, will use the English loanwords. Nevertheless, the Académie has an important role in preserving French culture and heritage.












    By Gpesenti (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

    Ronnie J Rigdon

    About Ronnie J Rigdon

    Highly qualified French to English translator. Saxophone and piano player. Time Lord in training.

    3 thoughts on “L’Académie Française

    1. Quite an interesting window on the history of the French language, Ronnie. L’Académie Française certainly acts to fulfil its mission, but I wonder if such closure to loans is really the answer. I don’t speak French at all, but I assume that, just like many other languages, it has been influenced by neighbour languages and cultures for centuries now, not just for decades, and therefore loans are already a part of the French that is spoken today.
      That being said, some loans already have a perfectly functional equivalent in one’s native language and they are used only because of worldwide trends and developments, or because they’re trendy and stylish, and I understand if institutions ask for caution when using those. But what if, by avoiding to use a loan, we establish the use of a native word that is only more unnatural than the loan itself? And where’s the point in that, since language always finds the easiest ways to express itself? 🙂

      1. You are right on all accounts. People borrow words from other languages because it sounds exotic and classy (like “hors-d’oeuvres” instead of “appetizers”). And every language is influenced by neighboring languages or, especially in this day and age, contact languages. But the bottom line is, the Academie can only propose alternatives and encourage their use. To paraphrase Jeff Goldblum in “Jurassic Park”, language finds a way. I’m sure that even the immortels will use an Anglicism themselves once in a while! 😀

    2. Thank you for a very interesting and entertaining article. Such a funny opening: Down with le hashtag!
      It’s curious that such an eclectic and international mix of literati members, such as Francois Cheng and Amin Maalouf, should be issuing ‘liste noir’ pronouncements on Internet vocabulary like hashtag.
      Oh well… idle minds are the devil’s workshop.
      Hey, didn’t you forget something? “Le weekend” was their bane a few years back.

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