Meet the Cultural Illuminati Guarding France’s Most Sacrosanct Asset: The French Language

October 1st, 2018 by When you’re known as “the immortals,” as are the 40 members of the Académie Française, it’s hard to take yourselves lightly. Over the course of five centuries, 732 of them have walked the earth and reigned as the guardians of France’s most sacrosanct asset: its language. A linguistic secret service, if you like, they project an almost priestly aura when they don their habits verts—long black cloaks embroidered with leafy-green botanical motifs—accessorized with elaborate ceremonial swords. Drawn from the arts and academia as well as the clergy and government, the Académie is considered to include the nation’s finest minds, and is revered accordingly. It is, after all, the most exclusive club in France. In recent years, however, these august savants (ranging in age from a sprightly 60 up to 99), who serve for life after being elected by the membership, have begun to face some distinctly 21st-century challenges—for starters, replenishing their ranks. Inside their temple-like palace on the left bank of the Seine, opposite the Louvre, in the majestic coupole-topped chamber where they convene, a good portion of the numbered fauteuils have sat vacant for long stretches (six were unoccupied in 2017) while the Académie goes through its laborious election process. In May, it chose its fifth living female immortal, and the ninth ever. Opinions on hot-button issues such as “inclusive writing,” which aims to make French grammar more gender-neutral, have created a cultural stir. The Académie Française remains a unique combination of pomp and real intellectual power—a bastion, in every sense—as I was able to witness one week in May, when the historically press-averse powers of the Académie granted me interviews and access inside their palace. The question at hand: could the arcane, archaic Académie be re-invigorated by new blood, attention, and energy? And just what, exactly, do they do? Since 1635, when it was founded by Cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIII’s chief minister, the Académie’s primary task has been to write the official dictionary of the French language. The first edition took 56 years to complete. A new edition is embarked upon as soon as one is finished, and typically requires decades of labor. Work on the ninth edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, commenced in 1986, has progressed (as of August) up to surhomme. Each Thursday morning, the 15 members of the dictionary committee convene around an oval table, as their predecessors have for centuries, and proceed word by word. “We’ll cover 20 to 30 if all goes well,” says one member. That afternoon, the entire membership assembles for learned discourse, and it’s livelier than you might think. “We have fun; it’s not stuffy. We have discussions, not arguments. I’ve never had to resort to the sword,” says playwright René de Obaldia, occupant of fauteuil 22 since 1999, who will turn 100 in October. “It is a pleasure to go there because people have a way of speaking to each other with such politeness. It is completely out of today’s time,” says art historian Pierre Rosenberg, the former director of the Louvre, and fauteuil 23 since 1995. “We are not here to stop change,” says author Sir Michael Edwards, the only British immortal (fauteuil 31 since 2013), “but to push language in the way of greatest eloquence, resourcefulness, and beauty; to steer it in the direction of the best French possible.” Read more: Vanity Fair

The language the French forbade

September 12th, 2018 by On a cold night winter’s night nine years ago, I made my way along icy cobblestone streets, a howling wind at my back, into the medieval town of Sarlat-la-Canéda in the Dordogne region of south-west France. This area is famous for its prehistoric caves, medieval castles and truffles – but I was here for another reason altogether. This was to be my first session of Café Oc, a monthly conversation circle at the Café La Lune Poivre, where locals gather to practice the regional Occitan language. Although many people have not heard of Occitan, also known as Langue d’Oc, it’s one of several Romance languages that evolved from vernacular Latin, and is still spoken in six major dialects across southern France as well as parts of north-western Italy and northern Spain. Anxious about being accepted as an outsider – but fascinated by the language and culture and hoping to learn more – I pushed open the door and prepared to make my case. Warm air scented with spicy mulled wine rushed at me, as did a collective greeting. “Benvenguda a Café Oc,”exclaimed 10 people, all age 60 or older, in Occitan. I introduced myself in French, and they assured me that I was welcome. One woman made a point to sit to my left and in soft whispers translated the conversation into French for me. Their warmth, her kindness, and the conversation that night deepened my affection for this ancient land of the Périgord, the older name of the Dordogne, which also included a section of the Lot-et-Garonne region to the Dordogne’s south. It is a region that has drawn humans to it for some 400,000 years. That night at Café Oc, participants spoke of many things, all wedded to the land and traditions. They described growing up cultivating and producing all that their family needed to eat; how to hunt for cepes (porcini); the medieval pilgrimage route that passes through their region toward Santiago de Compostela; gathering and selling truffles at Christmas; and colourful folkloric characters, the most memorable being the lébérou, Périgord’s version of a werewolf-like creature. I learned that Occitan was once the lingua franca of the south of France, and is best known as the language in which the troubadours sang. But in 1539, King François I signed into law an edict, the Ordonnance de Villers-Cotterêts, which made Francien, the northern French dialect of Paris and the Île-de-France, the entire county’s official language. However, outside of official business and written documents (such as marriage, death and birth certificates), much of daily life continued to be conducted far away from officialdom, and Occitan remained the language of the home, field and family. Graham Robb, in his historical geography, The Discovery of France, noted that despite three centuries of efforts to make standardised French the language of all of France, in 1863 in the south of the country more than half the population remained non-French speaking. In the Dordogne the numbers were even higher, where more than 90% of the population was still largely Occitan speaking. Read more: BBC Travel

French furore over spelling continues

February 20th, 2016 by Maurice Druon was the writer and wartime resistant who, as perpetual secretary of the Academie Francaise, lit the linguistic time bomb that is now combusting over Paris. In 1990, responding to a request from then Prime Minister Michel Rocard, he compiled a detailed series of "rectifications" for the French language. Around 2,400 words were affected. Druon's adjustments were intended to iron out anomalies, eliminate redundancies and "facilitate the teaching of spelling". Little could he have imagined that, a quarter of a century later, his modest proposals would be creating such a furore. Read more: BBC News‎

Not the oignon: fury as France changes 2,000 spellings and drops some accents

February 5th, 2016 by French linguistic purists have voiced online anger at the removal from many words of one of their favourite accents – the pointy little circumflex hat (ˆ) that sits on top of certain vowels. Changes to around 2,400 French words to simplify them for schoolchildren, such as allowing the word for onion to be spelled ognon as well as the traditional oignon, have brought accusations the country’s Socialist government is dumbing down the language. Nothing provokes a Gallic row than changes to the language of Molière, but the storm took officials by surprise as the spelling revisions had been suggested by the Académie Française, watchdogs of the French language, and unanimously accepted by its members as long ago as 1990. Read more: The Guardian‎

French rebel over music language quotas

October 3rd, 2015 by They were angry because the government wants to tighten the system still further by penalising radio stations if they just keep playing the same French hits over and again in order to fulfil their quota obligation. It's all a reminder of how in France cultural protection - an official policy of defending the national language and culture - is still very much alive. In France, no government ever got elected with an arts policy that said: "OK, from now on you guys - artists, film-makers, musicians - we think you have to stand for yourselves. "We think the state spends far too much on culture, and the taxpayer won't put up with it any longer. Read more: BBC News

French, English, Comics: Proust On Memory, In Any Language

July 15th, 2015 by A new English translation of a French graphic novel adaptation of Swann's Way, the first of seven novels in Marcel Proust's masterwork, In Search of Lost Time. Read more: NPR