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

It’s Important to Know Your ‘False Friends’ in English and French

May 23rd, 2018 by People learning a second language might have heard of the expression “false friend.” This term is used to describe words in different languages that look alike, but have different meanings. Last month, we looked at examples of false friends in two languages, English and Spanish. Today we will tell you about another language -- French -- that has a lot of false friends, the French words faux amis, in English. A history of faux amis You may be surprised to learn that English gets 30 to 45 percent of its words from French. The reason goes back to the year 1066, when Norman forces invaded what is now Britain. The Normans were from northern France and spoke French. During the Norman occupation, French became the language of England’s rulers and wealthy class. This lasted for more than 300 years. Other people in England continued to speak English during this period. Over time, the two languages combined and shared words. Some researchers believe that about 10,000 French words eventually entered the English language. ​However, although English took many French words, their meanings have not always stayed the same. Sometimes the differences in meanings can be very important, and lead to funny or strange situations if the words are used the wrong way. Take, for example, the French word collège. In English, college can often be used in place of the word university, or sometimes as a school within a university. However, in French, collège actually means “middle school,” or the level of schooling for students in grades five or six through eight. Read more: Voice of America

The battle to make French a “gender-neutral language” is emphasizing the country’s inherent sexism

December 19th, 2017 by That the French language remains so central to the culture here wouldn’t surprise most people outside the country. Still, having two teenagers in French middle school has taught me to appreciate how profoundly important it remains for people not just to master their language skills, but to perfect them. Whereas the practice of teaching grammar has slowly faded in American middle schools, our kids still spend several hours each week in their French classes learning obscure verb tenses, drilling into the tiniest nuances of punctuation, and striving toward an accent-less speech. One of the most illuminating exercises is the “dictée.” A teacher stands in front of the class and reads aloud a page of text while students furiously copy it down to be graded later on grammar, spelling, and punctuation. It’s impossible for me to imagine a 14-year-old in the United States being subjected to such rigor. The level of eye rolling this would provoke would probably be lethal to the teacher. In sharp contrast, language remains a serious affair in France, where something as trivial as the introduction of a foreign word into casual speech can spark furious public debates among intellectuals as well as regular folks on social media. During the spring campaign for president, the far right denounced Emmanuel Macron for the deeply embarrassing sin of delivering a speech in English while abroad, an act they considered to be borderline treason. The French language, speaking it well, guarding its purity from unwanted incursions or corruptions by bacterial elements that might weaken it, remains an essential battle. And so it’s hardly shocking that a radical proposal to rethink one of the core principles of the French language has caused an uproar and divided thinkers across the political spectrum. In this case, the debate is even more combustible due to the concept that lies at the heart of the proposed changed: gender. A movement known as “Écriture Inclusive,” what English speakers would call “gender-neutral language,” is calling out the French language for being inherently sexist because it favors the masculine usage. Proponents have outlined a complex, if awkward, remedy that its adherents argue is essential for correcting the subtle ways the French language creates stereotypes that are biased toward men over women. Read more: Quartz

On Living, and Thinking, in Two Languages at Once

August 12th, 2017 by People ask me whether I think in French or in English now that I’ve lived in the US a while. I lie when I answer this. I say it depends on what I’m thinking about—English for work, French for family and curse words. This answer is usually welcomed as logical: a language for the intellect, another for the feelings. Of course. The truth is I have no idea what language I think in, and because I’m a hypochondriac, I worry that this might mean I have a brain tumor. I end up wondering if I ever actually think of anything. In my head, it’s mostly blurry images, or blocks of sense memories colliding with whatever I’m presently seeing. Rarely a fully formed thought—unless I’m actively trying to make sense of something, the way I am doing right now. In conversation, though, some words come to me in English and others in French, and I have to pause for a second to find the correct translation. I did this the other day, on the phone with my sister. She was having a hard time and needed to vent, and we acknowledged the fact that she was venting, except I’d forgotten the proper French phrase for venting and so I used a literal translation of the English word before the French expression finally found its way back to me. The way you say you’re venting in French is you’re “emptying your bag.” Unpacking. I love both the images. The bag and the vent. They work. I kind of don’t want to choose between them. My mother and her three brothers, when together, have always spoken a mix of French and Spanish, with an accent that is neither one or the other—because they all, as children, spoke both languages perfectly and with no accent whatsoever, they were able to devise unique intonations for their Franish. Very few things make me more happy than hearing them speak their language. They pick the best version of each word in each language, conjugate old-timey French verbs the Spanish way… after 50-something years of existence, their language is still being invented as they go. It has its own logic that is one of constantly choosing what sounds best, or is the most funny, except it seems entirely effortless. It always flows perfectly. As a child I often wondered what made them decide between French and Spanish for such and such words, and I realize now that it was just another version of the question “What language do you think in?” Now I know they don’t think about it when they elect to say “La copa esta plena” instead of “la coupe est llena,” each one a different combination of French and Spanish. They’re just talking. They’re entertaining each other. Read more: Literary Hub

This Language Will Dominate the World in 2050; No, It’s Not Mandarin

June 23rd, 2016 by For the past decade, the United States has long been threatened by the massiveness of China. It has also reported before that China could take over the U.S. as being the main super power in the world, in terms of economics and finance. With the big shift of investments in China, Mandarin has become one of the top learned languages in the world. It is one of the top 6 languages in the world including English, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic and French. Even Mark Zuckerberg is fluent in Mandarin. But the language everyone thinks would reshape the next decades of the human race is not Mandarin Chinese, according to a study made by Natixis, an investment bank. The research shows the French language is gaining more speakers rapidly. With the growth of French speakers all over the world, it is expected to be spoken by about 750 million people by 2050, increasing from the 220 million readers nowadays. According to France Diplomatie, they foresee the growth of French speakers by 2025. Because of France’s birth rate, there will be more people who will have French as their mother tongue, dominating German in Europe. Read more: Inquisitr

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

How One Translator Unlocks Arabic Books for French Readers

January 22nd, 2016 by Arabic literature is notoriously difficult to translate — not only for the complexity of the language but also for the variety of dialects and the challenge of making the prose accessible to Western readers. Arabic literary translators are few and far between, and the Arabic-to-English translators have become, in their world, akin to rock stars, thanks to the establishment in 2005 of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic literary translation. In France, although translators are given more recognition — their names appear on the front covers of books, for example — many of the Arabic-to-French literary translators are less exposed, and no prize specifically for Arabic-to-French translation exists yet. Stéphanie Dujols is one such translator. Based in Alexandria, Egypt, she says, “I’m far away from everything, sort of in my cave.” Dujols translates an average of one to two novels a year, primarily for Actes Sud’s Sindbad collection run by Farouk Mardam-Bey. Her translations are outstanding: seamless, informed and sensitive. Her interest in Arabic began when she was young. She lived in Tunisia from age nine to fourteen, where she began to learn Arabic “in a not very serious way, moreover it was an era when everyone spoke French very well.” Read more: Publishing Perspectives‎

C’est impossible! French set to be the world’s most commonly spoken language by 2050

December 22nd, 2015 by They've been defensive for decades in preserving the purity of the language of love from the threat of globalisation. But now it seems all will have paid off for the French, whose language is set to become the world's most spoken language by 2050, thanks to growing francophone populations in sub-Saharan Africa. While most eager English-language parents are hiring Mandarin-speaking nannies in a bid to ensure their children ahead of the game, a study by investment bank Natixis, says we should get back to the classroom and brush up on our French. Read more: Daily Mail‎

Is Beirut the codeswitching capital of the world?

October 8th, 2015 by At this high-end organic farmer’s market in downtown Beirut, buyers and sellers speak a mishmash of languages, usually Arabic and English or French. Pia Bou Khater is at the market with me. At the juice stand, she switches too. “Oh, I think I have change,” she says in English, before she continues in Arabic, “3000.” Codeswitching this way is one of the characteristics that defines life in Beirut for visitors and for many Lebanese. “When I'm interacting with people, like buying things or trying to bargain, I rarely switch,” Pia explains. “I do try to often figure out what the green leafy thing in question is, like, oh, is this the same as that in English? And then the word in French comes up,” she laughs, “and I'm like oh no I don't know it in French, please stop making this difficult.” Red more: PRI