Academie Francaise mans the Barricades

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Jun 5 19:28:13 UTC 2005

>>From the NYTimes,

May 31, 2005

Academie Solemnly Mans the Barricades Against Impure French

PARIS, May 30 - They arrive at the domed building on the Seine every
Thursday, a cabal of erudite elderly citizens, half of them in their 80's,
working like ancient tortoises to maintain the dictionary of the Academie
Francaise as an accurate record of modern French. But as science and
technology push more and more French and non-French words into common
usage, the immortals, as the academicians are called, are struggling to
keep up their Sisyphean task. The academy has been toiling for 70 years on
the dictionary's ninth edition and has reached only the letter P.

Maurice Druon, the academy's honorary perpetual secretary, sets a
horn-rimmed monocle before his eye and peers over a page chosen at random
from the edition's recently completed Volume II. "Gruppetto, grutier,
gryphee," he reads in the sumptuous sitting room of his majestic apartment
here, listing the words added since the eighth edition. "Fifteen out of 30
words on the page are new." The eighth edition, published in 1935, has
35,000 words, but the current edition is already up to 50,000 and will
probably reach 70,000 before the academy reaches the end of the letter Z.
The pace is so slow that by the time the edition is done, the early
letters of the lexicon will be largely out of date.

The academy, founded in 1635 under the sponsorship of Louis XIII's chief
minister, Cardinal Richelieu, has been quietly engulfed by the slow
collision of tradition and modernity that remains one of the central
dynamics animating Western Europe today. (Eastern and Central Europe's
Communist interlude left countries there wiped clean of many traditions,
allowing them a relatively fresher start in the post-cold war era.)
Globalization has strained the lexicographers' careful rituals while the
French language faces an onslaught of new terms coined in foreign tongues.
It is a unique institution, the world's most powerful state-backed
linguistic authority, whose principal work is the dictionary. The
40-member club was abolished during the French Revolution as elitist and
useless but was revived by Napoleon who made it one of the five academies
in the Institut de France, which he installed in the former College des
Quatre Nations on the Left Bank of the Seine. The place is so imbued with
the must and rustle of tradition that any attempt at change would set
nerves on edge as surely as dragging a dry tongue over a frosty Popsicle.

The dictionary has stirred passions since its inception: Antoine Furetiere
was expelled from the academy in 1685 for having the audacity to publish
his own lexicon before the academy was finished with its. While anyone is
now free to publish a dictionary in France, the academy's evolving opus
remains the registry of what is officially French. The academy is the
recognized authority on neologisms, particularly those coined to replace
persistent Anglicisms in the language, like courriel for e-mail. Its
decisions are followed by the government in official correspondence, and
the media are encouraged to do the same.

Each ministry in France has a team of people responsible for rooting out
foreign words and forwarding them to the Ministry of Culture's General
Commissariat of Terminology and Neology. The commissariat consults with
the academy on French words to use in their place. The academy is the
final arbiter. It has approved French equivalents like "toile d'araignee
mondiale" (literally, global spider web) for the World Wide Web or
"coussin de securite" for air bag.

It exerts its influence in other subtle ways. Several times a year it
issues linguistic directives or protests a mangling of the national
tongue. It even receives letters asking it to adjudicate in legal disputes
that hang on the meaning of a word, though it refuses to intervene in such
melees. The government's Supreme Audiovisual Council publishes a list of
academy-approved words for television anchors and radio announcers to use
instead of their more common English equivalents. All advertising that
carries English words or phrases, must also, by law, include the French
equivalent in a footnote. Even the Nike motto "Just Do It!" was marked by
an asterisk that referred to the French translation, "Allez-y!," at the
bottom of every ad.

Mr. Druon defends the academy's tempo largo. "We need 50 years to know
that a word is really in use and won't disappear," he said. But even he
finds progress on the dictionary as slow as ripening Camembert in January.
He says that the academy has fallen off its pace in turning out a new
edition roughly every half century, in part recently because of the
interruption of World War II. By the 1980's, he realized that with the
academicians' sluggish speed and the plethora of fast-appearing new words,
the academy would not complete the dictionary before the end of the 21st

To restore credibility to the project, he accelerated the process and
started publishing the academy's progress in periodic installments that
are eventually grouped into volumes. Two volumes have been published so
far, taking the ninth edition through the word "mappemonde," or a map of
the earth presented in two side-by-side circles. Of the 11,500 words in
the second volume, 4,000 are new. "It's an enormous amount of work," Mr.
Druon said beneath a nimbus of white hair.

The academy does not use freelancers, as many lexicographers do. Its staff
of 10 scholars work through the academy's eighth edition and consult
commercial dictionaries, specialized glossaries and the computerized
Treasury of the French Language database, which is a nearly complete
catalog of the 180,000 French words ever used, including obsolete words.
They prepare words, both old and new, for consideration by the Dictionary
Commission, which consists of 15 academicians who meet at the academy for
three hours every Thursday morning around an oval table behind a
red-stained wooden door. "A verb such as 'to bring' is daunting," sighed
Serge Petillot, the academy's charge de mission. The verb "faire," which
in its most common usage means "to make," occupied the academy for a year.
The last word that the commission finished was "peindre," which means "to
paint." "We work line by line, word by word," said Rene Remond, a renowned
historian and member of the academy's Dictionary Commission, sitting in
his apartment amid tables piled high with unread books. "We'd like to lock
up the third volume in five or six years."

After a civilized lunch, the commission members join the rest of the
academicians for an hour and a half in the academy's vaulted meeting room,
a hushed temple of maroon suede upholstery and blue-gray silk walls. Each
of the room's numbered seats is assigned to a member and carries with it a
history of the famous derrieres that have warmed it in the past. Valery
Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president elected to the academy in
2003, for example, is the 19th immortal to occupy seat No. 16. A life-size
portrait of Cardinal Richelieu dominates the room, and against one wall is
a small carved wooden cabinet that holds a portrait of him in death. The
cupboard is opened for each new member when he joins so that he may pay
his respects to the academy's erstwhile benefactor.

Few mortals have ever witnessed the academy at work. The privilege is
reserved for monarchs and heads of state, and "no more than 19" have been
so honored in the academy's nearly 400-year history, Mr. Druon said. When
asked if a journalist might attend one of the working sessions, he threw
his head back and bellowed, "Never!"

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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