French-speaking people throughout the world look to the French Academy as the source for “bon usage” (good use of words). Established in 1635, the French Academy is supposed to protect French from “mots mal faits” (poorly made words). But who sits on the French Academy and what are their jobs today?

A historical perspective on the French Academy (Academie Francaise) is described in “The Story of French” by Jean-Benoit-Nadeau and Julie Barlow.

Mike Dougherty of Windham, recommended “The Story of French.” “It covers the worldwide spread and evolution of the French language,” he said.

Indeed, it’s an enjoyable read. I chuckled my way though the chapter dedicated to the influence (or lack thereof) of the French Academy on the spoken language.

Although respect for the French Academy is widespread, readers might be surprised to learn about its inefficiency.

“In its four-hundred year history, the French Academy has had little impact on how French is actually used,” write the authors. This should be welcome news for Franco-Americans who are often told they don’t speak real French because their dialect does not conform to perceived standards of particular pronunciations and usage.

French speaking Franco-Americans defend the use of colloquial words which evolved despite attempts to standardize the lexicon. Some places on the globe even protect their French from standardization by the French Academy. One of the two writers visited Britain’s Jersey Island (a Channel Island), where some people still speak French the way it was spoken before the French Academy was formed.

King Louis XIII (1601-1643) appointed the French Academy for the purpose of writing a dictionary. Even today, this one project continues to be delayed by incompetence, writes Nadeau and Barlow. As early as 1642, the academy decided to pay one of its members for the purpose of moving the first dictionary along. Twenty years late, there was no official dictionary, while others in France privately published competing editions. Although the competing dictionaries were accepted by the French public, the French Academy frowned upon them because technical Latin words used in trades and sciences were included. Rather, the French Academy is the intended source of words used for these purposes.

In 1694, after 55 years of work, the Dictionnaire de l’Academie francaise was published. “The dictionary impressed no one in France,” writes Benoit and Barlow. Furthermore, it took the French Academy until 1935 to publish a book of grammar. It takes an average 37 years for the French Academy to write a dictionary. Only about 40,000 words will be defined in the 9th edition of Le Dictionnaire de L’Academic Francaise.

A definition of Anglais (English) has been missing from every edition.

Members in the academy are called “immortals” because they are appointed for life. In 1980, they started weekly meetings to publish a 9th edition of a dictionary. 2006, they reached the letter “R” in their progress on the 9th edition.

French speakers should be relieved about the French Academy’s lack of influence over the spoken language. In other words, there are no strict standards for how to speak French.

Yet in spite of hundreds of years of inefficiency, the French Academy continues to focus on creating precise definitions for French words. The academy’s website gets about 2 million hits each year.

Furthermore, people continue to learn French because fluency helps to understand the culture. French is the second most popular foreign language studied in American schools after Spanish.

 

Juliana L’Heureux can be contacted at:

[email protected]