Contemporary L1 French Speakers’ Assessment of The Académie Française (Excerpt)
The French language is often idealized as the most beautiful and romantic language in the world. It is the language of art, literature, and fine cuisine. It is considered chic in many circles to speak la langue de Molière, which in English is analogous to the language of Shakespeare. This romanticized perception of the French language may be subjective and sometimes overblown, but it is possibly one contributing factor to many peoples’ choices to study and learn French, at least in Japan. Until the early twentieth century, French was the main language of diplomacy and international trade––the English of today, so to speak. This can be clearly seen in the fact that the 1919 Treaty of Versailles was written both in French and English, marking the decline of French as the main language of diplomacy (Grigg, 1997). Previously, in 1714, French became the de facto language used to write treaties in Europe, when the Treaty of Rastatt set a precedent for using this language over Latin (Offord, 1996; Nadeau & Barlow, 2006). Although its international presence is not the same as it was in the past, French is still one of the most widely spoken languages in the world and also the most learned foreign language after English (Ministère de l’Europe et des Affaires étrangères, n.d.).
Most of the time, it is the Parisian variety of French that is taught to students in foreign language classrooms. For example, students are mostly taught to refer to the classic French chocolate bread as pain au chocolat. Despite it generally being referred to as chocolatine in the south-west of France and Quebec, this term is seldom included in textbooks. Similarly, soixante-dix (seventy; literally ‘sixty-ten’) is commonly taught as the correct form rather than septante (seventy), which is more common in French-speaking (francophone) Belgium and Switzerland.
When I first visited Paris a few years ago, I immediately noticed that there were different kinds of French spoken in the city. I also saw and heard adults casually correcting each other’s grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation at cafes and restaurants, which was quite extraordinary. I later learned that this was not a rare occurrence in France; I began to wonder if the French were more sensitive to using “correct” language than the Belgians or the Swiss.
I later learned about the Académie française (‘French Academy’), a language Academy in France that has existed since the seventeenth century, built and established under the patronage of the Royal Court. Today, the Academy is commonly understood as the so-called official “guardian” of the French language: it focuses on supporting and maintaining standard French. This notion of maintaining the standard language is also linked to language cultivation, which encompasses the prevention of foreign language elements entering a language, viewing other dialects and language varieties as a threat to the cultivated language’s purity––that is, keeping the language in good form (Nekvapil, 2008). As such, the Academy takes responsibility for recommending right and wrong, as well as focusing on curbing the people’s tendency to use English-derived words and phrases today, among other things.
It occurred to me that at a time when the use of the Internet and instant messaging applications are increasingly widespread and prevalent in everyday life, this not only results in a dramatic rise in the number of language contacts both within and outside France, but should also impact the way the younger generation of L1 native French speakers perceive acceptable French.
This paper examines how contemporary native speakers of French assess the Académie française. In particular, it asks how they respond to the efforts of the Academy today to maintain and cultivate the standard language, arguing that young, non-linguist French adults may assess the Academy critically, even though they may also think that it is not always bad to cultivate French.
Semi-structured interviews were conducted in French and English with eight (three are included in this excerpt) native speakers of French who have French citizenship to discuss their views on the Académie française and its doctrine. An analysis of the interviews will be made from a critical perspective. Inspired by the studies of Fairclough (1985, 1995) and Cameron (2001), critical discourse analysis (CDA) will be used as a method to analyze the statements made by the interviewees to look at the relationship between institutional power, language, and ideology in a French context.
Throughout this paper, single quotations are used only for translations––all English translations from French are mine. I follow the American English conventions in spelling and punctuation, but proper nouns written in other English spelling forms are retained in the original. The word “Academy” will solely refer to the French Academy, and Académie française is written in its French form with only the first word capitalized.
‘Language is something that changes a lot. Is it natural to dictate rules for something that is inherently changing and alive, something that is spoken by people who also evolve over time? So… it (the Academy) has a bit of an artificial side […] sometimes a bit exaggerated and too purist […] it is a very old institution that might need a bit of dusting off.’
In line 1, A mentions that language is not static; it is susceptible to change. A then asks in lines 2 to 5 whether it is right to dictate static and unchanging rules for language, which is par nature (‘by nature’ or ‘inherently’) alive, since language constantly evolves and therefore cannot be held to a standard incapable of changing with the times.
On the other hand, in line 6, A uses the adverbs un peu (‘a bit’) and parfois (‘sometimes’) to modify the adjectives artificiel (‘artificial’) and exagéré (‘exaggerated’) (line 7), suggesting a bit of hesitation to firmly criticize the Académie française. However, in line 7, A uses the adverb trop (‘too’) to modify puriste (‘purist’), revealing how this purist tradition and ideology has indeed been ingrained in the minds of the French. In line 9, A uses the adjective dépoussiérée (‘dusted off’) in its feminine form (the noun it modifies, institution, is feminine), which comes from the verb dépoussiérer (‘to dust off’). A implies that an old institution like the Académie française needs some dusting off, as though it had not been active for decades. This can be attributed to the Academy’s image being––literally and figuratively––old, an image that leads to the common discourse among some French people that the Academy is sometimes out of touch and simply unmodern (Nadeau & Barlow, 2006).
B implies that the members of the Académie française can be ignorant when it comes to how the general public speak and write French––B uses the phrase un peu élitiste (‘quite elitist’) in line 10. The adverb un peu (literally ‘a bit’) is most likely used to mean ‘quite’ in this context, not ‘a bit.’ B associates this elitist character of the Academy with writing romans (‘novels’), an exclusive profession in France, where living as a successful novelist is not quite easy. It is a fact that there has been a long tradition of having novelists, playwrights, and poets as académiciens such as Voltaire (elected in 1746) and Victor Hugo (elected in 1841), but it is worth noting that many prominent and well-known writers were––and are––not members of the Academy. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that writers and literary critics ultimately use language in a different way from the general public, broadly speaking, thus making the members of the Academy a poor representation of the French-speaking world as a whole.
‘We realize that sometimes, like, it is completely pointless, as we have seen recently with the example of COVID; all French people, even in airports, say “le COVID,” but the French Academy says it is “la COVID”.’
Referring to the task of the Académie française as complètement futile (‘completely futile’) in line 14 is understandable, given the example B brought up: the grammatical gender (noun class) of COVID-19 in French. Here, the Academy’s efforts to standardize language is clearly not working well. Even though it has provoked some groups of prescriptivists to insist that COVID-19 in French is a feminine noun, supporting the Academy’s preferred gender, according to B, tous les Français (‘all French people’) say it in its masculine form. The use of the phrase tous les Français in this statement strongly suggests that the majority of the French do not follow the Academy, as far as the grammatical gender of COVID-19 in French is concerned. B also shows that announcements atairports are instances in which one would expect correct forms of language to be observed, yet even in these places, the rules of the Academy are not always followed, implying that even such public spaces do not consistently abide by the Academy.
C translanguages on a daily basis; it is not unusual for C to mix a few languages in their speech. Also, C does not necessarily adhere to standard languages all the time, and they quite like not following such language conventions. As such, C resists the standard language ideology and adds a positive connotation to translanguaging, calling it beautiful (line 22). Just like other participants in earlier extracts, C depicts the Académie française as elitist (line 24), reinforcing its image as an organization composed of people who have a lot of power and who belong to the upper echelons of society (lines 24–25). Indeed, the Academy remains exclusive.
The term translanguaging in English originally came from the Welsh trawsieithu, coined by Cen Williams in the 1980s to describe the phenomenon of input in one language (e.g., Welsh) and the output in a different language (e.g., English) in classrooms in Wales. It is a way of using language that contests some of the ways language use has been understood traditionally in language pedagogy (Conteh, 2018, p. 445). Li (2018) puts forward the termas a practical theory of language, in which he maintains that the notion of translanguaging is a form of practice involving the use of a variety of dialects and languages, as well as a process of knowledge that transcends language(s) (pp. 10–15). On the other hand, García and Kleyn (2016) understand translanguaging to be the deployment of a bilingual or multilingual person’s full linguistic repertoire that does not follow the traditional social and political boundaries between named languages (p. 14).
Translanguaging thus allows such speakers to access their integrated, cohesive language and communication system; they do not separate language systems for each language they know. This view is different from Cummins’ (1979) interdependent hypothesis, in which he proposed the notion of the Common Underlying Proficiency (CUP), which assumes that non-monolingual speakers possess two or more separate language systems. Similarly, code-switching also takes it for granted that there are separate language systems in a multilingual person’s brain, whereas translanguaging does not.
Furthermore, C believes pure French exists and that there are people who speak the purest French (line 24). However, this is simply inconsistent with the history of the language and culture (Rickard, 1989; Grigg, 1997; Tritter, 1999). Even if people spoke French today with no traces of modern English, German, or Arabic, influences from, for example, Latin, Ancient Greek, and Italian from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance would inevitably carry on.
Third, C mentions the contrasting effect of the HLM (Habitation à Loyer Modéré), government-subsidized homes in France. C associates pure French with power and, in a sense, monolingualism. C says that those who may not speak French with that level of purity are those who live in social housing and/or outer parts of big cities like Paris, as well as those who have mixed national backgrounds (lines 25–26). That is, C’s view is that the people best positioned and most frequently seen speaking pure French are those living without government support in a cosmopolitan area and having only (or mainly) French nationality.
Both B and C’s assessments criticize the Académie française; the Academy’s conservatism, elitism, and exclusivity were viewed negatively. Therefore, it is fair to argue that their assessments are best described as mainly negative.
As the Academy does not have any legal sanction to impose its recommendations, not everyone follows its statements––they are not required to by law, after all. For example, as B mentioned in Extract 3, most French people refer to the 2019 novel coronavirus disease as le COVID-19. The grammatical gender of this acronym in French is considered to be masculine; the definite article le denotes it is singular and masculine. This is not in sync with the Academy’s effort to consider it feminine. The Academy argued in May 2020 that it is a feminine noun and should be la COVID-19 owing to the fact that COVID-19 is a disease or maladie––a feminine noun––in French. The French president Emmanuel Macron himself used to refer to COVID-19 as le COVID-19 in his official speeches from March to May 2020, although it seems that he has evaded using the term COVID-19 just after the Academy made such a proposition, saying le coronavirus (‘the coronavirus’), instead.
There is no pure variety of one language. Languages always influence each other and will continue to evolve. The fact that the Académie française does influence the language use of the French to some extent, but not all the time, is also undeniable. While the Académie française may well continue to exist in the coming decades, the fundamental takeaway from this study is that it might as well try to acknowledge and represent other language varieties and the actual ways people use their language(s) in France, rather than simply attempting to cultivate standard French.
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COND conditional mood
Q question word or particle, question marker