Parlez-vous Français? Part II: The French Academy Rules

Travel Tips, What's New — By Sonja Holverson on October 24, 2010 at 10:56 am

One of the topics of debate that is primordial at the Summit of the “Organisation internationale de la francophonie”, being held now in Montreux, Switzerland is the French language. Days are being spent discussing its social significance, its pedagogy, its codification, its grammatical dogma and the challenges of keeping it that way in today’s’ technologically dominated world. (“Le backup” is allowed in Switzerland, but not France).

It’s somewhat difficult to image such dedicated enthusiasm for a similar event where the English language speaking nations come together to celebrate English and “Englishness”. Not quite the same thing, “n’est-ce pas”? It’s something in the French language that creates their culture and desire for similar values. Could we say the same about English and all of us Anglophones from around the world?  Could we identify a common denominator? Oftentimes, there is talk of Anglo-Saxon “behaviors and culture” but that leaves out a huge chunk of the rest of the English speaking world.

Historically, there have been official reforms in the English language notably the “Men” of Letters in England in the 16th and 17th century such as Sir Thomas Smith, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and Francis Bacon. However, they were primarily concerned with spelling.

Ancient Anglo-Saxon text: image courtesy of Mike Christie, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

All of you Shakespeare students will notice that there have been a few changes since then! The 18th century in England went through another period of reform focusing on grammar. It was at this time that the rule of singular nouns with two possible unknown genders would always be referred to as “he”: the student, he; the manager, he; etc. All which had the effect of linguistically excluding women from their own language which continues today. It has only been more recent that efforts to avoid this by using such pronouns as” he/she” or arbitrarily attributing gender which can be tedious and confusing. I always use the plural myself, to avoid this gender trap.

Perhaps, English is difficult to “reform” because most of it is based on French modifications, even though these are derived from Latin or Greek. (You remember the story of the invasions of the French Normans led by William the Conqueror in 1066 in Hastings England?) There are literally 1’000s of cognates (words that are French and English) but they may have lost their similar meanings and spellings along the way to modern times. It has been my experience that more of these cognates are used in the UK than in the USA.

Languages are living entities which evolve through usage and we Anglophones see additional vocabulary being added to dictionaries all of the time. However, today it is even more apparent that there is a universal radicalization of the English code though text-messaging, micro-blogging and the disappearance of capital letters since the creation of the World Wide Web.

Micro blogging Re-codifies Languages : image by timsamoff, flcker, creative commons

However, in the francophone countries and in France in particular, the official bodies continually monitor and try to control and “protect” the French language (mostly from Anglicisms). Perhaps some of you who have visited Paris have seen the domed and most imposing building seen along the Seine River called “L’Institut de France”. This is the seat of “L’Académie française” which is the final word on how French may be used. Founded in 1635 under the reign of Louis XIII by Cardinal Richelieu the “Académie française” had the mission of normalizing and perfecting the French language which is still the case today although it has evolved from a royal institution to a state institution. There are 40 ‘seats’ filled with mostly literary, religious and even military figures who are elected by their peers for life. They are particularly concerned with the imposition of reforms and regulations regarding the usage of vocabulary, dashes in composed word, plurals, accents, verb conjugation and other anomalies such as words borrowed from other languages and the usage of vocabulary that has been “feminized”. I was caught up in one of these reforms in the early 1990s when I was studying French. It was hard enough in the first place, and then they sent directives to the University of Lausanne making some changes!

L’Institute de France, L’Académie française, Paris: image courtesy of Wikimedia commons

But do the French people obey? Not easy in a digital world as well as the communication in the European Union which is mostly in English as the lingua franca. Former French president, Jacques Chirac pledged to fight the spread of the English language across the world as he defended his decision to walk out of an EU summit after a French business leader abandoned his mother tongue. Mr. Chirac said, “I was profoundly shocked to see a Frenchman express himself in English at the table.”

The walkout provided a vivid illustration of French sensitivity about the decline of the language which used to dominate the diplomatic communities. English has overtaken French in Brussels after the arrival of Sweden and Finland in 1995 and the “big bang” expansion of the EU to Eastern Europe in 2004. “You cannot base a future world on just one language, just one culture,” Mr. Chirac added, “It would be a dramatic decline.”

This official imposition of “français standard” is felt throughout France in daily life which is enforced to protect the French language from corruption. There are interdictions to use Anglicisms in print and digital advertising, magazines, blogs, product names and even a quota for how many English songs can be played on the radio or on TV.

However, the rest of “La Francophonie” is not under the linguistic thumb of the “Académie française” officially and there are many “corruptions” out there. Some of which are the French speaking Canadians as well as some US French speakers who have allowed the language to mutate into obscure dialects such as Cajun. But the most contrasting illustration are the French speaking “renegades” of French speaking Switzerland since it’s right on the French border but linguistically far from following the Academy laws (except at school, of course).

As mentioned in Part I of this series, English in “Suisse Romande” is used very often in advertising (although not in a way you may understand), conversations, blogging, and almost completely adapted for Internet usage (except that they turn the English term into a verb and then conjugate it – “Je downloade, Tu downloades, Vous downloadez,etc”).

“Franglais” Mixing of the 21st Century Languages: image courtesy of Rhian vK flickr commons

But even forgetting the use of English for a moment, the French Speaking Swiss on the other side of the Alps have their own French rules and vocabulary that would probably horrify the “Académie françaiase). I even have a dictionary to translate Swiss French and French French (“Parler Suisse, Parler français” by Georges Arès, Editions de l’Aire). Believe me, it is useful. In particular if you want to pass your “français standard” courses at a university level but have been influenced by colloquial vocabulary in both countries. I was picking up Swiss French habits without knowing it and when I went to visit France, people would actually ask me if I was from Switzerland! Even with my heavy American-French accent. I once was in the fairy-tale like village of Gruyère where I bought a wheel of cheese and took it to Paris for my French friends. They insisted that it was NOT Gruyère because it did not have holes. It was a “Tome” cheese. Believe me, an American does not argue about cheese with the French. But then I found out in my Swiss French dictionary that this term is (mis)used in France and the real Swiss cheese with the holes (and I knew but didn’t say anything) is from Emmentall). The Swiss French speakers tend to find more efficient short cuts in the language which I appreciate. One example is the creation of words for 70, 80, and 90 (septante, huitante and nonante) instead of the French which say basically, 60+10, 4X20, and 4X20+10. See what I mean?

For all of you who have studied French and found it difficult to write, do not feel alone. The French also find it difficult to write and so much so that they have enormous international contests amongst French native speakers from all the francophone countries. We’re not talking about just spelling bee’s here. These are contests to see who can correctly write entire sentences from dictation!  That’s how complicated it is!

Writing Correctly in French is a Challenge: image courtesy of TMAB2003 flickr commons

The competitions starts in grade school, of course, and are held  locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally throughout the complete education of the children. But it is not confirmed to students. Even well- educated adults participate in these “Concours d’orthographe”. The big international Francophone countries’ tournaments are televised all over the world when this happens.

I am so relieved when I need to write in French (even little emails) that my computer software has not only Spell Check in French, but also French grammar check! But the formality involved in creating the phrases has to be learned from other sources such as from my handy book on guide to personal correspondence as well as the templates I’ve collected for specific business communication. It’s very specific and socially important to get it right!

End of Parlez-vous Français? Part II. Be sure to read Part I if you haven’t already!

Look for similar discourse in the future. Follow me on Twitter for updates on my blogs and other information on life and travel in Switzerland

A bientôt!

Tags: Alps, Anglicism, Anglophones, Canadian, cognates, correspondence, England, France, francophone, French, Geneva, Gruyere, language, Montreux, Paris, Quebec, summit, Swiss, Switzerland, UK, USA, “ Jacques Chirac”, “Académie française”, “Cardinal Richelieu”, “English language”, “Francis Bacon”, “French grammar”, “French language”, “lingua franca”, “Louis XIII”, “Organisation international de la Francophonie”, “Suisse Romande”, “William Shakespeare”, ” French Speaking”

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