Say what?

In today’s fast-paced, politically unstable, shallow, social media-obsessed times, breaking news in the linguistic world rarely garners much mass interest. Often a whimsical nugget might slip through, able to hold the attention of those outside the word-nerd circle like myself, and this month, you lucky, lucky people, is one of those occasions.

The French take their language extremely seriously, so the release of the new 2020 Larousse dictionary on 21st May is pretty high-adrenaline stuff, in a country where an ultra-strict council rules the linguistic culture with an iron fist. The Academie Française is that quite terrifying authority, though what they think of Larousse’s 150 chosen new recruits  – including slasheur (someone exercising more than one profession), bigorexie (addiction to sport), divulgâcher (to divulge TV show spoilers) and the growing cult of adulesence (adults stuck in the teenager phase) – we don’t yet know. Their official dictionary (the ninth) isn’t released until 2021, expected to be an extremely mighty tome, given they began edits of the old one in 1986. They won’t be releasing a pocket version, surely…

Now you may have an idea of a bunch of university professors chugging back the coffee into the night trying to decide on which words on the whiteboard get to grace the hallowed pages. No friends, the reality is far, far fancier than that. Springing from an informal 17th century literary group, the council of words officially came into life in 1635 when bossy-boots chief French minister Cardinal Richelieu decided to create an organisation to protect, preserve and promote the French language. And so the academy began, enjoying unimpeached regulation of grammar, spelling and literature until 1792, when the French Revolution stopped it in its tracks. Napoleon Bonaparte and then Louis XVIII soon restored the good work when the ruckus was over, and since 1816, it has been smooth sailing ever since.

Part of the wider Institut de France, from the original nine members, there are now forty ‘immortals’, as they are officially known (or at least forty available seats; numbers fluctuate due to deaths and new elections). Potential candidates have to apply or be invited, and are then subject to a vote, may be from any profession, and not necessarily a French citizen. Don’t be thinking just knowing a few big words and moving in the right literary circles is enough to get you accepted; some of France’s best minds never made it in (for various reasons) like Sartre, Balzac, Decartes, Molière, Proust, Baudelaire, and Zola, who tried and failed to join a record 25 times. Tough gig. Lucky winners on the other hand counted Voltaire, Hugo, Dumas (fils) and Pasteur, amongst other intellectual heavyweights.

If battling over grammar rules hardly sounds like a good reason to join, then perhaps it’s the uniform that’s tempted so many adroit brains (average age 81, apparently). L’habit vert, worn for formal ceremonies, officially comprises of black trousers or skirt, complete with black tailcoat richly embossed with elaborate green leaf motifs. Those not members of the clergy also get an individually-commissioned ceremonial sword, though with the uniform alone rumoured to be around €50,000 (paid by for the candidate themselves), you’ll have to be rich and brainy to make the cut (ha).

But it’s the metaphorical sword of control that ultimately makes these linguistic guardians so powerful in their secret deliberations (hence no photos of the natty get-up – us mere ‘mortals’ aren’t allowed in). Now meeting every Thursday, they reverentially do battle with French language traditions being threatened by various invaders, most notably those pesky Anglicisms, regional languages and dialects (decisively batted away in 2008) and more modern gender-inclusivity pressures. With Macron pushing for French to overtake English on the worldwide stage, it looks like there won’t be time for the crossword for any of these fine minds anytime in the future…

Institut de France, 23 Quai de Conti, 75006. For more information, click here.

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