France has a love affair with its language. The French love nothing better than to have a heated debate or make a long speech. I once went to a concert in Le Touquet in northern France, and the venue manager came out and made a speech about the performers (Earth Wind and Fire) before they began their set. The French audience seemed pleased by the speech which went on for some 15 minutes. They clapped enthusiastically at the end. The British audience were seriously perplexed. They clapped too because they were glad the speech was over and the band would at last be coming on stage…
The French language police
The French language is highly protected and promoted within France. Radios must play a minimum of 35% French language songs for instance. And there is a sort of language police department in France. These guardians are dedicated to protecting the French language – mostly from foreign word invasion!
The Académie Française was created in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister of King Louis XIII from 1624-1642. An intellectual man, he was the first theologian to write in French. He was a patron of the arts and established the academy to maintain standards of literary taste and establish the French language as ‘pure and comprehensible to all’.
Ever since then, except for ten years when the French Revolution put them out of business, their forty members, known as ‘the immortals’, have looked after French words – both new and old. They are based in a beautiful building in Paris, opposite the Louvre. They have an official uniform, a long black coat with gold embroidery rumoured to cost £40,000. And that doesn’t include the sword they have to carry for official engagements – presumably to cut through the claptrap.
A word to the wise
It’s a very elitist group made up of writers, historians, and even politicians. Past members include Voltaire the French playwright and Victor Hugo (who’s works include 800 word sentences). Surprisingly, Marcel Proust was never a member despite writing a book that was 1,267,059 words long (A la recherche du temps perdu) the longest French book on record.
If an English word creeps into popular usage, the Académie Française will come up with an alternative and urge everyone in France to use it. ‘Parking’ for instance, which is what Frenchies say when referring to a parking space for a car, should, according to the Académie Française dictionary, be ‘Aire de stationnement’. But it’s a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it? and So everyone just says ‘le parking’.
The origins of French
The origins of French lie in Latin. But it wasn’t until after the French Revolution that French became the common language. Many regions spoke their own language. To this day some do still have their own language – Occitaine for instance in the south of France, Brittany with its Celtic words and in the north of France where I live, Ch’ti (I even have a Ch’ti dictionary) which is half French, half totally not French with different words for things even as common as a chair (chaise in French, cayelle in Ch’ti).
It’s estimated that more than 30%, some 10,000 words, of English words have French origins. From 1066 when William the Conqueror arrived and for 300 years after, French was the official language of the power holders of England, the aristocracy and clergy. Many English Kings barely knew how to speak English including Richard the Lionheart.
Learning French as a speaker of English – it’s sometimes very deja vu!
Have a listen to The Good Life France “How to speak French” podcast episode to learn the three most important words in French!
Janine Marsh is Author of My Good Life in France: In Pursuit of the Rural Dream – ebook, print & audio, on Amazon everywhere & all good bookshops online, and My Four Seasons in France: A Year of the Good Life