New guardian of French tongue is (gasp!) British

AP News
Posted: Apr 04, 2013 9:49 AM
New guardian of French tongue is (gasp!) British

PARIS (AP) — The newest official guardian of the French language has spoken: English, he says, is jumping the barricades and threatening the language of Moliere.

He should know. He's British — the first from his nation to become one of the 40 esteemed "immortals" of the Academie Francaise, the institution that has watched over the French language since 1635.

Is he a fox in the hen house — as one might think given the history of mutual disdain between England and France? "No," Michael Edwards assures. "Nor am I the Trojan Horse. I don't want to stir things up."

But he just might.

Edwards, a Cambridge-educated poet, writer and translator married to a French woman, says that while he became a French citizen a decade ago, his British identity is "essential."

"I don't stop being British. No," he said in an interview this week in his office at the august College de France, where he holds a chair in the Study of Literary Creation in the English Language. For example, he wonders why there are no French words to express certain concepts. One can descend in French, "descendre," but one cannot "ascendre," or ascend — as Edwards has to his illustrious seat.

The British scholar, who will be 75 later this month, was voted into the Academie Francaise in February — on his third try, with his first candidacy in 2008. Becoming an "immortal," which takes lots of real-world networking, is for him something akin to entering the celestial realm of the gods of French literature.

"When I was a student, the Academie Francaise was a kind of unreal paradise in which lived people like Racine and La Fontaine and Voltaire and Hugo and Claudel and Valery."

It's unusual in the extreme for an outsider like Edwards to be elected to the elite French club — but not without precedent.

Another Anglo-Saxon, Julien Green, born in Paris to American parents and schooled in the French system, preceded Edwards at the Academie Francaise. But Edwards, born outside London, is the first member from Britain speaking French as an adopted language. He is not, however, the only foreign-born member of the Academie Francaise. In fact, one of them — Chinese-born Francois Cheng — encouraged Edwards to seek a seat. It took three tries and lots of networking to gain backers among the members ahead of this year's victory vote.

And while winning recognition from the French language elite was a battle for Edwards, there were no signs that French snobbery regarding his British origins played a role in the process.

Edwards chuckles when asked why he wanted to become a so-called immortal. "It's like asking someone, why did you want to play in the World Cup?"

Unlike owning the World Cup soccer trophy, however, becoming a member of the Academie Francaise is an honor that lasts for life. Immortals are only replaced when one of the 40 dies. The graying institution — where more than half of its members are over 75 and only five of them women — currently has four vacant seats.

Edwards will take Seat No. 31, replacing writer Jean Dutourd, in November. Then, he will don a gold-embroidered green suit and take up his ornamental sword in an elaborate ceremony, and deliver a lengthy speech — to be published word-for-word in some French newspapers.

But this lover of Shakespeare already has some clear thoughts about the French language's biggest enemy: English, which has become the world's lingua franca.

"I don't think it's paranoia. I think they're right. English is a threat," he said. But it's not "real English" that threatens the French language, he quickly added.

The real problem? Bad English — "the sort of universal lingua-anglica which is not proper English and which invades French through all sorts of expressions which are unnecessary," he said.

Edwards also spies what he says is a deeper, more insidious threat: the growing demand on the French to write in English for professional reasons. He sees that as potentially "very dangerous" to philosophers and scientists, for instance, where language can have an impact on the work itself.

"A language is a living organism. It's a way of thinking, a memory," Edwards said. "It's important that a French philosopher think in French," he said. If not, that person "might, to put it crudely, become a British philosopher."

French, once the official language of international diplomacy, has steadily lost ground to English. That's despite two laws, enacted in 1975 and 1994, to ensure the French language holds its own in the work place, in businesses and at international conferences in France.

In 2006, then-President Jacques Chirac walked out of a European Union summit to protest a particularly offensive affront to the French tongue: a French business executive addressing EU leaders in English. In a sign of the changing times, France's finance minister last month fielded questions in French at a news conference in Sweden — and happily answered them in English to satisfy the international crowd.

Academicians, as members of the gold-domed Academie Francaise are called, don't make laws. They simply hand down judgments, which the French are expected to abide by to keep their language pure. That's a hard task in a globalized world in which foreign languages constantly intrude. Most English words are kicked out for a French equivalent, for example eco-friendly should be "respectueux de l'environnement" (respectful of the environment). That contrasts with the English who "like foreign sounds in English."

"The French believe that the French language should be controlled from above, and the Academie Francaise has a mission to do precisely that," said Edwards. He gave assurances that the Academie is not "trying to embalm French" but it does "take very seriously the beauty of the French language."

Edwards writes poetry and essays in English and French and speaks French with a slight, almost elegant English accent. He began studying French at age 11 in England and recalled that as his studies advanced, the French language opened a door into another world — one which he has spent decades contemplating through his poetry, essays and lectures. "Le Rire de Moliere" (Moliere's Laugh) published last year, offers a new way to interpret the writings of the man whose name for many is synonymous with the French language.

Edwards hopes to get a spot on the commission that has been revising the French dictionary since the time of Cardinal Richelieu, the institution's founder.

The Academie Francaise is a rarefied society that includes not just literati but scientists and even a former French president, Valerie Giscard d'Estaing. Ironically, some great French writers never got their foot in the door — including Moliere.

Edwards was careful not to wreck his reputation by saying anything too radical before taking his seat in November. But, he ventured, the English language might have a lesson for the French. "I do feel ... a language is alive when it changes, and English is aware of other languages and borrows from them when it is useful to do so."

Then he let go with one more, perhaps truly renegade, thought: "The language really under threat is English."

Today, he explained, two non-native English speakers will often communicate in a mangled, hybrid English.

"The language chatted around the world is poor English," Edwards said.