Académie Française: A French Learner’s Primer on its Role and Controversy
L’Académie française (The French Academy) is perhaps France’s most famous elite cultural organization.
Its primary mission is to promote the French language by bestowing literary awards, publishing dictionaries and promoting members’ opinions on various subtleties of French language usages and changes.
Although it has historically demanded respect and deference, the necessity of L’Académie française is now hotly debated.
Familiarity with this French institution will broaden your appreciation for the complexities of the language while keeping you up-to-date on debates or changes in vocabulary and grammar.
Here is your guide to the French Academy and how it matters to you as a French language learner.
- The Academy’s Origin Story
- The Academy’s Nickname
- The Academy’s Mission
- Views on the Academy Today
- How the Academy Benefits French Learners
The Academy’s Origin Story
The prestigious French Academy actually has roots in a somewhat informal group of like-minded literary colleagues.
A group of Parisian writers decided to meet once a week to discuss current events and any topics of interest. These meetings also offered a venue for them to share writings and critique.
One of those in attendance was a friend of Cardinal Richelieu, Chief Minister at the time and one of France’s most influential statesmen. It was his suggestion that the weekly meetings become part of a state-sponsored institution.
Although some, disliking Cardinal Richelieu’s policies, did not support the formation of such an institute, l’Académie française was officially formed in 1635.
The Academy’s Nickname
No elite institution is complete without a snazzy job title for its members. People who make up the Academy are known as immortels (immortals).
The term is related to the motto inscribed on the seal Cardinal Richelieu gave to the Academy: À l’immortalité (To immortality).
For those with less dramatic tastes, members of the Academy are also known as académiciens (academics).
There are 40 seats in the Academy. Although fewer than 40 may be filled at a given time as members die or resign, there are never more than 40 members at once.
Since the Academy’s creation, there have been a grand total of 732 immortels, including seven Nobel Prize winners. Some of the most well-known members include Voltaire and Victor Hugo.
The Academy’s Mission
Staying true to its literary roots, the Academy’s main mission is to protect and promote the French language.
A language may not ordinarily be thought of as needing protection, especially one as common and widespread as French. Nevertheless, potential changes to French are sometimes seen as a threat to the purity and beauty of the language.
For this reason, the Academy publishes opinions regarding such changes.
The Academy also publishes thoughts on less controversial and more academic language questions, such as the differences between un an (a year) and une année (a year).
Note that their opinions are just that—opinions. They do not carry legal weight.
The Academy also distributes awards to notable pieces of French literature that have been printed and published in French.
Among the dozens of awards they offer, some are annual and some are every two or three years. Some are for specific genres or memorials for famous authors.
Views on the Academy Today
Although the French Academy was once a highly respected international literary organization, today it is often seen as elitist.
Others consider the Academy to be a biased bastion of conservatism, citing their recent decision against gender inclusive language, a movement to make French less masculine-focused.
Although the Academy has a platform for expressing opinions regarding language use, it has no actual enforcement authority.
Thus, the Academy only enjoys as much prestige as the French public decides to award it.
If the vast majority decides to ignore it and its opinions, the Academy would essentially lose its “platform,” along with its prestige.
However, the Academy is currently an active and respected institution and definitely worth knowing about.
As mentioned before, the Academy is focused on maintaining the purity of the French language. With globalization, the institution fears that this purity is threatened.
The most notable threat is the gradual increase of English words making their way into the French language (franglais).
While most of the younger generations don’t have a problem with this, the Academy will often suggest “proper” French replacements for Anglicized words.
Another debate is over gender inclusive language. French adjectives are spelled differently based on the gender and number of the noun they describe, which becomes an issue when addressing groups of people.
The current rule is that any group that contains at least one man would be referred to with masculine grammar, even if there were 99 women and only one man.
Many argue that this rule is exclusionary to women, proposing that there should be both the masculine and feminine forms of an adjective or occupation.
For example, courageux (courageous) would look like courageux.euses (to represent both the masculine and feminine forms of the word).
Although the proposed change would affect written French more than spoken French, the Academy nevertheless found the idea over-complicated.
From a social standpoint, many view the Academy as being too conservative and elitist, especially considering that hardly anyone outside of the immortels’ social circle can even be nominated to become a member.
How the Academy Benefits French Learners
Teaching French to speakers of other languages is not the Academy’s primary goal. However, it certainly encourages it and can connect you with resources to help you reach your French goals.
Authentic Material Recommendations
You can find the French Academy’s list of helpful language study links here. Some authentic French resources that they highlight include TV5Monde and RFI (Radio France Internationale, French International Radio).
The link above will also point you to some authentically French language reference materials, like the French-only grammar practice site Orthonet.
This is a fantastic way to get focused language study without relying on translations back to English.
Answers to Complex Language Questions
If you are an intermediate or advanced learner itching to master the finer points of French, then the Academy is there for you!
On its website, the Academy has answered dozens of questions on complex language topics, such as why French has those bizarre numbers like soixante-dix (seventy), quatre-vingt (eighty) and quatre-vingt dix (ninety).
If you are ambitious and are dying to know something very specific about French grammar or usage, you can even try writing them yourself.
High-quality French Dictionaries
Another one of the Academy’s contributions to French is its dictionaries. Throughout its history, the Academy has published a total of eight editions and the ninth is currently underway.
Thanks to the internet, you do not need to lug home a giant dictionary. It is easily accessible online.
The dictionary is highly thorough, with detailed definitions, examples and even word origins. You can also easily browse different forms of the word from a menu on the lefthand side.
Although the Académie française may not be quite the authority on the French language it was 100 years ago, you are sure hear about it if you continue in French.
It is still a relevant cultural institution that has much to offer students of French language and culture.
Whether you are looking for resources to practice French, detailed answers to a difficult grammar point or even have lofty goals of publishing a French masterpiece and perhaps winning an “Academy” Award, the Académie française is definitely worth being familiar with.