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Protector to the French language since the halcyon days of the Sun King

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 30, 1985


THERE'S no doubting that the election of a Hamburger to the French Academy late last month drew a clever pun from the lips of more than one Anglophile here. Could it be that even the eminent academy, celebrating its 350th year as the supreme guide and protector of the French language, is just as prone as the rest of France to the inexorable intrusion of Americanisms? At a time when the French call hard rock music ``le rock hard'' without batting an eye, when a new chain of exercise clubs is called ``Top Forme,'' and when the crudest of English expletives is the newest ``in'' expression on a French television version of ``Saturday Night Live,'' one might be tempted to wonder.

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But the facts are that (1) Jean Hamburger, a world-renowned medical scholar and writer, pronounces his name in a way that Americans would have trouble associating with one of their favorite foods; and (2) surprisingly little has changed within the sooty, yellow-gray walls of L'Acad'emie franaise.

Except that, since the halcyon days of the Sun King, Corneille, and Montesquieu, the academy has had to lower its sights just a little.

What started in 1629 as an informal discussion group of Paris intellectuals interested in the development of the French language was organized by royal statute in 1635 under the guidance of the powerful Cardinal Richelieu. The cardinal saw in the academy two important functions: a means of controlling the city's intellectual community, and -- more grandiosely -- a vehicle for promoting the French language as the successor to Latin and making it the preeminent choice of Europe's literary, diplomatic, and scientific luminaries.

At its founding, the academy was charged with establishing the correct usage of words, with ``cleaning [the language] of the debris it has acquired, whether from the mouths of the people, the Palace throng, or from the poor usage of ignorant courtiers.'' To that end, the academy's 40 members -- known in France as the ``Immortals'' -- were charged with writing and then continually updating a Dictionary of the French Language, something the academy continues to do, though ever so slowly.

Today the academy's intellectual influence derives primarily from the literary prizes it awards, as well as from the august body's long, if now somewhat quaint, tradition of tending a language that many Frenchmen hold to be one of their culture's great achievements. Then, of course, there is the desirability of membership in what must be one of the world's most exclusive clubs.

``The joke is that we are considered to be a bunch of boring old men,'' says Andr'e Roussin, a member of the academy since 1973. ``At least until there is a vacant chair,'' he adds, at which point the jokes become letters of candidacy. Mr. Roussin says the lengths to which candidates will go and the scrutiny and ceremony they must endure to gain the favor of a majority of academy members ``have been compared to the most intricate customs of barbarian tribes.'' Indeed, the list of rejected candidates includes the names of such well-known literary figures -- Balzac and Baudelaire, to name just two -- that followers of the academy speak of the ``phantom 41st chair'' in their honor.

Originally operating from the Louvre, the academy was moved across the Seine by Napoleon in 1805 to its current home in the Mazarin Palace, under whose baroque oval dome the academy meets for installations of new members, as well as for an annual open meeting.

Traversing the hard, smooth paving stones of the academy's inner courtyard, one needs little imagination to picture Victor Hugo or Lamartine rushing in for the weekly session. Inside, however, the building loses some of its awe-inspiring weight. The light-walled, bright-green-carpeted entry hall is peopled with chatty male receptionists in traditional navy blue suits, discussing soccer scores and the academy's two newest members.