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

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.

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.

Elected along with Professor Hamburger was the novelist Michel Mohrt, at one time a French literature teacher at Yale and Mills College, and longtime director of the foreign translations department of the Gallimard publishing house. According to the foyer gossip -- later confirmed in the afternoon daily Le Monde -- Professor Hamburger's candidacy faced nominal opposition from members who felt the academy was becoming overpopulated with representatives of the scientific community.

Upstairs in the office of Marie-No"elle Desbrosses, the elections are all but forgotten, as the No. 1 priority remains the same as yesterday and tomorrow: the academy's dictionary. ``It's a perpetual cycle,'' says Mrs. Desbrosses, who does her best to keep the project moving. ``Yesterday they completed inondation, so they're in the middle of `I,' '' she says. The academy's 11-member dictionary commission meets only once a week, so, considering holidays and vacations, ``there are maybe only 32 or 33 dictionary sessions a year,'' Mrs. Debrosses adds, contending that the academy worked a bit harder before the French Revolution.

But upon being reminded that a decade ago the academy was on the letter ``E'' -- making for an average of one letter every year and a half -- she comes to the members' defense. ``You have to remember that there is one new word for every four already in the dictionary. And then it's absolutely hair-raising how much existing words have evolved since 1935,'' the year the eighth, and most recent, edition was published. ``I don't think things were quite so complicated for the writers of the first editions.'' In such a job, one must maintain a historical perspective.

As for the never-ebbing wave of Anglicisms and Americanisms, Mrs. Desbrosses says the academy, ``not wanting to appear too backward,'' has a simple rule: ``If one can say the same thing with a French word, there is no reason to accept the foreign import.''

For Mr. Roussin, the question of ``Franglais'' is answered by noting that ``the academy's purpose is not only to maintain the language, but to open it up to new words and usages.''

Mr. Roussin, a septuagenarian who is best known for his lighthearted plays about French society, says it is ``completely in keeping with historical precedent'' that English should be making such inroads into everyday French usage. ``This sort of thing always happens after major wars,'' he says, adding that the American occupation of Europe after World War II, followed by American domination of international commerce, culture, and technology, makes the ascendance of English unavoidable. The academy's role in this, he says, is to ``guide and, where possible, slow a mixture that threatens constantly to become an invasion.''

Seated in his elegant but comfortable apartment overlooking the Place des Victoires here, Mr. Roussin laughs as he describes his sense of what the average Frenchman thinks of the French Academy.

``You know, the French are so irreverent, I'd say it's probably in this country that the academy gets the least respect,'' he says. ``They make fun of us. One hears all the time how boring it must be to meet once a week with such ancients,'' he says, referring to the generally held but not altogether factual notion that no one under retirement age is admitted among the Immortals. ``I can say, however, that usually we have quite a good time.'' Mrs. Desbrosses tells a story that illustrates the more active role she believes many French people still assign to the academy.

``About six months ago the government made a televised statement on measures to combat illiteracy,'' she said, using the French word inalphab'etisme. ``But all through the statement the government official used a new word, ill'etrisme; we have inalphab`ete [illiterate], and we have illitr'e [unlettered], but we don't say ill'etrisme.''

What impressed Mrs. Desbrosses is that all the next day, calls came in from people wanting to know if the academy accepted this new word, and for days after that the letters poured in, too.

``We told them the academy wants nothing to do with ill'etrisme,'' she said, adding that, despite the academy's lofty reputation, it has no use for such blatant pedantry.

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