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The Académie française battles an English invasion: To the barricades!

The Académie française

Nearly 400 years ago, Cardinal Richelieu established the Académie française / French Academy, as the official authority on the French language. It is responsible for the regulation of grammar and spelling, and notable members have included Voltaire, Victor Hugo, and Marguerite Yourcenar (the first female member, elected in 1980.)

Academie francaise:

Members of the academy wear uniforms with distinctive green embroidery and each has a sword, which they use to defend the French language. Well, metaphorically at least. And much of the defending these days is against English, which is constantly encroaching on French.

Sometimes this defense takes the form of coining new French words to replace those that have invaded from English.
Ordinateur, for example, was coined to replace ‘computer’, and
logiciel for ‘software’.

On rare occasions, the Academy decides that an English word is acceptable—’weekend’ is one that gets the Academy’s stamp of approval.

Going too far

But sometimes the English invasion goes too far, and then those swords come out. This is the case today, with the French national identity card. France has long had identity cards, and they are updated periodically to include the latest technology, like QR codes and electronic chips. But the latest version also has English, lots of English.

Cue the outrage.

Too much English?

All of the card’s terms have been translated into English.

For example, you’ll find:
– “CARTE NATIONALE D’IDENTITÉ / IDENTITY CARD” written across the top. This is uncontroversial because it is required by European Union regulations.
– But the new French card goes further, translating every term: “SEXE / Sex,” “LIEU DE NAISSANCE / Place of birth,” etc.

The extra translations are intended to make travel across Europe easier for French citizens, but this has not mollified the Academy.

“Who has decided to place French and English on an equal footing?”
“An essential principle is being jeopardized!”

Helene Carrere d’Encausse, the Academy’s permanent secretary.

The principle is that the language of the French Republic is French. It is enshrined in the French constitution and the Academy is insisting that it be respected. They have written to Prime Minister Jean Castex, asking that the cards be changed, but haven’t heard back.

See you in court!

If the Academy doesn’t receive a satisfactory reply, its next step is to take the government to court in the Conseil d’Etat, France’s highest tribunal. It would be the first time this has happened in the Academy’s centuries-long existence and would be a unique case for the court to decide.

How will the standoff be resolved? Perhaps one side will back down, or perhaps a historic court battle will take its place in French history. In any case, watch out for those swords.

What do you think? Should the extra English translations be removed from the new French identity card, or is the Academy being overly persnickety? Tell us what you think in the comments below.

Image Credits
1. Liberty leading the people: public domain
2. French Academy uniform: French Academy
3. French identity card: public domain
4. French Academy sword: French Academy

Join the conversation

1 Comment

  1. anne
    11 months ago

    Hello Keith,
    I am an expat Brit living in Canada and am used to all documents being in both English and French. However, I do agree with the Academy in wanting to preserve French as purely as possible. They are the protectors of the language and if they don’t do it, no-one will. Canadian English has historically been English (UK English). However, due to technology and social media, the American influence is becoming stronger, to the point where many younger people are not aware of which words are Canadian and which are American. I feel the integrity of Canadian English is being lost and wish we had an Academy Canadian to protect us! I love your posts, Keith!