The Académie Française, as French an institution as the guillotine and Daft Punk, has been admired and mocked since it was founded by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635. Then and now, it has been synonymous with French prestige, pomp and a healthy dose of pedantry.
Ironically, it has become more, not less, relevant to modern-day France. Its dictionary serves as an unofficial but easily accessible online "style guide" for writers and publishers. But the memory lingers of a time when the Academicians, who saw themselves as the custodians of a universal lingua franca, were bent on rooting out linguistic "impurities."
That is why it came as a shock when a British writer, translator and scholar, Sir Michael Edwards, was elected to the Académie in February. Non-French writers, including former Senegalese president Léopold Senghor and Haitian-Canadian novelist Dany Laferrière, had previously joined the club. But Senegal, Haiti and indeed much of Canada are former colonies, not kingdoms against which France waged the Hundred Years' War. As Sir Michael noted in his acceptance speech: "You have welcomed in your midst – worse than a foreigner – an Englishman."
Of his Englishness there can be no doubt. This London-born, Cambridge-educated Anglican is a Knight Bachelor of the Order of the British Empire versed in Shakespeare. But this 76-year-old erudite has written so extensively on 17th-French literature, focusing on playwrights Molière and Racine, that 16 out of the 28 Academicians who took part in the vote thought nothing of casting their ballots in favour of a rosbif, as Englishmen are not always amicably referred to. The fact that Sir Michael had published several books of poetry written in French and that he has had dual citizenship since 2003 apparently helped.
French literary critics have welcomed Sir Michael's election and praised him for both his erudition and his insightfulness. "This man has a knack for making us perceive what is truly human about language," said renowned critic Pierre Assouline. Libération, a left-leaning Paris daily, was more blunt: "England has sent us a beautiful gift."
Sir Michael is first and foremost a lover of language, intrigued by the way words not only determine how he talks and thinks, but even how he carries himself. "I have the impression that my whole body is different when I speak French, that my body is more relaxed," he recently said in an interview conducted in both languages. "But maybe that's just me."
Is it that France, where he has been living intermittently since 1961, may have been a counterpoint to the land of the "stiff upper lip?" Sir Michael, a soft-spoken and gentle man, balked. "My fellow students at Cambridge were merry lads, as light-hearted and effervescent as French or Italian students," he recalled. "'Stiff upper lip describes the attitude of a certain social class when it does not want to communicate. It's not about language, it's about silence."
Sir Michael is not amused when the French pass judgment on the English language, and vice versa. "It upsets me because it shows a lack of willingness to walk in another person's shoes, to see the world from another perspective," he said.
He has taken up the cause of French in the name of cultural diversity. "I wouldn't want to see the whole world speaking English," he says. "I think that it could be very dangerous." He does not believe, however, that French must shut itself off to new words. "A language has two alternatives: to evolve or die," he says.
That is why he is so keen on courriel, a term initially coined in Quebec for "e-mail." "That's exactly the kind of new word we need," he said. "It's short. It has a ring to it, and its roots are unquestionably those of French." The Académie has recently welcomed another Quebec expression, remue-méninges, although the English "brainstorming" is more commonly heard in French business circles.
In typical Paris fashion, even Sir Michael cannot resist a dash of anglais when he speaks French. With a twinkle in the eye, he admits that "un smattering" of foreign terms is acceptable. French, he points out, has long accepted foreign words."The problem these days is that we are bombarded with English words," he argues. Some English words have been absorbed into French to the point of appearing positively Gallic to native speakers, he notes. Redingote, for example, comes from riding-coat.
Sir Michael now has his own redingote of sorts, a Napoleonic-era black jacket embroidered with a gold and green leafy motif, the Academicians' formal attire. When such as Corneille, La Fontaine and Victor Hugo once sat, he also wore a cocked hat and carried a sword that was individually crafted for him.
Delighted to have been admitted to this select club, he explained his joy at being part of the "happy few." The Shakespearian expression is an Anglicism, but these literati know it is more widely used in French than in English.