What is the French Academy? - History & Role in Language Development

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

What makes the French language, the French language? In this case, it's no accident. Let's get to know the French Academy and see what role it plays in the French language.

The French Academy

Some things are unequivocally French, like fine art or berets. You know what else is super French? French. You may not find this surprising; Spanish is spoken in Spain, Italian in Italy and German in Germany, but there's something unique about the role of French in France. It's more than just the language they speak. It's the language in which ''being French'' occurs.

So, how does language become so associated with nationalistic identity? After all, languages evolve constantly, changing and molding to the population. You can't really prescribe what a language is and should be, can you? Well, you can certainly try, and that's where we find the French Academy. Ranking among the most venerated literary and linguistic institutions in the world, this council has one duty that reigns above all others: keep French, French.

History of the French Academy

Did you know that the poet Dante Alighieri is credited more than any other individual with standardizing the Italian language through his writings? Well, France didn't have a Dante, at least not one single one. France had many great writers, but none had singlehandedly consolidated the language. That meant that the French language could change, and this worried some people.

Cardinal de Richelieu
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In 1635, the French statesman Cardinal de Richelieu was granted permission by King Louis XIII to formally inaugurate a council of learned men to guard the French language. With forty members who served for life, the French Academy was founded as an institution that would standardize, purify, codify, and preserve the French language for all time. Due to the length of the terms and their impact on France, the members of this body are known colloquially as les immortels, the immortals.

Under the powerful monarchs of France, the French Academy grew quickly in authority and reputation. It was quickly awarded the highest form of flattery, imitation, and inspired Spain's Real Academia Española in 1713. To this day, the French Academy reigns as the oldest continually operating council of language purity in Europe, and the model upon which countless others were founded. On an interesting side note, among the only European languages to lack such formal institutional protection: English.

Some of the greatest French authors have been admitted to the French Academy, including Voltaire
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Role of the French Academy

The French Academy is a venerable institution, but the question remains: why was it necessary? Why did France need to ''purify'' its language? The answer has to do with the changing world of the 17th century. For centuries prior, France had existed in basically a feudal state. There was a king who ruled over regional lords, although power was not heavily centralized. Then, things began to change.

As the French kings consolidated and centralized their power, France emulated the trends of other nations, rigidly defining its borders. What emerged was a new system of geopolitical control, one in which a consolidated government exercised supreme authority over a defined geographical territory. We call this the nation-state.

The emergence of nation-states across Europe changed the ways that people and governments interacted. France was no longer a vague territory of people with related, if diverse, ethnic and cultural traits. It was a defined country, and that meant that the government had to decide what was, and was not, truly French. In essence, regional things had to be eliminated so that national things could be elevated.

Map of regional French languages around 1550
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The French Academy played an integral role in this. By standardizing the French language and preserving it as the language of accepted French politics, culture, and literature, the council helped make French an indivisible part of French national pride and identity. Great French novels were written in proper, Academy-approved French, as were philosophical treatises, commentaries on art, and political documents. In fact, this devotion was so great that France's constitution clearly identifies French as the sole official language of the nation, despite the existence of dozens of regional dialects and languages, all of which were marginalized.

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