The French Academy: Everything you need to know

The French Academy: Everything you need to know

by Clara Avrillier

Updated November 7, 2022

The French language is considered one of the most beautiful and romantic languages in the world. It is also one of the most difficult languages to learn, so having access to great French language resources is fundamental. The French Academy, or Académie française, is an organization linked to the French language and it’s very important for French language students to know about. But what exactly is it and what does it do? We’ll answer these questions and provide more information on its history, members and how people perceive it today. 

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What is the French Academy?

The French Academy, or Académie française, is a cultural organization that promotes and protects the French language, as well as setting the standards for it. This has earned it a variety of nicknames such as “the French language police” and “guardians of the French language”. 

When was it founded?

The French Academy dates back to 1635, meaning it has existed for almost 400 years. That’s pretty impressive!

Who founded it and why was it created?

It was founded by Cardinal Richelieu who was Louis XIII’s regent at the time. The idea was born from a group of Parisian writers who would meet up weekly to discuss and critique literature. Richelieu was inspired by the group to make a more formal structure, and this led to the creation of the French Academy.

Who are the members of the French Academy?

There can only be 40 members of the French Academy at any given time, although there can be fewer. The members are known as les immortels (the immortals), a reference to the motto of the French Academy: à l’immortalité (to immortality). When a space is available, for example when someone dies, anyone can apply to join the academy. Current members then vote on the candidates before it becomes official. Since the creation of the French Academy in 1635, there have been over 700 members, including the famous French writer Victor Hugo.

Members can be of any profession as long as they have significantly contributed to the French language. Previous members have included writers, historians and philosophers. Perhaps surprisingly, les immortels do not need to be French. Past members have included British, Spanish and Swiss nationals.

What role does the French Academy play?

The official role or mission of the French Academy is:

“to work, with all possible care and diligence, to give certain rules to our language and to make it pure, eloquent and capable of handling the arts and sciences.”

In more practical terms, the academy is tasked with determining standards for the French language by:

  • Creating new words and vocabulary, especially equivalents to English terms which seep into the French language (e.g. wifi).
  • Update old words and definitions.
  • Set and clarify grammar rules
  • Make decisions regarding the register of words (formal, informal, etc.)

The French Academy does this mainly through its dictionary. It is currently in its 9th edition. 

Other roles the Académie française plays include granting scholarships and awards, as well as issuing warnings, for example about the interference of English into French.

How is the academy perceived?

It depends on who you ask. In France, many people consider the French Academy to be an elite and outdated institution that is not willing to adapt and evolve to the contemporary world. The average age of the current members is 78, which may explain why people have this perception. An interesting example of the academy perhaps not moving with the times was its refusal to accept gender-inclusive language. However, the academy only provides advice on the French language and if many French speakers do not follow this guidance it can be a bit redundant at times. For example, the French Academy tried to encourage people to say l’accès sans fil à internet…can you guess what English word it was trying to replace? Wi-Fi! And as you can imagine, most French speakers use the word Wi-Fi rather than the academy’s recommendation. 

For foreigners, some see the academy as a wonderful way to protect and preserve one of the world’s most beautiful languages. Others feel it reinforces the stereotype of the French being overly proud and defensive of their language. 

A war of words

In a world filled with languages, having an organization that protects a given language is not necessarily a bad idea. However, like many things, language evolves over time and many consider it important for the French Academy to adapt to this. In any case, if you’re a French language student, the French Academy is an incredible resource to help you learn this wonderful language.

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Clara Avrillier is a writer, linguist and content manager living in the South of France. She loves getting out in nature, doing sport, reading and playing music. She also works with expats looking to move to France. Connect with her on LinkedIn

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