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Académie Française forms

This Day in World History

March 13, 1634

The Académie Française forms

Members of the French Academy, the Académie française, after a session, crossing the Pont des Arts from the Institute / A. Castaigne. Source: Library of Congress.

For five years, beginning in 1629, a small group of writers gathered in Paris to discuss literary topics. The group soon came to the attention of Cardinal Richelieu, the power behind the French throne and a wealthy patron of the arts. He suggested that the body become official, an idea the group grudgingly accepted. On March 13, 1634, they formally constituted themselves as the Académie Française. The Academy has been in operation ever since except for a ten-year hiatus during the French Revolution. The following year they received a charter from the king.

The Academy was formed to act as the official authority on the French language, aiming to keep it pure and free of vulgar usage or foreign influence. That task has become increasingly difficult in recent years. The Academy has decried use of the verb “impacter,” Frenchifying the English verb “impact.” It has blanched when French magazine covers proclaim the presence of “le best of” lists inside. It can do nothing to compel the usage it endorses, however.

As part of its task of maintaining language standards, the Academy was charged with creating a French dictionary. The first edition of that dictionary did not appear until 1694. The most recent edition — the ninth — was published in 1992.

The Academy has a maximum membership of forty. Membership is for life, and those chosen for the honor are called “Immortals.” Many of France’s leading writers over the years have served as members, including Pierre Corneille, Jean Racine, Voltaire, and Victor Hugo — though the list of those not selected (which includes Molière, Honoré de Balzac, Marcel Proust, and Jean-Paul Sartre) is equally distinguished. The first woman member was admitted in 1980. The current secretary — one of three officers of the Academy — is a woman.

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