Feuilles volantes

While waiting in the basement for the washing machine to finish, I picked up a book from the open boxes stacked under the stairs, the remainder of our unpacking from … almost two years ago *gulp*. The book was a well foxed paperback of Victor Hugo’s Choses vues, a sort of memoir of major and minor events from 1830 to 1846. On a whim I riffled the pages, looking for today’s date, and got a hit within seconds — and what a great one for a language lover:

At a meeting of the Académie Française held on this day 168 years ago, the members, or immortels, were discussing spelling reform (dropping double consonants so as to give ateindre instead of atteindre), and whether to bow to current usage. This was odd even then, for the Academy normally resists changes to the language, especially those from common usage. Hugo confessed his ignorance of such usage — indeed it is pretty odd — and refused to accept the idea. Fellow academician Victor Cousin responded by suggesting that such changes were part of the natural shift of language, which always tends towards decline.

Hugo replied:

“I would add that language shift and decline are two different things. […] Since its very first day, language has been in motion; can we say that it has been in constant decline? […]”

Cousin: The decline of the French language began in 1789.

Hugo: A quelle heure, s’il vous plaît ?

Boo-Yah! In! Your! Face!

It’s refreshing to read how pompous egos could be so neatly slapped down in 1843; and if he was around today, Hugo would be a regular guest on the Daily Show and Colbert Report.

Meanwhile, the Académie Française is still fighting a rearguard battle against any perceived threats to the French language. After the fight against franglais in the 1990s (software => logiciel, email => courriel), the Academy more recently protested the inclusion of regional languages in the French constitution (Read more …)

*beep* *beep* *beep*

Laundry’s done. Back to work.