In 1635, Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister of Louis XIII, established an institution known as L'Academie Francaise--the French Academy. Its mission was then and remains today to serve as the guardian of the integrity and sanctity of the French language. At its full strength there are 40 members, elected by their peers for life. Each takes the seat vacated by the death of his or her predecessor and named for the individual who first held that seat in 1635. Accordingly, they are known as The Immortals. Each Thursday, they gather beneath the cupola of the Institut de France, which has dominated the Left Bank of the Seine overlooking the Pont des Arts since its construction by Richelieu's successor, Cardinal Mazarin, in the 17th century. They are at work today on the ninth edition of the authoritative French dictionary. The last edition, the eighth, was completed in 1935. The first volume of the ninth, A to Enzyme, appeared in 1992. Since then, the Immortals have picked up the pace. The second volume, Eocene to Mappemonde, was published in 2000. The Immortals are an elite group, and even leading figures of French language or politics have been ignored. Through the years, Rousseau, Sartre, Balzac, Descartes, Diderot, Flaubert, Moliere, Proust, Verne, and Zola have all been shunned for one reason or another.
Today, l'Academie is at the center of a raging controversy over "Anglo-creep"-the rampant and unrestrained import of English terms into French. Accordingly, the Immortals have urged that walkman, software, and email be avoided, replaced by their equivalents--baladeur, logiciel, and courriel. They also waded into the controversy when the nation's former Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, insisted on calling women cabinet members la ministre, the Immortals maintaining that the masculine le ministre designate both sexes.
In 2005, Assia Djebar was elected to Seat No. 5--that of Jean Ogler de Gombauld, the French playwright and poet who lived from 1576 to 1666. Born Fatima-Zohra Imalayen and raised in Algeria when it was a French colony, she is the first member of the Academy from North Africa and for whom Arabic is a mother tongue. Recently, the 75-year-old writer returned to France from America, where she taught French for many years at New York University and Louisiana State University. Not long after her return, she sat down in her apartment overlooking Pere Lachaise cemetery where so many of her predecessors are in their final resting places, with World Policy Journal editor David A. Andelman and editorial assistant emeritus Charlotte Pudlowski to discuss Arabic, French, and their roles in the world.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: In your book Algeria White, there are many references to...