Friday, May 13, 2011

Bon Usage

In the land of grammar and old salon elitism there exists a group called, The Immortals. Why look to religion for immortality when you can simply look to an organization that publishes dictionaries.

This post may not rouse as much of The Immortals attention as one of their fellow members standing up to recite their wedding vows and ending to have and to hold with et cetera, but if they click on the following two links the concepts of immortality and purity may fade forever back into history, echoed only by the laughter of an entire French-speaking community who recognizes that it’s language is anything but pure.  

It basically started with François de Malherbe (1555-1628), the earliest champion of language purism, who almost single-handedly created a conception of language that fifteen generations are still talking about. Serving under both King Henri IV and his son, the future Louis XIII, Malherbe’s literary criticism won him his acclaim.

Of course, it’s a wonder he didn’t lose his head for correcting King Henri’s son, the future Louis XIII, for signing his name as “Loys” rather than “Louys.  But, by 1615, Malherbe had all of Paris talking. Academies and salons opened with the sole purpose to either refute or spread his ideas. The elitism we associate to French today has roots deeply seeded in a time when even the famous French philosopher, René Descartes (1596-1659) had to justify writing in French over Latin in his Discours de la method (Discourse on Method), where his famous “Je pense donc je suis” (“I think, therefore I am) iconic expression appears.

Malherbe’s self-regarded intellectual son, Favre de Vaugelas (1585-1650), was one of the most influential remarqeuers (commentators), making it his life’s cause to assess and comment on the quality of French being spoken and written. He coined the term bon usage – the future credo of the French Academy – and helped lead a nation to an ideal concept of French.

The French Academy started out as one of many informal clubs in Paris. Valentin Conrart hosted the club of men and women who were disciples of Malherbe. The club may have died out like many others of its time had it not been for Cardinal Richelieu, Louis VIII’s prime minister and one of the most powerful and notorious statesmen in French history.

Richelieu turned Conrat’s association into a public institution. Richelieu was an ardent supporter of language but he also wanted to stamp out the literary gatherings at the Hôtel de Rambouillet, a notorious hotbed of aristocratic dissidence that he considered a threat to the regime of Louis XIII. Richelieu was obsessed with building a powerful French State, but when the Parlement de Paris raised suspicions about his political agenda, he criticized the famous theatrical hit of the time, Le Cid, by Pierre Corneille, proving his focus was strictly on language and literature. A month later, Parlement registered the Academy.

And this is where we get back to The Immortals, an expression, which originally referred to the immortal and divine power of the king (à l’immortalite), which the early Academy founders attributed not to themselves but to their purpose, of course, the concept outlasted the monarchy.

In 1833, the public began to refer to the members of the Academy as “immortals,” a title still used today. While chartered to produce a dictionary, the “Academy Award” here goes to the Academy for being one of the first democratic institutions of the ancient regime to persevere and spread the concept of immortality, a concept so finely woven that it is uttered with every syllable or thought thereof.

C’est une faute (It’s a mistake) you’ll hear a schoolteacher scold generations of French children. The implication thereof, you’d think you’d committed a crime against your fellow countrymen for having done so. Off to the Guillotine with you!

So, what’s a country to do with the likes of a Lapsus François Fillon? In his speech to a rather stiff audience, he discusses the permits private companies are receiving to exploit underground sources of schistes gas, which he mistakenly calls au gaz de shit. Colloquially speaking, shit, in French, refers to marijuana. I can see Malherbe and Vaugelas rolling over in the graves now...


Amazingly enough, every Frenchman knows about Fillon’s slip, a hilarious act against bon usage.

But the revolutionary act against the bon usage’s Academy Award goes to none other than President Sarkozy, with his famous: casse toi alors pauvre con (F*#* You A**hole) response to a heckler in the crowd…


Should The Immortals stumble upon this blog, they may die on the spot and with them an entire culture, its global francophone following, 1,500 Alliances françaises, and French lycées and colleges all over the world. 

I suppose it’s befitting that the man who started all this immortality business should have the last laugh.  When all is said and done, it will be one Malherbe’s most famous line of poetry that accompanies you off into the blue yonder, “Et Rose elle a vécu ce que vivent les Roses, / l’espace d’un matin” (“And Rose, she lived as live the roses, / the space of a morning”). In this case, he who laughs last, laughs hardest. 


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