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New guardian of French tongue is (gasp!) British

Thursday - 4/4/2013, 2:54pm  ET

In this photo taken Tuesday, April 2, 2013, Michael Edwards poses for a photograph during an interview with The Associated-Press at his office at the College de France in Paris. The man who will soon become the newest official guardian of the French language has spoken: English, he says, is jumping the barricades and threatening the language of Moliere. Edwards should know. He's British - the first to become one of the 40 esteemed “immortals” of the Academie Francaise, the institution that has watched over the French language since 1635. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

ELAINE GANLEY
Associated Press

PARIS (AP) -- The newest official guardian of the French language has spoken: English, he says, is jumping the barricades and threatening the language of Moliere.

He should know. He's British -- the first from his nation to become one of the 40 esteemed "immortals" of the Academie Francaise, the institution that has watched over the French language since 1635.

Is he a fox in the hen house -- as one might think given the history of mutual disdain between England and France? "No," Michael Edwards assures. "Nor am I the Trojan Horse. I don't want to stir things up."

But he just might.

Edwards, a Cambridge-educated poet, writer and translator married to a French woman, says that while he became a French citizen a decade ago, his British identity is "essential."

"I don't stop being British. No," he said in an interview this week in his office at the august College de France, where he holds a chair in the Study of Literary Creation in the English Language. For example, he wonders why there are no French words to express certain concepts. One can descend in French, "descendre," but one cannot "ascendre," or ascend -- as Edwards has to his illustrious seat.

The British scholar, who will be 75 later this month, was voted into the Academie Francaise in February -- on his third try, with his first candidacy in 2008. Becoming an "immortal," which takes lots of real-world networking, is for him something akin to entering the celestial realm of the gods of French literature.

"When I was a student, the Academie Francaise was a kind of unreal paradise in which lived people like Racine and La Fontaine and Voltaire and Hugo and Claudel and Valery."

It's unusual in the extreme for an outsider like Edwards to be elected to the elite French club -- but not without precedent.

Another Anglo-Saxon, Julien Green, born in Paris to American parents and schooled in the French system, preceded Edwards at the Academie Francaise. But Edwards, born outside London, is the first member from Britain speaking French as an adopted language. He is not, however, the only foreign-born member of the Academie Francaise. In fact, one of them -- Chinese-born Francois Cheng -- encouraged Edwards to seek a seat. It took three tries and lots of networking to gain backers among the members ahead of this year's victory vote.

And while winning recognition from the French language elite was a battle for Edwards, there were no signs that French snobbery regarding his British origins played a role in the process.

Edwards chuckles when asked why he wanted to become a so-called immortal. "It's like asking someone, why did you want to play in the World Cup?"

Unlike owning the World Cup soccer trophy, however, becoming a member of the Academie Francaise is an honor that lasts for life. Immortals are only replaced when one of the 40 dies. The graying institution -- where more than half of its members are over 75 and only five of them women -- currently has four vacant seats.

Edwards will take Seat No. 31, replacing writer Jean Dutourd, in November. Then, he will don a gold-embroidered green suit and take up his ornamental sword in an elaborate ceremony, and deliver a lengthy speech -- to be published word-for-word in some French newspapers.

But this lover of Shakespeare already has some clear thoughts about the French language's biggest enemy: English, which has become the world's lingua franca.

"I don't think it's paranoia. I think they're right. English is a threat," he said. But it's not "real English" that threatens the French language, he quickly added.

The real problem? Bad English -- "the sort of universal lingua-anglica which is not proper English and which invades French through all sorts of expressions which are unnecessary," he said.

Edwards also spies what he says is a deeper, more insidious threat: the growing demand on the French to write in English for professional reasons. He sees that as potentially "very dangerous" to philosophers and scientists, for instance, where language can have an impact on the work itself.

"A language is a living organism. It's a way of thinking, a memory," Edwards said. "It's important that a French philosopher think in French," he said. If not, that person "might, to put it crudely, become a British philosopher."

French, once the official language of international diplomacy, has steadily lost ground to English. That's despite two laws, enacted in 1975 and 1994, to ensure the French language holds its own in the work place, in businesses and at international conferences in France.

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