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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

British poet anointed to protect French language

British poet Michael Edwards has been elected to join the "immortals" at the Académie Française, the elite institution whose job it is to uphold the integrity of the French language.

British poet anointed to protect French language
The Académie Française in Paris/ Photo Spamdangler/flickr

Professor Michael Edwards,73, has been elected to join the 40 so-called "immortals" at the Académie Française. His nomination means he becomes the first Briton ever to join the elite group tasked with protecting the purity of French language.

He was elected in the third round ballot after gaining 16 votes, far more than any of the other candidates. His nearest rival was former government minister and former head of Radio France Jean-Noel Jeanneney, who polled five votes.

Edwards, a respected poet in both French and English, was voted in a year after narrowly missing out on the post by just two votes. He also lost out on the role in 2008 after not receiving enough votes.

At the age of 74, he fulfills his life-long ambition in the nick of time, since the Académie has set an age limit of 75 for candidates. He will be a member for life, hence the title "immortal".

Marc Fumaroli, one of the institute's 40 immortals told The Local on Wednesday that the appointment of Edwards was good news for the Académie and good news for France.

"Michael Edwards is a francophone of the first order. He has a lot of talent and is very well respected here in France, and well liked," Fumaroli said. "It's not the first time we have appointed a foreigner who has chosen to adopt the French language.

"He has an excellent knowledge of literature and his courses are very followed here in France. He has a lot of talent, not just writing but speaking too. He was elected with a very big majority."

Defending the Académie's role to protect the French language, Fumaroli told The Local that it was necessary to protect French – the great language of literature and poetry, as opposed to English which has become "the language of the airport".

"English is not like French, which is a classic literary language. English is a language of communication and convenience. It is not poetic or literary. 

"We need to protect the great classic languages of literature and poetry like French and Italian.

"English too needs to be protected, because it is threatened by its own dominance. It is not the language of the great writers, it is now the language of the airport."

Edwards – staunch defender of French

Edwards joins the esteemed ranks of "immortals" who over the years have included some of France's most famous writers, philosophers and politicians including Cardinal Richelieu in 1635, explorer Jacques Cousteau and current member, the former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing.

Edwards, is a specialist in Shakespeare as well as 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud and 17th century French dramatist Jean Racine.

With the Académie's main role being to defend and promote the French language, the decision by the "immortals" to allow a British poet to join their venerated ranks may seem a strange one.

However, Edwards is a stout defender of the French language.

"This is a moment of crisis for French and it makes sense, I believe, for the academy to choose someone who comes from, as it were, the opposite camp but has become a champion of the special importance and beauty of the French language," Edwards told the Independent earlier this year.

The Académie is tasked with acting as an official authority on the French language. One of its jobs is to publish an official dictionary. Any rulings it makes, however, are not binding.

Edwards had his first French lesson at the age of 11 at his school in Kingston-upon-Thames outside London before going on to study modern languages at Cambridge. He later became a professor at Warwick University before taking up a role at the prestigious Collège de France.

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.

Masculine

Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty

Feminine

Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 

Plural

And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  

Islands 

Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.

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