France launches online dictionary and invites contributions from French-speakers around the world

France has long defended the purity of its language with an official list of permitted words, but the launch of a new online dictionary with state support on Tuesday underlines how attitudes have shifted.

France launches online dictionary and invites contributions from French-speakers around the world
Illustration photo: Eric Feferberg/AFP

For three centuries, the venerable Académie Française in Paris has produced state-sanctioned dictionaries that document and approve new terms or expressions.

The first version dates back to the 17th-century creation of the Académie, while work on its latest tome, the ninth, has been underway since 1986.

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The backers of the new dictionary, which include French President Emmanuel Macron, are lightning quick in comparison and hope to reach many more people with an online resource based on the Wikipedia model.

“This dictionary will enable everyone who loves our language, and there are 300 million who speak it today, to appreciate its richness,” Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot told a launch ceremony on Tuesday.

Called the Dictionnaire des Francophones (The Francophones’ Dictionary), it was proposed by Macron in 2018 as a way of bringing together and celebrating the diversity of modern French – which is an official language in 32 countries.

So far, it contains around 600,000 terms and expressions, Bachelot said, but users across the world have been invited to submit suggestions that will be vetted by other users and a team of linguists.

Apart from the works of the Académie Française, only one other dictionary has been ordered by the French state: the Trésor de la Langue Française (the Treasures of the French State), by President Charles de Gaulle in 1962.

Other commercial French dictionaries, such as the Le Petit Robert and Larousse, are regularly updated.

The project reflects how France is home to a minority of modern French-speakers, with the language more commonly used in the fast-growing populations of former colonies in Africa.

In a speech in 2018, Macron broke with tradition by saying that France needed to acknowledge that it did “not carry the destiny of the French language on its own.”

“France must take pride in being ultimately a country among others which learns, speaks and writes in French, and it’s this decentralisation that we need to re-think,” he told an audience at the French Institute, which houses the Académie.

Macron has not given up on the global language battle, however, with the French president keen to increase funding for French language schools globally, and challenging the use of English in the European Union.

Bernard Cerquiglini, who was asked to lead the dictionary project, told the magazine Express that the dictionary aimed to bring together online resources from Africa, Belgium, Quebec and others.

“We’re building. We’re going to include little by little everything that exists on the internet on the French language,” he said, adding that the dictionary could reach one million entries.

Results given to a user will depend on their location, which will be detected by the search engine, meaning that a word like “baton” would show as golf club in Quebec, a cigarette in Senegal, or a penis in Ivory Coast.

“The idea is to create a dictionary of world French, and decentralised,” Cerquiglini added.

Louise Mushikiwabo, the head of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), which groups French countries, proposed adding the word “techniquer” during Tuesday’s ceremony, which means finding an ingenious solution on a budget in Rwanda.

Cerquiglini replied that it would be added in the afternoon.

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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.


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


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 


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 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.