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Haitian-Canadian writer to join guardians of French language

Haitian Canadian writer Dany Laferrière (L) receives his academician sword from French novelist and French Academy member Jean d'Ormesson (C) at City Hall in Paris on May 26, 2015.
Haitian Canadian writer Dany Laferrière (L) receives his academician sword from French novelist and French Academy member Jean d'Ormesson (C) at City Hall in Paris on May 26, 2015. AFP / Matthieu Alexandre

The Académie Française, the exclusive and ancient institution tasked with safeguarding the French language, will welcome both its first Haitian and first Québécois member on Thursday in the form of novelist Dany Laferrière.


Born in Port-au-Prince, Haïti, in 1953, Laferrière moved to Canada in 1976 where he worked as a journalist before publishing his first novel, How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired, in 1985.

Laferrière, who has since authored close to 20 novels, was elected to Académie Française in December 2013 but will formally take up his seat at an inauguration ceremony at the institution’s Paris headquarters with the typical pomp.

In a nod to his roots, he will wear a suit by Montreal designer Jean-Claude Poitras, with a collar meant to resemble that worn by Haitian revolution leader Toussaint L’Ouverture.

On Tuesday, he was presented with his ceremonial sword, given to all new Académie members other than clergy, which was created by Haitian sculptor Patrick Vilaire.

Afterwards, Laferrière will officially become one of the “immortals”, the informal name given to the 40 members of the Académie Française, who are elected to the institution for life.

Founded by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII, in 1635 the institution defines its role as “to give sure and certain rules to our language” and to ensure it is kept “pure” and “eloquent”.

But over the years, it has often been the subject of ridicule both at home and abroad for its stubborn resistance to the use of English loanwords by French speakers.

FRANCE 24 meets Dany Laferrière in Montreal

In recent years it has, for example, dictated that the French should say “logiciel”, instead of “software”, “Courriel” instead of email and “mot-dièse” rather than “hashtag”.

This struggle against anglicisms has often been in vain, particularly among French youth and within the business world, where words borrowed from English are common.

‘Language is for everyone’

However, the election of a member with roots in both Haiti and Quebec – both francophone regions but where the influence of foreign languages is more heavily felt and accepted – is the latest sign that the Académie may be starting to take a more flexible, pragmatic approach to its functions.

In March this year, French Culture Minister Fleur Pellerin praised the contribution foreign words had made to the French language.

“Some languages – like English today, or Italian in the past – have been particularly generous in offering hundreds of new words to French,” she said at an event launching the annual French Language and Francophonie Week.

“The French language is not frozen. A language is always evolving,” she added.
Her words were welcomed by a number of linguists present, among them Laferrière himself.

“A language needs to live first of all, otherwise it’s all just ideology,” he said at the time.
Last year the Académie welcomed its first ever British member – poet and literary scholar Sir Michael Edwards.

Inducting a foreign national is nothing new for the Académie – current members include the Franco-Lebanese author Amin Maalouf and the Algerian novelist and filmmaker Assia Djebar.

But the decision to elect Edwards – a native speaker of the language the defenders of French fear most – was seen as a watershed moment.

Meanwhile, in an interview on French radio earlier this week, Laferrière insisted he would not act as a “defender of a language, a region or a way of being”, in his new role as an “immortal”.

“Language is for everyone,” he said.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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