Conversation: L’Immortelle

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From the Spring 2012 Speaking in Tongues issue 

A conversation with Assia Djebar, a Guardian of the French Language

In 1635, Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister of Louis XIII, established an institution known as L’Académie Française—the French Academy. Its mission was then and remains today to serve as the guardian of the integrity and sanctity of the French language. At its full strength there are 40 members, elected by their peers for life. Each takes the seat vacated by the death of his or her predecessor and named for the individual who first held that seat in 1635. Accordingly, they are known as The Immortals. Each Thursday, they gather beneath the cupola of the Institut de France, which has dominated the Left Bank of the Seine overlooking the Pont des Arts since its construction by Richelieu’s successor, Cardinal Mazarin, in the 17th century. They are at work today on the ninth edition of the authoritative French dictionary. The last edition, the eighth, was completed in 1935. The first volume of the ninth, A to Enzyme, appeared in 1992. Since then, the Immortals have picked up the pace. The second volume, Éocène to Mappemonde, was published in 2000. The Immortals are an elite group, and even leading figures of French language or politics have been ignored. Through the years, Rousseau, Sartre, Balzac, Descartes, Diderot, Flaubert, Moliere, Proust, Verne, and Zola have all been shunned for one reason or another.

Today, l’Académie is at the center of a raging controversy over “Anglo-creep”—the rampant and unrestrained import of English terms into French. Accordingly, the Immortals have urged that walkman, software, and email be avoided, replaced by their equivalents—baladeur, logiciel, and courriel. They also waded into the controversy when the nation’s former Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, insisted on calling women cabinet members la ministre, the Immortals maintaining that the masculine le ministre designate both sexes.

In 2005, Assia Djebar was elected to Seat No. 5—that of Jean Ogier de Gombauld, the French playwright and poet who lived from 1576 to 1666. Born Fatima-Zohra Imalayen and raised in Algeria when it was a French colony, she is the first member of the Academy from North Africa and for whom Arabic is a mother tongue. Recently, the 75-year-old writer returned to France from America, where she taught French for many years at New York University and Louisiana State University.

Not long after her return, she sat down in her apartment overlooking Père Lachaise cemetery where so many of her predecessors are in their final resting places, with World Policy Journal editor David A. Andelman and editorial assistant emeritus Charlotte Pudlowski to discuss Arabic, French, and their roles in the world.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: In your book Algeria White, there are many references to languages. Your mother tongue is Arabic. What is the role of each language—Arabic, French—in a world where there is such fragmentation of languages and nations?

ASSIA DJEBAR: I was born in Algeria, at a time when Algeria was a colony of France. My father was an instructor of the French language. Truly, he was an Algerian, speaking Arabic at home, while at the same time he was a teacher. He taught the French language to his students. At the beginning we were in a small, lost village in the mountains where he taught French. We learned, spoke, and wrote French in school, but at home since my mother spoke Arabic, we spoke Arabic. As for literary Arabic, the language of the Koran, it was quite rare to find someone who could actually write that language. Later, when I began to travel, I found very similar cases in neighboring Morocco and Tunisia. Except Tunisia and Morocco were somewhat more independent than Algeria—less firmly under French control. The pressure of French power in the schools was much stronger in Algeria because it was a real colony. In the schools in Algeria, you had to learn French.

In Algeria, there was an elite that did speak literary Arabic when they were together—there were two levels of Arabic. And the French did not concern themselves whatsoever with the Arabic language.
You could tell immediately by listening to what type of Arabic they were speaking what their position was in society—their wealth and status.

WPJ: What happened to the Arabic language in Algeria after liberation?

DJEBAR: In Algeria they taught Arabic, but they also continued to learn French. Why? Because after all, the government realized that spoken Arabic was a spoken language, spoken in cafes and the streets. Literary Arabic was a language that could be spoken with other Arab nations while French was a language for the world.

WPJ: But the government, after independence, could have chosen any language as a second language to be taught in Algeria. Why French?

DJEBAR: Because French was the language that had been taught in schools and people were accustomed to that. Like my father, he would talk with his friends in Arabic, but would buy French newspapers. The concept of bilingualism sticks even today in Algeria. It is part of the culture to know two languages—French as well as literary and popular versions of Arabic.

WPJ: That is the same, though, in much of the Arab world?

DJEBAR: Except that Algeria is somewhat averse to the literary form of Arabic. Because it was a country more closely tied to its French colonizers, so literary Arabic was forced out of the schools by the dominance of the French language.

WPJ: What is, or should be, the role of a country or government with respect to what languages are spoken or taught in the schools? Is it right for a government to decide what language should be spoken in a country?

DJEBAR: In 1962, Algeria won its independence. The leaders of the nationalists who helped win their independence declared themselves bilingual and vowed that their people would speak French as well as a French person. Even in prison, among prisoners who I would visit, sometimes they would speak Arabic and sometimes French. They, too, were equally bilingual. And the same is true even today in Algeria—when the nation’s leaders speak to their own people, they speak in Arabic and even use a different accent in the north and south, but when they speak in Europe or to Europeans, they speak French. Indeed, if I didn’t know you or because I am a woman, even if you were Algerian, I would speak to you in French, because it is neutral. What I mean is that it is less familiar, which could be indiscreet. Neutral means impersonal, and women should remain more discreet in Arab society.

WPJ: Do you prefer to write in Arabic or in French?

DJEBAR: Oh, certainly in French. My Arabic is far more primitive. In my era, there was still a certain Muslim elite, but they would send their children to French schools to become doctors, professors.  Now, however, in schools they are also beginning to teach popular as well as literary Arabic, so the gulf between the two is shrinking.

WPJ: What is the role of the Académie Française today?

DJEBAR: I was wondering that myself. They come for me every week, and I don’t know what this role even means. I participate in the discussions—we take a word and we begin to detail it, use it in context, employ it in some sort of expression.

WPJ: On the abuse of languages—do you think Arabic is easier to abuse people with than the French?

DJEBAR: Arabic as well as French has its nuances. Arabic is a very rich language. You can play with the Arabic language as effectively as the French language. Both have their specific natures. Speaking to a group of Arabs, I can see that Arabic is very much a modern language—not really an archaic language. Equally, as it happens, the French I use is very much classic French—a very literary French language. In Arabic, there are more nuances not in the meaning of words but in the different levels of society that the language can reveal.

WPJ: Is it possible to legislate civility in a language?

DJEBAR: Of course. That is, if you were a person known to be from an Arab country, we would have started speaking in Arabic—in a literary Arabic. But I am being careful not to use certain words. I would be more at ease to speak in French.

WPJ: What about removing from a language words that are potentially aggressive, so as not to encourage violence?

DJEBAR: I don’t think we can take a word out of a language. Arabic can be a very elegant language. If you are speaking to me in Arabic, I will reply in a very correct, very literary Arabic. In fact, I’m afraid that in Arabic or in French I don’t know the words that are gross or vulgar.

WPJ: There are so many contemporary pressures on the usage of the French language—the Internet, for instance. Have such usages in some way soiled the purity of French?

DJEBAR: That’s not my problem. [She laughs.]

WPJ: But each Thursday, you gather with your fellow Immortals to discuss just such questions, do you not? What do you say?

DJEBAR: Look, I have a great respect for this language that I use. French is a beautiful language. I have a great respect for every language, however. When I hear Arabic being spoken, and I hear gross words being used, I don’t respond to that person. If I reply to such an individual, I reply in an Arabic that is correct. Each language has its dirty face and its clean face. That’s all. I may not understand vulgar words in the street, of course.

WPJ: Is the precise language of the Académie Française superior to other forms of the French language?

DJEBAR: Not at all. At times I will propose a word, and each of us gives it a precise definition or a multiplicity of definitions. In each language, there are different faces. In the street, you may put on one face, and you will hear gross or vulgar language. We know it is vulgar, we can tell by the tone. But sometimes in a book or a novel, there is a word you have never seen before, or a vulgar one, depending on the type of character the author is seeking to create.

WPJ: French has an institution designed specifically to guard the purity of the language. Would you suggest having such an institution for English or for Arabic to guarantee the purity of the language?

DJEBAR: A language is something alive. It has its superior face if you speak sometimes politely, or you speak with nuances. The relationship every individual has with languages is very personal. I attempt to use words in French that are universally understood, and in other languages, it is exactly the same. The purity of a language is the one that you have in your own mind. If I am angry, I don’t know how to insult people. I don’t know those words. I may think very poorly of a person, but then I just won’t talk to that person.

WPJ: Which language or languages would you advise a young person to learn these days?

DJEBAR: If I were giving advice, I would say your mother tongue. The language of your family. And then, I would say the language of the country where you are living, where you have a job, and where you must communicate. Sometimes there are words that are rare, that we need to use and then you must learn to use those.

WPJ: We are increasingly citizens of the world, no longer citizens of France, of the United States…

DJEBAR: The problem for these children is deciding which other language to learn than their own. In Arabic, there are the problems of multiple dialects, languages even. Very often, of course, you don’t have a choice. For a first language, there is the mother tongue, then the second would be the language where you are most likely to have the most contacts. It depends on your occupation, your business. There is no one language that is superior to any other. English is more frequently used, more widely spoken—for many reasons. Language by its extension follows the influence of the nation where it is dominant. If you are in Algeria or in France and you don’t speak French, you are adversely impacted.

WPJ: I have the impression that you are more at ease back home here from America, back in the Francophone world?

DJEBAR: That’s not really true, because when I was in New York, I was teaching French. Here, I have my family around me. So I decided to come home here at a certain age. But I was happy in New York. I love to walk in the city. Of course, while I taught French, I could also practice my English. It’s easier, though, to read English than to speak it. Each language has its level, though. When I speak Arabic, you know, it is at quite an average level—since in Arabic, there are so many nuances. And from country to country, there is the pronunciation.

WPJ: There are so many languages in danger of disappearing or that have disappeared. Does that sadden you? Does that impoverish cultures where that is happening?

DJEBAR: Yes, but I doubt there is ever a total loss of a language. It may become increasingly poor, less nuanced. Of course it would disappear if people stopped speaking it entirely. Every disappearance is sad. 



[Photo: Miguel Jiron]

(PDFs of  World Policy Journal articles can be purchased through SAGESubscribe to WPJ here)




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