France has long defended the purity of the language with an official list of allowed words, but the launch of a new online dictionary with state support on Tuesday underscores how attitudes have changed.
For three centuries, the glorious Academie Francaise in Paris has been producing state-sanctioned dictionaries that document and approve new terms or expressions.
The first version dates back to the 18th century creation of the Academie, while work on its latest tome, the ninth, has been going on since 1986.
The helpers in the new dictionary, which includes French President Emmanuel Macron, are lightning fast in comparison and hope to reach many more people with an online resource based on the Wikipedia model.
“This dictionary makes it possible for anyone who loves our language, and they are 300 million to speak it today, to appreciate its richness,” Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot said at a launch ceremony on Tuesday.
Called “Dictionnaire des Francophones” (The Francophones’ Dictionary) was proposed by Macron 2018 as a way to bring together and celebrate the diversity of modern French.
So far, it contains about 600,000 terms and expressions, Bachelot said, but users around the world have been asked to submit suggestions that will be reviewed by other users and a team of linguists.
In addition to the works of the Academie Francaise, only another dictionary has been commissioned by the French state: Tresor de la Langue Francaise (Treasures of the French State), by President Charles de Gaulle in 1962.
Other commercial French dictionaries, such as 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 commonly used in the rapidly 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 bear the fate of the French language on its own.”
“France must be proud to be, in the end, a country that learns, speaks and writes in French, and it is this decentralization that we need to rethink,” he told an audience at the French Institute, which houses the academy.
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Macron has not given up on the global language struggle, but the French president is keen to increase funding for French language schools globally and is challenging the use of English in the European Union.
Bernard Cerquiglini, who was asked to lead the dictionary project, told the Express newspaper that the dictionary aimed to gather online resources from Africa, Belgium, Quebec and others.
“We are building. We will include little by little everything available on the internet in the French language,” he said, adding that the dictionary could reach one million entries.
Results given to a user depend on their location, which will be detected by the search engine, which means that a word like “baton” would appear as a golf club in Quebec, a cigarette in Senegal or a penis on the Ivory Coast.
“The idea is to create a glossary of world-French and decentralized,” Cerquiglini added.
Louise Mushikiwabo, head of the Organization Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), which groups French countries, suggested adding the word “techniquer” during Tuesday’s ceremony, which means finding an ingenious solution to a budget in Rwanda.
Cerquiglini replied that it would be added in the afternoon.