Monday, August 1, 2011

Alain Rey: the words of Monsieur Dictionnaire

HE IS THE mostly widely appreciated author in France, his books found in almost every French home, yet you have probably never heard of him. If, however, you happen to have a copy of Le Grand Robert, Le Dictionnaire historique de la langue française, Le Dictionnaire culturel en langue française or Le Petit Robert, you will find his name inside any one of them.

For more than 50 years, the linguist, editor, writer and broadcaster, Alain Rey, has been the “lexicographer-in-chief” of the French language, responsible for defining how French speakers actually use their language.

As a member of La Commission Générale de Terminologie et de Néologie, the government committee that approves the introduction of new French words, Mr Rey is a trenchant critic of educators and politicians who would like to build a museum around the French language, whether in the name of orthodoxy or national identity.

His penchant for using living writers to illustrate usage, his inclusion of slang in the dictionaries and his delight in non-standard usage locate him firmly on the progressive, modernizing side in debates about where the French language should be going.

In his books and popular radio and television programmes, he has exposed French speakers to the ideological content, etymological development and cultural baggage hidden within their utterances.

Born in 1928 at his parents’ brasserie in Pont-du-Château, near Clermont-Ferrand, Mr Rey studied political science, medieval architecture and art history - “whatever fascinated me” - at the Sorbonne. He thought of becoming an inspector of historic buildings or museum curator. Then, in 1952, after military service, he saw an advertisement for a linguist, placed by lexicographer and dictionary publisher Paul Robert, and became Robert’s principal collaborator. He remains the editor-in-chief of Le Robert.

Between 1993 and 2006, Alain Rey presented Le mot de la fin (The Last Word) at the end of France-Inter’s morning radio programme. He also presented Démo des mots (The Word Show) on France 2 after the nightly television news and, from 2007, contributed to Laurent Baffie’s Europe 1 Sunday radio show. In 2005, he was honoured as a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters and is regarded by many as a "national treasure".

When I caught up with the free-thinking octogenarian in Toulouse, he talked with his customary modesty, infectious enthusiasm, erudition and wit about lexicography, the rise of English, the threats to the French language, immigration, education and the debate over national identity.

What is the most difficult word to define?

The word mot itself. It comes from the Latin muttum, meaning an indistinct sound, a mutter. The word mot signifies a sound that means something other than the word itself. Words organise experience into things and events, but the word mot is completely isolated.

What is the most important quality for a lexicographer?

Exactitude. Proust would replace a beautifully poetic phrase with a simpler and more prosaic one if it conveyed more exactly the meaning he wanted to express.

Samuel Johnson called lexicographers “inoffensive drudges”. Does that definition suit you?

The word “drudge” also means someone who does housework and compiling a dictionary is all about cleaning, dusting and polishing; except lexicographical housework consists in rearranging definitions, replacing examples and updating usages. I would be disappointed if people were not a little offended by my work, if each new edition of a Robert dictionary were received passively. Of course, the compilation of correct usages is important, but that excites me only moderately. When they are stimulating, what I most enjoy are linguistic transgressions and wordplay.

What is your favourite quotation about dictionaries?

Jean Cocteau said, “A chef d’oeuvre is just a dictionary in disorder”. I like to think he meant to imply that a dictionary is a chef d’oeuvre in good order.

Which words do you wish people understood better?

All of them. But people ought to pay special attention to how words are used in a military context. “Collateral damage”, for example, should really be “collateral catastrophe.”

Which words do you most dislike?

Bureautique (office automation) is awful; so many scientific words tend to be inelegant. The habit of using the letter “e” as a prefix for any new word in the electronically mediated world is also depressingly unimaginative.

George Bernard Shaw longed for “a beautiful word that means doing something tomorrow.” Can you help?

What’s wrong with “procrastination”, a fine word!

Are there any foreign words that you would like to see adopted by speakers of French?

Every word spoken in French was once a foreign word; principally of Latin origin. It’s the same with any language. English is littered with Latinisms, French words of Norman origin, like “parliament” and “government”, and words of Germanic origin, too.

Nevertheless, I found myself in the middle of a sentence in French recently and the best word that came to mind to express my thought was the English word “collapse”. It expresses more completely than any French equivalent the degree of total disintegration I wanted to communicate.

Currently, with the collapse of tyrannies, currencies, reputations, economies and nuclear reactors, it’s a very useful word.

Is English a threat to the French language?

Not in itself. Any encounter with a foreign language can enrich the native tongue. The encounter becomes less enriching when foreign words are adopted at the expense of perfectly good native alternatives – like using “email” instead of the French courriel (a blend of courrier and électronique) – or when neologisms nearly all come from one source, as today with English. I frequently update dictionaries with Anglicisms, but it would be nice to be influenced by other sources, too.

However, English is very dynamic because of the inventiveness of its users, especially the Americans, as well as its encounters with other languages and the innovations added by its countless non-native speakers. French people love to invent English words, like tennisman.

So French isn’t under threat?

Each language exists in a permanent state of crisis from censure, invasion or neglect. However, the French language has never been more under threat than today, and the crisis has never been more badly managed. Not because of English.

Current problems date from the introduction of mass education after World War II, with overloaded classrooms and a standard curriculum that undermines progressiveness.

So, the threats are today chiefly internal. There’s a problem with the rules of the language itself. The conventions of usage have become so codified and ossified it is increasingly complicated for users of French to innovate and renew the language without making unacceptable transgressions.

Take the word bravoure (bravery). Common usage invites us to invent the word bravitude, but that’s not acceptable, even though everyone understands it. So we have bravoure – a word hardly anyone uses. The result is stagnation. In this respect, English is much more forgiving and flexible and thus a more fertile ground for innovation.

English nouns can easily become verbs and no one bats an eyelid. Germans are forever inventing new words, too, and Italians never tire of new suffixes.

Also, the disappearance in France of regional languages and dialects is a catastrophe. French speakers whose mother tongue is Catalan, Basque, Corsican or Creole contribute more linguistically to French than those who know only national curriculum French.

There is an illusion in this country French fell from the sky complete, and many speakers see no reason to examine or renew it. Purists who hold this opinion are badly informed. A language thrives and remains relevant only if usage is allowed and encouraged to evolve.

Do you think the debate about “national identity” in France is enriching for the French language?

Absolutely not. Historically, periods of linguistic creativity coincide with a people’s desire to establish their identity by embracing and building on differences. The 16th century was a period of tremendous creativity for French as people from across French-speaking territories, with all their regional differences, united to establish it as the shared, home-grown alternative to Latin. To be a convincing alternative, French had to enrich itself.

The debate today is not about embracing differences, though, but effacing them.

So the proposition that immigrants should take a French test is a bad thing for the French language?

Not only is it a bad thing for French, it’s a bad thing for France. It’s intended to discourage immigration, which is the same thing as discouraging renewal. It will contribute nothing to the language; rather, it will encourage linguistic and cultural stagnation.

Do electronic means of communication, like SMS messaging or Twitter, risk impoverishing the language?

SMS isn’t a language; it’s a way of writing, shorthand, like algebra or chemical formulas. People who know how to write French can easily dissociate writing text messages from writing the actual language. There’s nothing new in how people employing today’s communication technologies play with language. In the 19th century, people would write Je t’m as shorthand for Je t’aime. Such shortcuts are word games that play with the sounds of words in ways that demonstrate how meanings are constructed. That’s revelatory.

Will devices like the Kindle or iPad change how people read; discourage or end marginalia, or replace books?

I think people will always want to hold books, to carry them around, to fold them and give them away. However, I never write in margins. Books are too precious. I write on slips of paper while reading; usually a note about a word an author has used in a surprising way. That’s one way my research happens.

Do words move you most on a page, or when spoken?

Verbal is the most forceful, the most living, the most imbued with lyrical quality, the most expressive and direct. It is what people speak and is the basis for dictionary compilers.

Some prefer your radio work to your television work; does each medium compel you to treat your subject differently?

Perhaps they prefer me on the radio because they don’t see me! Actually, I prefer the radio, too. It’s more direct, there are no technical intrusions, no make-up. I say what I want to say and that’s it. With television there’s the whole mise en scène; I play a role – I even have a contract as an actor when I work on television – but the persona, the mask through which words are spoken, can be a distraction when, in fact, it’s the words that are important.

Words can lose their original meaning through forgetfulness and/or ideological spin, so “democracy” (people power) now virtually means “free market capitalism”; which word would you lock away until people learn to use it again correctly?


Alain Rey’s new book, Le Dictionnaire Amoureux des Dictionnaires (Editions Plon, 2011), is an unconventionally subjective dictionary about lexicographers who – like Alain Rey –never attain satisfaction because, as he says, “they spend their whole lives running after a language which never waits for them.”

First published in The Connexion (August, 2011)