Oldest guardian of French language dies at 103

PARIS (AFP): The oldest member of the venerable Academie Francaise, the official guardian of the French language, has died aged 103, the institution said on Thursday.

Rene de Obaldia, a poet, novelist and playwright, had been a member of the Academie for over 20 years.

At 98, he published his last book, “Pearls of Life”, a collection of quotes that included the proverb: “If you want to reach 100 you should start young.”

De Obaldia was born in Hong Kong in October 2018 of a French mother and Panamanian father, grew up in Amiens in northern France, and then made it to Paris to develop his literary talent.

He became one of France’s most successful playwrights, and was sometimes compared to Irishman Samuel Beckett or Romanian-French writer Eugene Ionesco for his sharp humour and unconventional style.

“I’ve always had a sense of ridiculousness, which helped me keep certain things at a distance,” he said in a 2008 interview.

Outside of France de Obaldia was best-known for his plays which were translated into English and dozens of other languages.

The Academie Francaise, founded in 1635, is tasked with debating, and deciding on, the officially approved use of French.

Over the centuries some of the most eminent writers in French have been elected to its 40-strong council although some of the greats — including Charles Baudelaire and Emile Zola — were never admitted.

The Academie’s members, known as “The Immortals”, are replaced only after they die.

One of the Academie’s main preoccupations is the defence of the French language against incursions from English, especially American English.

With some success: Most French people accept the ruling that computers should be called “ordinateurs” although they will refer to their portable device as “le laptop”.

But the French “mel” or “courriel” for e-mail never caught on beyond government websites, and French people call a recently-founded successful company “une start-up” defying the Academie which says it should be called “jeune pousse” (young sprout).

More recently, the Academie has challenged the government over the use of English on national ID cards.

In 2020 it ruled that Covid, called “le Covid” by most people, was actually a feminine noun requiring the definite article “la”.

It has yet to take a stance on the increasing use of “le woke-isme” and the gender-neutral pronoun “iel” which is increasingly used to refer to non-binary people.