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One Story of Academia

Race Lines and the Rhetoric of Distinction through the Académie française


Moussa Traore

One Story of Academia: Race Lines and the Rhetoric of Distinction through the Académie française explores how the word race was historically linked to kings and feudal lords as a sign of elite social distinction, and how the Académie française has embodied that type of distinction in France since its establishment in 1635. Meant to be an undeclared, scholarly, «mysterious» companion to the French monarchy, the Académie created a powerful attraction for the highest classes, inspiring critics of different stripes; considered to be the highest expression of Frenchness, it excluded different groups based on class, gender, race/ethnicity, religion, ideology, and nationality. The self-proclaimed heir to ancient Greek and Roman scholarship, the Académie also claims to represent Europe, the West, and even Humanity. However, as an academic institution, it has experienced «dialectical» arguments between traditional (feudal) elitism, and scholarly elitism as both sought to define French culture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. «Trustees of taste» and promoters of purity, the Académiciens and their strong supporters followed the troubled evolution of the word race and of social distinction. Borrowing from inter-European ethnic issues and nationalism, subscribers to the growing «racial» distinction had the features of the colonized analyzed with the French, and by extension, European and Western sense of social distinction in mind. Consequently the colonized ended up at the lowest end of the social scale; in turn, this placement explained the application of European feudal norms of exploitation on the colonies and created the more controversial and dreaded concept of «racism». This book highlights how the significance of language in the French sense of race – as superiority – is at the heart of the Académie française.


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Chapter 4–The Dictionnaire de l’Académie and its Meaning 69


Chapter 4 The Dictionnaire de l’Académie and its Meaning When on August 24, 1694, the director of the Académie solemnly presented a copy of the first edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie to the king (Louis XIV), it was the final step of a long aspiration formed by Richelieu, who was Prime Minister to the previous king (Louis XIII), and Chapelain, one of the main actors in the foundation of the Académie. But the edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie was most importantly a fulfillment of the requirement indicated by the founding document of the institution. In fact, article XXVI of the statutes of the Académie dating from February 22, 1635 indicates that there should be a dictionary of the French language organized by the institution being founded. However, in spite of the importance of the assignment, the Académiciens were slow in doing the work. Chapelain and Richelieu finally agreed in 1638 to trust the work to Vaugelas, but the latter’s death in 1650 led to his creditors taking away everything that he had, includ- ing the manuscript of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie. A year later, the Académie succeeded in getting the manuscript back and having Mézeray continue the work. As an encouragement for the work to succeed, Louis XIV gave the Académie the privilege of putting together the only dictionary pro- tected by the King. He gave the Dictionnaire de l’Académie a legal status and a monopoly...

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